Nearly two decades after the end of World War I, Yeats wrote: “If war is necessary, or necessary in our time and place, it is best to forget its suffering as we do the discomfort of fever, remembering our comfort at midnight when our temperature fell, or as we forget the worst moments of more painful disease.” It is tempting to agree with Yeats, or to find wisdom in my colleague who recently said, when I asked what she thought about Guantanamo Bay: “I try not to think about that.”
There are a number of ways to erase history. One of the more dramatic, presented by the Islamic State, is to behead an eighty-two year old museum curator before blowing up the relics he was charged with guarding. Another is to simply will one’s self to forget, to “try not to think about that.” Emma Sky, the author of The Unraveling, doesn’t seem to have a choice in the matter.
I have never read such a moving book about The Global War on Terror. Sky breaks your heart in The Unraveling because she allowed her heart to be broken by the people she grew to love in Iraq: the Iraqis and the Americans. Sky is British, and would probably agree with that old axe about how being a Brit is a bit like being a drunk: somebody is always coming up to you and reminding you of these outlandish things you’ve done. The Unraveling is perhaps Sky passing that chip of the lush on to us, the Americans.
From 2003 to 2010, Sky worked at the center of the American occupation of Iraq, serving as a political adviser to General Ray Odierno and as an administrative “governor” in the city of Kirkuk. What’s remarkable about the beginning of her story is just how much power she was given in the early stages of the war. She tells of doing nothing more than responding to a British Civil Service email about the American Coalition Provisional Authority’s need for help. Without instructions or a briefing—without a plan—Sky descends upon Iraq and drifts from Basra to Baghdad before slowly discovering that the Americans needed help in the north, particularly the heterogeneous city of Kirkuk where the population was a diverse hybrid of Kurds and Turkmani, Shiite and Sunni.
Sky’s gubernatorial assignment mirrors the larger American mission insofar as there was no mission, no end in sight. But like America, Sky finally got her bearings. In fact, well before our leadership recognized the importance of treating Iraqis like human beings and establishing relationships with them, Sky does precisely this. Kirkuk, as she details, “sits on top of 40 per cent of Iraq’s oil reserves—6.7 per cent of the world’s.” It is hard to fathom that a person who had never been to Iraq before, let alone Kirkuk, was given decision-making capabilities in such a strategic location, but, fortunately, Sky was a quick study. She describes an American military that used three-by-five-cards to break the country down into “good guys” and “bad guys.” She writes: “I tried to argue how we treated people would affect how they reacted to us. But the military did not do nuance.” In spite of this disconnect, Sky forged her own path and convinced some of her American colleagues in Kirkuk to follow suit. She established not just personal relationships, but effective political coalitions. She describes a night in 2003 in which she helps to bring together Kurds, Assyrians, Arabs, and Turkmani to open a museum, all of these once warring factions dancing together at the end of the night with Americans joining them on the stage, the actual Kirkuk governor, Abdul Rahman Mustafa, exclaiming into a microphone: “This is Kirkuk! This is what Kirkuk is all about: it is a city of four ethnicities who speak each other’s languages and love each other’s cultures.”
As I read through such scenes, I remembered my mixed emotions from visiting the Al Anbar Province in 2008. Like Sky, I opposed the American invasion of Iraq. To be occupying a country that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks seemed criminal and surreal, Kafkaesque. But if one ignored the history and focused on the moment, as yoga instructors constantly beg us to do, one could see that there were Brits, Americans, and Iraqis working hand-in-hand in 2008 to improve and unify the country, and that their efforts were paying off. The 2007-2008 “sahwa,” or “Awakening,” is the heartbreaking center of Sky’s memoir.
