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The Unravelling – Relationships, Leadership and Love in Post-War Iraq

August 1, 2015

Baghdad 2003

Autobiographies by politicians, diplomats and generals, by their nature, tend to be about what, why and how. What I did, what I said, how I made a difference, what I thought of other people, why I did what I did, why the world is what it is, and how I made it better. The how often tends to be circumscribed by the dictates of secrecy, so you often get the sense of much unsaid. For the latter, you have to wait for a biography, often written after the subject is dead, and after the curtain of secrecy has been lifted.

If the memoir is to sell, it needs to include stuff that is not common knowledge, stuff that provokes, inspires or amuses.

Emma Sky’s The Unravelling is one of the quirkiest example of the genre I have read for quite a while. On the surface it’s a story of hard-won success and ultimate failure. Sky, an Oxford-educated arabist who worked for the British Council – one of the pre-eminent instruments of the UK’s post-colonial soft power – in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, went to Iraq in 2003 to help build new Iraqi institutions in the wake of the defeat of Saddam Hussain. She ended up spending much of the subsequent seven years as the political advisor to General Ray Odierno, the commander of the US occupying forces.

In the book she describes from her perspective – that of a British woman working at the heart of the American command structure – the torturous progress towards creating an independent, democratic Iraq out of the post-war chaos.

She clearly kept good notes, because she tells the story in meticulous detail: the shifting alliances between the tribal, ethnic and religious factions, the Sunni insurgency, the Kurdish drive for autonomy, the Anbar Awakening, the US Surge strategy, and ultimately the slow descent into civil war.

Most of the reviews of The Unravelling focus on the fact that someone who opposed the war found herself working in the inner councils of the organisation that waged it and had to deal with the consequences: the US Army.

Emma Sky spoke to me in a different way. For a book to be memorable, it shouldn’t just be about what it said to you. It should also be about how you answer back. How does it change your perspective? What would you say to the writer if you met him or her?

I would probably say that what I found most interesting about her book was that for all the painstaking details of hardship, negotiation, hope and fears, the dominant themes were leadership, relationships and love.

What Sky understands about the Middle East, as I do through my experience in the region, is that personal relationships count for more than political positioning. That the ability to forge friendships can overcome seemingly insolvable deadlock. That friendships turn into love, not only of people but of the culture in which they live. And that love is the best guarantor of trust.

When she says on more than one occasion that the years she spent in Iraq were the time of her life, I can relate to that. The many years I spent in the region left an indelible impression on me. As I believe she would probably say, the love of a people and their culture isn’t an unconditional puppy-dog adoration. It accepts that aspects will always repel or offend, but it’s founded in admiration and respect for an accumulation of qualities that manifest themselves in personal relationships and behaviour.

Within the US military, her principal relationship was with Odierno, a big man in all respects, with whom she frequently disagreed and was not afraid to confront with her views. That, she says, was one of the reasons Odierno valued her – someone who would say what she thought, and had the confidence to tell him when he screwed up. But what did Odierno do for her? Above all, he and other senior generals with whom she worked, such as David Petraeus, made her feel valued.

You get the impression that Sky frequently pinches herself. How can it be I find myself in the company of ambassadors, generals and politicians – Bremer, Odierno, Petraeus, Blair, Biden and Obama? How is it that I managed to influence and change perceptions? And she answers those questions with stories that show how her sense of humour, her cheek and her determination made a difference.

The experience left her with a profound respect for the US military that you don’t often find outside the self-serving memoirs of the great and the good. Yet this is a person who came to Iraq with some strong and not very positive perceptions. Let’s face it, American military men don’t often get a good press, either in contemporary journalism or in the history books. For every revered soldier,  a Grant, a Lee, a Sherman or a Bradley, there are bombastic egomaniacs like Patton, MacArthur and LeMay, and cautious, grey, politician-bureaucrats such as McClellan and Westmoreland. And fictional commanders in book and film perpetuate an image of gung-ho insensitivity verging on lunacy. George C Scott as Buck Turgidson in Dr Strangelove, for example, and Robert Duval’s Colonel “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” Kilgore in Apocalypse Now.

