When, in July 2016, the findings of the Chilcot Inquiry (a British public inquiry into the nation's role in the Iraq War) were published, I happened to be glued to the TV-screen. One of the persons interviewed not only caught my attention but fascinated me – Emma Sky. Her account of how she found herself a role in this war I thought hilarious, admirable, and most impressive.
"Muddling through is not an option in business plans", Chris Patten penned in East and West. This is however what we do in real life. Moreover, there's nothing wrong with it, provided one does it as intelligently, witty, and self-reflective as Emma Sky.
She wasn't given any briefing before she went to Iraq, there was no job description, and when she got to Basra airport there was no one there to meet her. "So I went to Baghdad, I made my way to the Palace and there I met the British team ... I spent a week going round the Palace seeing how things worked, getting as many briefings as I could. They said: we have enough people here. We don't have enough people in the north. Go north. So I went to Mosul. They said: we've got someone here. I went to Erbil. They said: we've got someone here but we haven't got anyone in Kirkuk. So I went to Kirkuk. I didn't know I was going to Kirkuk when I left the UK."
By the way, "So I went to Baghdad" doesn't really describe Emma's trip on an RAF C-130 Hercules which was hot and loud and included a rapid descent in a spiral called 'corkscrew landing'. "Emerging from the plane, it felt as if a hair dryer on its hottest setting was being thrust in my face."
Her background? Oriental Studies with a focus on Arabic and Hebrew, worked for Palestinian NGOs and the British Council. Although she had been in troubled areas before in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, her situation in Iraq was different in the sense that "for the first time in my life, I was in an environment where I was actually a target."
How come this smart woman who isn't exactly in favour of this invasion (quite the contrary) decides to put herself in such a situation? "I had decided that if the invasion took place, I would find a way to work in Iraq, to apologize to Iraqis for the war, and to help them rebuild their country. It was not a surprise to anyone who knew me that I would go to Iraq. It was the sort of thing I would do."
So what did she do in Kirkuk? What was her role? She asked John Sawers, Bremer's deputy in Baghdad, and was told "to become a trusted partner to all groups and to get to know the Turkmen."
She gets an office and begins to receiving visits from all sorts of people – and all of them want something, from money to contracts to positions to help for mediating their disputes. She eventually should become political advisor to General Ray Odierno.
While political advisor may sound like a somewhat safe office job, surfing the internet, attending meeting after meeting, Emma Sky's job was not. "I was seated on the outside, with every chance of falling out as the helicopter flew acrobatically. I gripped the seat beneath me, hanging on for dear life, staring at my knees, too terrified to look at the stunning scenery ...". Moreover, it was a life with no electricity for weeks, no hot water, dust all over the room ...
She doesn't complain, makes herself useful, meets quite some characters: "Brooks spoke at a hundred miles an hour, the pace at which her brain worked." "Lambo would never have survived in the US military culture of political correctness. His e-mails were usually a stream of consciousness." She frequently challenges the ones she works with, gets challenged herself, it is quite an education. By the end she is exhausted. "After years of trying to make the world a better place, I needed to understand it better."
Rarely have I read a more blunt and succinct description of the horrors of war. " So many bodies were found floating in the Tigris that some Iraqis stopped eating fish, claiming its flavour had changed from nibbling on human flesh. Dead animals were used to conceal roadside bombs. Bodies of dead Iraqis were booby-trapped to blow up relatives who approached them. Mentally disabled children were turned into suicide bombers. Funerals were frequently the target of attacks. The morgues were full of mutilated bodies: if the head was cut off, it was Shia; if the head was drilled through, it was Sunni. Iraq was in the midst of civil war. But we were not allowed to acknowledge it because it was not what Washington wanted to hear."
The Unravelling. High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq is a pretty unique book for a variety of reasons. Here are some: 1) That a young British civilian woman should serve as advisor to a US Army General is exceptional in itself (Tony Blair, when visiting Iraq, had considerable trouble believing it). 2) Given that she did not believe in the whole premise of the Global War on Terror, Sky's willingness to work for the military (that "did not do nuance" and still doesn't) is surely out of the ordinary. 3) Her frank and nuanced account of the challenges of occupation is not only highly informative but also fun to read. 4) It modified my view of the US army. "It was an important lesson for me, I was on General O's team. And no matter how badly we disagreed or argued, he was not going to throw me out. This was a family that worked through its problems and did not break down." But also: "The American Forces Network (AFN) blared out across the base and its announcements still seemed geared towards those with subnormal IQs. Don't drink and drive. Speed kills. Always wear a seat belt. Remember the military code. Don't commit suicide ..." 5) It is wonderfully written and highly argumentative. 6) I guess that by now you should be curious enough to go and buy the book ...
High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq
Atlantic Books, London 2016