How to Build Nations

This is  a cross-post by James Snell

The story of Emma Sky, newly told in her memoir The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, is a fascinating one. An opponent of the war in Iraq – someone, in fact, who had proposed serving as a human shield in the first Gulf War – does not generally end up in effect administering a province, as Sky found herself doing very soon after her arrival in the country in 2003. But this is what she did. And more than that, she spent much of the following seven years in Iraq, working closely with the very American military she and many like-minded individuals opposed so vigorously before the war began.

To rewind a little, it is essential to understand the personal elements behind all of this. Sky initially came to Iraq with the expectation of staying for mere months; and more than that, she had come, she writes, to apologise profusely to the Iraqi people for what was befalling their country. But very soon, having witnessed at first hand the good work the Coalition was attempting to do, and recognising the sincere and noble quest to rebuilt Iraq for what it was, she stayed on. Sky quickly became directly associated with the US military (despite being a British citizen) and would serve as a political advisor to American potentiaries including Raymond Odierno and David Petraeus.

Sky’s book is saturated, more than anything else, with a genuine feeling for and love of Iraq and its peoples. This appreciation is communicated in the affectionate nature of her prose when she describes the personages and personalities of the country’s various religious and ethnic groups; in the way she describes her journeys beyond the Green Zone in search of real Iraqis and genuine interactions with them; and perhaps most of all in the generous and sensuous descriptions she provides of the scents, sights, and customs which give the country its character and provide such fascination for foreigners.

And there is a great reserve of emotion impressed into the pages of Sky’s book. The opening chapters of The Unravelling can claim to be, in their own way, heart-wrenching. Contrary to a latter-day reinterpretation of events, Sky relates how she and other representatives of the Coalition truly were greeted with flowers (‘Kurds turned out in great numbers to greet us with flowers and kisses, holding up placards thanking the US and the UK for liberating the Kurdish lands’); and victims of Saddam’s brutality loudly declared their satisfaction with his overthrow. It is a thoroughly poignant reminder that such things were not an invention, and the sentiment expressed – both by those who advocated for the war and who were liberated by it – was not based on nothing.

Do read the rest of James’s post here