I have an almost instinctively antipathetic feeling towards Emma Sky’s The Unravelling, which resurfaces every so often throughout her book. Oddly, the more I read, the more I was sure she would have felt something similar had she been merely reading it as opposed to being the book’s narrator. Ultimately, however, The Unravelling is a must-read for anyone interested in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and its catastrophic consequences.
In the lead up to the war, Emma Sky knew her own mind, and it was determinedly against the US-led invasion. She claims to come from an unremarkable, albeit broken, home, though her schooling (her mother was a matron at a private school, where she became a pupil) suggests different. Compared to run-of-the-mill working-class kids in the UK, this alone meant she was in a different league in life opportunity terms.
It helps if such an opportunity comes with intelligence, and she won a place at Oxford, where she further developed her passion for the Middle East. She worked for NGOs and the British Council there, promoting peace between the Palestinians and Israelis.
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She volunteered for three months to help in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, and – reflecting the Allied lack of a robust plan for after the defeat of Saddam Hussein – quickly (and still, for me, inexplicably) became the de-facto governor of the province of Kirkuk. Almost comically, as she told the UK’s post-war Iraq Inquiry, she received no prior instructions as to what her job would be, never mind being named as a governor. She went on to become the political advisor to the US military, notably Colonel William Mayville and General Ray Odierno, both of whom come out of Sky’s book vey well.
As well as providing great first-hand contextualisation of various ethnic, religious, geographical and personal disputes across the country, she does not exculpate the US for its role in the ‘unravelling’ – even if she might frustrate some in her refusal to be more brutal in her criticism. She chides Joe Biden and President Obama for their support of former prime minister Nuri al-Mailiki, in the face of clear evidence that he was becoming increasingly authoritarian and factional, and that a civil war might result.
Sky was right in opposing the war in the first place because she had an inkling of what might come, and she was right in her reasons for opposing Maliki. And though it is tempting to damn her for being there, for her claim to have played a role on the ground in offsetting the worst instincts of the occupiers, it’s clear that she genuinely believed in what she was doing.
At the heart of The Unravelling is Sky’s desire to engender a better understanding between different sections of Iraqi society, and between Iraqis and the US military. And though it hardly makes my scepticism of the book completely disappear, this, alongside the fact it’s a compelling read, goes some way to dampening it.