Yet in The Unravelling you have Petraeus quoting Thucydides, mid-ranking officers showing great sensitivity and diplomacy, and the bull-like Odierno commanding respect and loyalty both by the force of his personality and by his communication skills. What’s more , she tells of ordinary soldiers who – in contrast to the popular image of the Americans in Iraq as blundering thugs who blasted their way into people’s homes and humiliated the prisoners of Abu Ghraib – took away a lasting respect and affection for their reluctant hosts:

It was not the time or place to explain the influence Iraq had had on the lives of so many American soldiers who served there. A few weeks earlier, I had been invited to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to help with the review of the counter-insurgency manual. “Should we not examine why we did not win?” I suggested. “Was it due to lack of overall strategy, or wrong tactics, or poor leadership?” But they were not ready to consider these questions. I noticed that a number of officers, after shaking my hand, crossed their hand over their heart, a mannerism they had picked up from the Iraqis. Several asked me if I had news about specific Iraqis they had grown close to. One young officer had taken me to his house to show me the family tree of the Zobai tribe, and had proceeded to talk about the different members as if they were his own relatives. Some acknowledged how much they missed the sense of purpose and mission they had felt in Iraq and guiltily confessed that nothing about life back in the US could match it. They had come to Iraq to transform it; and yet departed having themselves been permanently changed by the encounter.

I have met and worked with Americans across the spectrum from ugly to awe-inspiring. The best of them did for me what they did for Sky: inspired loyalty, made me feel valued and became long-standing friends. I prefer not to dwell upon the worst of them, except to say that every country has its lowlife. Though I have met many good people in the US who have never spent time out of their country except on holiday, those I admire the most are the ones whose experience and outlook has been tempered by prolonged exposure to other cultures, probably because that’s my story too.

The people who equally stand out in Sky’s book are the Iraqis – both exalted and lowly. I could be accused of making a sexist remark here, but The Unravelling is not a book that many men would feel comfortable writing, especially the sort of alpha males that like to churn out political autobiographies. It would be easy when writing a narrative of the events in Iraq since the invasion to focus only on the battles, the rivalries, the impasses and the negotiations.

It’s also easy to think of Iraqis as religious fanatics on both sides of the sectarian divide. As murderers, torturers and decapitators. ISIS, and the Shia militia who rival them in brutality, have caused many of us to de-humanise a whole people (just as some politicians and newspapers in the UK have dehumanised the migrants in Calais). But in every person she meets she manages to find humanity – hope, fear, joy and love as well as the hatred that dominates the headlines.

Perhaps her gender only partly explains why she was so adept in reading the emotions of the protagonists. Her position for most her time in Iraq as an influencer, an observer and a negotiator, often with a different perspective from that of the fighting men with whom she worked, must surely have helped her to pick up and respond to emotional cues that some of the task-oriented male decision makers might have missed.

This is not to say that men are incapable of emotional sensitivity, or that women are incapable of ruthless focus on objectives at the expense of empathy – think of Bill Clinton and Margaret Thatcher, for example. And there are enough examples in her narrative of Emma Sky’s determination to suggest that she was not averse to using her inner bulldozer when required. Yet you are left with the impression that of all her skills, emotional intelligence was perhaps the most critical.

Of the author herself we learn much of her character from her stories: a subtle mind, an impish sense of humour, the courage to venture into dangerous places and situations, a belief in the rectitude of her mission, and a profound concern for the well-being of the country that consumed her energies for the best part of seven years. I get the feeling that there was much more to her personal story than she was prepared to disclose in a book, which is hardly surprising. But there’s enough to suggest that she was on a journey unlike anything she experienced before or after.

If I needed convincing about her intelligence, both emotional and intellectual, and her plain-speaking common sense, her witness testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry into Britain’s role in the Iraq war is the clincher. It’s well worth a read in full. Here’s a transcript of what she said when asked about the impact of the Iraq experience on potential future military interventions by the West:

I think after Iraq, after Afghanistan there’s going to be this sense of, “Gosh! Mustn’t go there again. Mustn’t do that again”. I think it’s important that people stop and reflect. It’s not about whether you should intervene or not intervene, but it’s how we go about this. It’s important that people do understand threats, risks and how to approach them.

So I think there’s going to be this sort of, “Oh, it’s all our own fault”, this sort of whipping that will go on, and ignoring of the threat, and I think we’re facing the world in which there are different threats and there is different pressures, and we need to look at how we respond.

So whether we use — I don’t think we’ll be sending big armoured brigades overseas again in the same way, but there will still be a need for smaller, cleverer, smarter, less visible interventions.

She said this in January 2011, before the Arab Spring, before Syria and before ISIS. Did we spend so much time whipping ourselves since then that we became blind to the risks that were unfolding before our eyes?


Emma Sky

I’m pretty sure that the formidable yet patently humane Emma Sky would have an opinion on that. She is now an academic at Yale University, where she lectures on Iraq and Middle East politics. I can’t believe that she will content herself with teaching rather than doing for the remainder of her career. It will be interesting to see what she does next.

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