View from the top: Sky with Ray Odierno (right) on a walkabout in al-Khalis, eastern Iraq, 2009. Photo: US Army/www.army.mil
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Emma Sky: the woman who tamed the generals in Iraq

The Unravelling isn’t really the story of the US occupation of Iraq; it is about how one intelligent woman realised what was going on, and yet slipped into a Stockholm syndrome relationship with the people she worked with.

The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq
Emma Sky
Atlantic Books, 400pp, £18.99

Of all the events I have reported on, the invasion, occupation and abandonment of Iraq has been the most savage. By comparison, horrors such as the Tiananmen massacre, or even the siege of Sarajevo, dreadful though they were, seem limited and temporary. The Iraqi adventure, 12 years on, is still killing people by the thousands. It was conceived in ignorance and prejudice, and carried out in stupidity and cruelty. Since the invasion I have spent almost three years of my life in Iraq, parcelled out in two- or three-week chunks. I still go back again and again, reporting on the after-effects. And to this day I am filled, every single time, with a sense of rage against the process that brought Iraq down.

I have seen people burned to death in front of my eyes. I have seen the bodies of people tortured to death with electric drills piled up in front on me. I have seen a carload of elderly, terrified Iraqis fired on by a US soldier simply because they couldn’t speak English. So when I am faced with a book that is subtitled High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, it inclines me to wonder whether the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, or the growth of Isis, or the destruction of archaeological sites such as Nimrud, or the grotesque birth ­deformities I saw in Fallujah after the US campaigns there, have not turned out to be a tad worse than merely missed opportunities.

Don’t get me wrong. Emma Sky is a wonderful woman with an extraordinary story to tell. A young, liberal-minded British civil servant, she disapproved of the war and volunteered to go to Iraq on behalf of the British government in order to apologise for it to the people there. But somehow she ended up working as a senior adviser to the US military. I used to see her at the occult news conferences the US army gave, a slight, attractive figure in her late thirties, sitting beside Ray Odierno, an enormous, bull-like general with a hairless head, and whispering from time to time into his ear. His ear was about the size of my hand. I noticed even at the time that he always paid ­attention to what she said.

To me, I confess, Odierno seemed to embody all the brutishness of the US presence. I was clearly wrong. You have to read Emma Sky to appreciate the intelligence and, yes, sensitivity he brought to his job – which was to extract America from the disgusting mess it had created in Iraq. I didn’t get to know Odierno, but I did know and admire his boss, General David Petraeus. He understood what had to be done, and did it.

Still, Petraeus and Odierno commanded a force, most of whose men still believed, years after the events, that Iraq had been behind the 9/11 attacks, and many of whom were minded to get revenge. They knew they could usually get away with just about anything if they claimed afterwards that they had thought their lives were in danger. Sky sardonically notes something that used to infuriate me – the sign that US military vehicles displayed, reading: “Stay 50 metres back or you will be shot”, a threat that was carried out daily. You could only read the sign from 20 metres away.

Often, the day-to-day occupation of Iraq seemed irremediably absurd. Here is an example of something that happened in, I think, 2005: on the outskirts of Baghdad an Iraqi civilian ambushed and killed an American soldier and was then shot dead himself. In an effort to win hearts and minds, a senior US officer sent his men round with toys for the dead insurgent’s children and money for his widow. Hearts were certainly warmed, if not won. Then, as the soldiers were leaving, a group of local kids started throwing stones at them; and the soldiers panicked and started shooting. You couldn’t make it up.

The Unravelling isn’t really the story of how the US occupation of Iraq went wrong; it is about how one intelligent, gutsy woman realised perfectly well what was going on, and yet slipped into a weird, Stockholm syndrome relationship with the people she worked with. Sky was feisty enough; she once told Odierno to his face: “We still don’t know who killed more Iraqis, sir, you or Saddam.” After watching a video of a missile wiping out an insurgent target she told a roomful of cheering soldiers: “I feel I am in an American jihadi camp, ­surrounded by violent extremists.”

Yet it is abundantly clear that the big beasts of the US military loved having Sky around: she was clever, good-looking and a definite oddity – a pacifist woman in an unventilated atmosphere of uniformed testosterone. She became their mascot. I’m sure she played an important part in keeping the top Iraqi politicians in play, and for that we owe her a great debt of gratitude; because, in spite of her gloom at the end of the book, Iraq isn’t doing all that badly now that the malign Nouri al-Maliki is no longer prime minister. No thanks to George W Bush, who oversaw the political and administrative destruction of the country, or the ludicrous, irreflective Paul Bremer, who disbanded the Ba’ath Party and the Iraqi officer structure; or Barack Obama, who cared only about getting out of Iraq, regardless of the consequences.

