BOOK REVIEW / Dreadful news from a whickering world: 'Martyr's Day' - Michael Kelly; Macmillan, 16.99

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SOMETIMES a quiet voice carries farther than a raucous one. Michael Kelly's sober, canny and extremely impressive account of the Gulf war will surprise those who experienced the conflict only as a television spectacular. There are none of those maps with swirling arrows - an armoured thrust here, a flanking manoeuvre there; none of those natty sand-pits with tanks and flags and baby aircraft carriers. There are no chic photographs of laser-guided missiles and saluting generals. There isn't even any geopolitical hot air about sovereignty or imperialism. Kelly, a reporter for the New Republic and the Boston Globe, simply made a point of being where the bombs were falling, and now he is telling us what it was like.

He begins in Baghdad, where he attends the excruciatingly dull march of official delegations to the martyr's monument. A few weeks later, war is approaching. The television networks had an arrangement with the Pentagon that they would be tipped off before the blitz (so they could get the hell out) and one night the call came through: 'Your wife is fine, but your children have developed a cold.' Kelly drank some whisky, fingered his gas mask and decided to go over to the American embassy with another journalist: 'We took our bags and went downstairs to the front porch to look for a taxi, and were standing there, at 2.35 in the morning, when the war began. I had spent so much time listening to talk of war that I had come to assume vaguely that what had begun with words must continue with words and end with words. The shift to explosions had a sudden, clarifying and stupefying effect.'

Kelly does not try to pump up the volume of historical significance in this or any other episode. He is admirably cool and reflective under fire. But he does get out of Baghdad as fast as he can. He drives to Jordan, dodging convoys of sanction-busting trucks. Then he goes to Israel (changing passports en route) and sits in hotel rooms waiting for Scud missiles to land. He joins up with the Saudi army in Dhahran, follows the soldiers into Kuwait to survey the foul mess left behind by the occupying Iraqi troops, and stares at the carnage on the road to Basra. In a dispiriting finale, he goes to Kurdistan and watches the war's ghastly endgame, sweating out dysentery while he's about it.

It is a grisly tour, which cunningly follows the trajectory of the war itself. It begins as an unreal aerial extravaganza, all tracer bullets and laser-guided interceptions. In Jordan and Israel it becomes an exploration of war's strange fringes - the racketeers, polemicists and myth-makers. The ground attack is surreal - he skids round the desert in a rented Nissan looking for the action, surrounded by frightened Iraqi prisoners. And then come the real horrors: the litany of gouged eyes and hacked off breasts and mass murder in Kuwait city, the unbelievable charnel house on the Basra road, and finally, the awful persecution (and betrayal) of the Kurds.

Wherever he goes, Kelly seeks out doctors and profiteers. His subject is the bleak, sometimes grotesque adaptability of people under fire. At the beginning there are only minor ironies. A trader in Amman is making a fortune selling Saddam badges, Saddam buttons, Saddam watches and baby Scuds. He proudly shows Kelly his collection of important clients, and they are all journalists. 'Oh yes, of course,' the trader says. 'About 80 per cent of our sales, maybe more, are to journalists. They are the number one customers.'

By the end of the book the ironies are too dreadful to be funny, though Kelly refuses to abandon his sense of melancholy humour. In a bitter postscript he returns to Iraq's capital to find a gangster economy thriving on sanctions and floating on a sea of counterfeit money; warehouses full of food withheld from the starving population; and gleeful merchants competing to spot the latest shortage so they can truck in expensive supplies from Jordan. One tycoon has bought up all the available toothpaste. Another tells Kelly: 'By God, I love America. By God] Do you know I always said - my whole life - I had one goal, to be a millionaire by the age of 40. And do you know - thank God for America] - if these sanctions last three more months, I will make it.'

Throughout, Kelly bites his judgemental lip and concentrates on reporting what he sees. He likes lists: the plentiful food supply in Baghdad's markets, proof that sanctions are not, as they say, biting; the contents of soldier's pockets; the catalogue of injuries and deaths. The whole odyssey is conducted in a prose of nerve-jangling composure, and he is a natural dramatist. Surveying the scorched remnants of the Iraqi army, he inspects the reactions of the American troops: 'I am sure the soldiers had never seen anything like this, but, being young men, they were working very hard to act as if it were no big deal. They were like rubes at the country- fair freak show, determined not to let on that the sight of the geek biting the head off the live chicken was more than they had really bargained for.

' 'Waaal,' drawled one of the young men, in the caricature of a Southern deputy sheriff, 'them boys shore got themselves se-vere-ly fucked up.'

' 'Yeah,' said his buddy, doing Clint Eastwood. 'Jes' wasn't their day, I guess.'

'They looked at it some more, and didn't say anything else for a while. The truly obscene has the power of the sacred to silence the vulgar. 'Well', said the first of the young men, in a much quieter voice. 'Just remember, they started it.' '

By this stage, it hardly seems relevant who started what: Martyr's Day is not an account of the battle between abstract political rights and wrongs, it is something much more modest and twice as grand - a portrait of what happened. And there is no logic to this. Kelly does not spare us the details of Iraqi viciousness in Kuwait and at home. But neither does he flinch when he describes the fury visited on the fleeing troops. 'With each launch, the ship's sound system played Rossini's William Tell overture. A variety of bombs and missiles were used, but the chief weapon was the MK20 MOD O Rockeye 500 pound antitank cluster bomb. The bomb is a long pod of sheet steel that opens when it falls to release 247 MKI 18 antitank fragmentation bombs, steel bomblets stuffed with a high explosive. When these blow up just above the ground, they send clouds of heavy little razor shards whickering through the air at 4000 feet per second.'

Which is worse: grabbing victims at random from the street, raping them, electrocuting them and shooting them in the face, or all this deadly mechanised whickering? Kelly settles for a thoroughly earned pathos. His subtitle is: Chronicle of a Small War. It was only a minor onslaught, after all.