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.

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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 appears in the 01 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Crisis Europe