The “Awakening,” that moment in history where the Americans began to finally work together with the Sunnis, provides the reader with an insider’s look at the birth of the Islamic State. ISIS was not inevitable, Sky argues. There were opportunities to reconcile the divisions in Iraq. Paul Bremer, chairman of the CPA, made a catastrophic error when he purged the predominantly Sunni Baathist party in 2005. For just a second, imagine a foreign country invading the USA and suddenly telling all Republicans they’ve lost their jobs as doctors, teachers, shopkeepers, politicians and policemen. How long before this country would be in a state of civil war? The seeds for the chaos we see in Iraq right now were sewn in 2005 with de-Baathification, but the ungodly harvest was nearly averted by General David Petraeus’ policy of counterinsurgency, what we at home called “The Surge.”
There’s a quote about Americans that’s often, erroneously, ascribed to Winston Churchill: “Americans will always do the right thing—after exhausting all other options.” Sky admired Petraeus and her boss, General Odierno, for finally coming around to the idea of reconciliation: treating the “good guys” and “bad guys” like complex human beings and incentivizing their participation in a unified Iraq. But, in the end, what comes across most powerfully in The Unraveling is Sky’s critique of American political leadership. She is impressed by junior officers and their sincere missionary zeal for transforming Iraq, but she’s also constantly disheartened by the brutal simplifications of our politicians and certain senior commanders. “The coalition was too binary in its thinking, when the environment was so complex,” she writes. As one of her Iraqi colleagues confides in her: “Things which are understood by Iraqi children do not seem to be understood by US policy-makers.” And this critique does not just apply to everybody’s favorite straw dog: George W. Bush.
Emma Sky stood in awe of Senator Barack Obama when she met him during that crucial year of 2008. Two years later, she watched in horror as Obama let Joe Biden call the shots on the Iraqi election of 2010. In spite of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and his State of Law Coalition losing to Ayad Allawi and the Iraqiya party, Biden is described insisting that Maliki—the new strongman—be given the election. “There was no evidence of fraud to justify a recount,” Sky writes, but Maliki demanded a recount, and a recount was given, and Iraq began to bristle as it witnessed the final irony of the American occupation and its project to make Iraq safe for democracy.
After all of the hard work of people like Sky and the men and women I met while embedded in Al-Anbar, it was more than disheartening to see Maliki handed the election and a new dictatorship declared a democracy. If Bush and Cheney were the fools of impetuosity and aggression then Obama and Biden were the fools of neglect, those who preferred to forget.
“Biden was a nice man,” Sky writes, “but he simply had the wrong instincts on Iraq. If only Obama had paid attention to Iraq. He, more than anyone, would understand the complexity of identities, and how people can change. But his only interest was in ending the war.”
And so “Washington had reneged on the promises it had made to Iraqis to protect the political process and it had betrayed the very principles the US military believed it was fighting to uphold.” This is the bitter context of Sky’s exit after years of service in Baghdad and Kirkuk. Like the rest of us, Sky witnessed the rage of the betrayed and forgotten blooming in bombs on TV, Christians marched into the mountains, Shiites piled in ditches, museums turning into mushroom clouds of dust and debris.
If Sky’s book has one dominant virtue, it is her recognition of the need for compassion and the development of human relationships as the fundamental practice of diplomacy. To recognize the other as human, we must acknowledge complexity, which sometimes means privileging the stories of others over our own policy objectives and data points. By doing so we may find the threads for weaving together a connection, a coalition, a common ground. However, if there is a fault in Sky’s narrative, it is when she commits the sin of oversimplification herself.
Iran is the shadow of America in Iraq, a country with a presence and an intention. But in The Unraveling we never speak to the Iraqis who welcome the Iranians. Iran is a one-dimensional adversary to Sky, or at least comes across as such in her book. They are described as meddlers in Iraq’s fate even as Sky and “the Coalition of the Willing” do far more than meddle. But maybe going in-depth on Iran is asking too much of Sky. To acknowledge that Iran was once led by Mohammed Mossadegh, a democratically elected leader who was subsequently overthrown by a British-American coup, is to once again remind the drunk of a deed we’d much rather forget.
The Unraveling. Public Affairs. 2015. 383 pages.