A war selfie: The Unravelling, by Emma Sky

Review: Another week, another ‘why didn’t anyone listen to me?’ book about Iraq, writes Anakana Schofield

Iraq and hard place: Emma Sky walks with Gen Ray Odierno and Stryker brigade soldiers through the Iraqi town of Khalis. Photograph: SPC Kimberly Millett/US army

Iraq and hard place: Emma Sky walks with Gen Ray Odierno and Stryker brigade soldiers through the Iraqi town of Khalis. Photograph: SPC Kimberly Millett/US army

Mon, Jul 20, 2015, 10:33


Book Title:
The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq


Emma Sky

Atlantic Books

Guideline Price:

It has long been accepted that more planning went into the average Saturday-morning omelette than what would happen in Iraq once “democracy” had been imposed.

A publishing genre has recently emerged to inform us what went wrong in Iraq and Afghanistan. The books keep on coming, with variable results. The more privileged narrative hovers around these points: Here I am. I was there. Look what I did. It was terrible. Why didn’t anyone listen to me? There you go. I’m off home to a comfy job (as to write such an account you don’t usually return home in a box). Emma Sky’s The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq is the latest such book.

In 2003 the British government circulated an email looking for volunteers from its civil service to work for three months with the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. Sky, who was employed at the time by the British Council, felt an earnest compulsion to volunteer and “go and apologise to the Iraqi people”. Make of that what you will as a starting point or vocational yearning.

Sky was first transported to Basra and then made the authority’s representative in the province of Kirkuk for a year. Between 2007 and 2010 she was the political adviser to the US general Ray Odierno. What Sky refers to as “an unlikely story” is also an alarming one. With so much self-aggrandisement in this book, one could suffer vertigo reading it. “I wanted to be doing something I felt was important,” Sky says of her decision to volunteer (with a pay cheque). “I loved waking to the call to prayer, shopping in the markets, inhaling the smell of coffee . . .” All these images seem slightly off given she was going to assist in an invaded country in the after (and ongoing) throes of war.

Neither qualifications nor experience

Having worked for Palestinian nongovernmental organisations and managed a British Council project to improve the Palestinian Authority’s public services, Sky was well versed on the wider Middle East. But she knew little about Iraq. “I did not have the qualifications nor the experience for the job,” she writes. This is abundantly clear when, on a street early on, Sky meets an Iraqi man who invokes Hobbes in relation to a looted house. Sky thinks “Who was this Iraqi man and how did he know about Hobbes?”  A quick search would have revealed Iraq’s libraries and historic education system.  

The Unravelling is divided into four parts. Two cover the “surge”, in 2007, and “drawdown”, between 2008 and 2010, when Sky was political adviser – polad, in the jargon – to Odierno and, briefly, to Gen David Petraeus, before Odierno replaced him as commander of the coalition forces.

It’s hard to figure out the specifics of Sky’s role. She travels everywhere with “General O”, sits in on endless meetings, writes up notes, advises him, delivers messages and directives from him and intercedes to avert disasters when nobody on either side agrees. Odierno wants information, updates and recommendations from Sky. She is dispatched to resolve crises – and is usually, by her own account, highly effective. She is clearly capable, but her book does a disservice to these capabilities.

Sky is neither a reporter nor a writer – a fact that decorates the page. When not focused on bureaucratic descriptions of the various parties and what they say to each other, the personal writing is clunky and cliched: “shaking like a leaf, my heart pounding”; “tears streaming down my face”; “with his long white beard and twinkling eyes”; “the room erupted into laughter”. Everyone she works with tells her how wonderful she is – except during her last contract, when a man in Odierno’s team emails, “I hate you – so does everyone else.”

The comparison to the English writer Gertrude Bell becomes trying. The book suggests polarities in the approaches of the Brits versus the Americans, when in fact they were both invading armies, while pointing out how different Sky is to the “alien” US military culture. Then, halfway through, she has a conversion and effuses nonstop about these stomping, all-powerful military males.

Much is also made of Sky’s stature, Oxford education and the fact she’s not married. Gender is deployed strangely throughout the book in ways that subordinate her and the women she occasionally remarks on.

The book provides little additional information or revelatory analysis, unless you include some stabs at Chris Hill, the US ambassador to Iraq, and Joe Biden, Barack Obama’s vice-president, and the conlusion towards the end that “it is a total mess” but needn’t have been.


Rapidly wearying

Many books and lengthy essays have now been written on the subject, but surely none is so rapidly wearying, unless readers are particularly intrigued by descriptions of where someone in Sky’s position sits in meetings (“Bremer indicated for me to sit on his left”) or have an appetite for the daily schedule and military peregrinations of General O, or who he did or did not get along with, or how Odierno and Sky admired each other and liked working together. And on it goes.

The distance between the US, its military and the Iraqi governments over the decade testify to the gargantuan challenge and protracted misunderstandings to be overcome. (Washington feels remarkably absent and disconnected by Sky’s account.)

Sky was often either reassuring or advocating for people feeling negated or convincing suspicious Iraqi ministers and officials that the US military was acting in good faith and not looking to subvert Iraq’s self-determination or sovereignty.

The ramifications of de-Baathification, alienation of Sunnis, fears about Iran, struggle to meet the Sofa agreement (which set a deadline for US withdrawal), elections and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s increasing paranoia and the sectarian policies of his government dominate this chronology. Descriptions of these tense meetings and negotiations are much more readable than some of the weaker prose that festers in the book.

Sky has no sense of the need to occasionally remove herself and permit oxygen for other people’s stories. After her stint in Kirkuk ordinary Iraqis are absent from this book. The problem with the war selfie is that it erodes the narrative of the actual victims – the citizens – and for all Sky’s humanitarian intentions her book fails to offer more than the ping-pong of how great she is.

Anakana Schofield is the author of Malarky (Oneworld)