Sky (and how I wish now that I’d gone up to her and made friends after one of those unenlightening press conferences!) had a wholly different experience of Iraq from mine. Hers was a fascinating world of senior military and diplomatic figures, many of them of the highest quality, from Petraeus to Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador in Baghdad, and the superb Dominic Asquith, his British counterpart. She knew all the leading Iraqi politicians, many of whom regarded her as a personal friend. She saw much of Iraq and had some hair-raising experiences. And she always kept her sense of opposition to what was being done to the country. Many people likened her to Gertrude Bell, the British political adviser who helped to create Iraq, and in some ways they were right.

Still, she became as much a prisoner of the Americans as anyone in an orange jumpsuit at Abu Ghraib. And because she is fair-minded she gives the benefit of the doubt to the clever, often charming people she worked with. But she saw things from the top down; journalists like me saw them from the bottom up. Most of the Americans I met were the ones who gave the occupation its true character: the grunts from states such as West Virginia who loathed Iraq and the Iraqis, the “defence contractors”, with their little beards and shaven heads, who were there to make money and if possible do some killing. “Got me 2 gooks in Nam,” read the graffito – boastful? confessional? – that I encountered in one of those sweltering, stinking portable lavatories at a US base; “got me 3 in Iraq”.

Nowadays the Stockholm syndrome holds Sky fast: she lives and teaches in the United States. But, in my view, the Gertrude Bell de nos jours is needed more than ever back in Iraq.

John Simpson is the world affairs editor of BBC News

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Crisis Europe

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Conjuring the ghost: the "shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genuis" of David Litvinoff

A new biography tracks down the elusive Kray confidant who became a friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

David Litvinoff is a mythic character to anyone with an interest in London during the Sixties. An intimate of the Krays, he was a tough and violent Jew from the East End. He was also a musical genius with an unrivalled knowledge of jazz, the blues and rock that made him a valued friend of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. It was his ability to move from the East End to Chelsea, from the dives of Soho to Notting Hill, that was the critical factor in the extraordinary vision of London that Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg conjured into the film Performance, for which Litvinoff is credited as dialogue coach. And yet, even though all this is known and recorded, he remains a ghost, a figure who wrote nothing and who systematically destroyed all the records of his life he could lay his hands on. Even his exact role in Performance is shrouded in mystery. He is said to have dictated much of the script to Cammell. This biography claims that Jagger’s mesmerising song on the soundtrack, “Memo from Turner”, was in fact a memo from Litvinoff.

Multiple reports describe him as the most brilliant talker London had known since Coleridge, but although there are rumours of tapes they have always been just rumours. I’d have thought he was a figure who would defeat any biographer – a shape-shifting, queer, violent, hippie genius lost in a mist of hallucinogens – but Keiron Pim’s account of this extraordinary character is a magisterial work of scholarship. He tracks down all the living witnesses; he has also unearthed letters, and even some of those long-lost tapes.

The story that emerges is even harder to believe than the legend. Litvinoff came out of the Jewish East End but he was from one of its most talented families. His name was not even Litvinoff: his mother’s first husband went by that name but David was the son of her second, Solomon Levy. Long before he met the Krays or the Stones, he was a gossip columnist on the Daily Express, practically inventing the Chelsea set that shocked the prim Fifties. By that time he had met Lucian Freud, who painted him in an astonishing study, the working title of which was Portrait of a Jew. Litvinoff was furious when Freud exhibited it with the new description of The Procurer, and the bad blood between these two men, both of whom inhabited the drinking clubs of Soho and the Krays’ gambling joints, remained for the rest of their lives. In fact, it is Freud who comes over as the villain of the book, fingered by Pim as the man behind the most violent assault on Litvinoff: he was knocked unconscious at the door to his own flat, on the top floor, and awoke to find himself naked and tied to a chair suspended from the balcony, nose broken and head shaved bald.

I learned much from this book: a period working for Peter Rachman before he became involved with the Krays; sojourns in Wales and Australia when he was fleeing threats of violence. The big discovery for me, however, was Litvinoff’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the jazz and blues traditions that gave birth to rock’n’roll. He taught the Stones a lot but he taught Eric Clapton even more – they were both living at the Pheasantry building on the King’s Road, and Litvinoff seems to have had unlimited access to the most recherché back catalogues and the most recent unreleased recordings. The book traces, but does not comment on, a transformation from an amphetamine-fuelled hard man in the Fifties and early Sixties to the oddest of hallucinogen hippies by the Summer of Love in 1967.

But, for all Litvinoff’s knowledge, wit and gift for friendship, his tale is a tragedy. A man who could talk but couldn’t write; an out gay man long before it was acceptable, who seems never to have been at ease with his sexuality; a proud Jew without any tradition of Judaism to which he could affiliate. Above all, this was a man who lived to the full the extraordinary moment when London dreamed, in Harold Wilson’s Sixties, that class was a thing of the past. Back from Australia in the early Seventies, Litvinoff awoke again to find that it had indeed been a dream. His suicide in 1975 was cold and deliberate. He had outlived his time. 

Colin MacCabe edits Critical Quarterly

Jumpin’ Jack Flash: David Litvinoff and the Rock’n’Roll Underworld by Keiron Pim is publisyhed by Jonathan Cape (416pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser