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An absorbing insight into the ethnic vortex, stirred by the US, that is Iraq. As a slight, and perhaps slightly naïve 35 year old, Emma Sky answers a call across Whitehall for volunteers to aid the reconstruction of Iraq after GW2/ Op Enduring Freedom. She does not dwell on her previous jobs, but had spent all her career after university on Middle Eastern affairs. And at Oxford she had received possibly the best education on the said region that the UK could offer.
If the reader wants confirmation that the Coalition had done little or no planning for post-War reconstruction, this book provides it in spades. As she later confirms to an incredulous Chilcot Inquiry (report? – yes please), she arrived at Brize Norton for her transit having had no briefing at all – and she had to source her own accommodation (and in essence define her role) once she arrived in Baghdad. Tragi-comical. Certainly she arrived naïve in the ways of the military – who would leave their seat belt undone for a helicopter flight? Emma Sky – but just the once! Her prime asset for her new role is her great interest in her fellow humans, allied to an ability to communicate with and empathise with Arabs of every sect, and an ease in making friends across the national and ethnic spectra. Given the call sign “BB” (as in British Babe), she becomes POLAD (civilian political adviser) to Colonel Mayvile and then General Odierno, spending much of her time in Kirkuk. Her education, thanks to her parents the only girl in an all-boys boarding school, was good training for living amongst 3500 US paratroopers (whom she found more civilised than British schoolboys!). An endearing subtext of the book is her growing regard for ‘General O’ – a fraternal relationship develops where (at least according to Sky) the hulking US general comes to rely heavily on her input as he rises up the chain of command in this cursed theatre.
On the composition of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the organisation designed by the US to ease the Iraqis back into democracy, she notes wryly “the focus on subnational identities was at the expense of building an inclusive Iraqi identity”. Sky does not hesitate to underline the stunted vision of the NeoCons such as Wolfowitz whom she encounters on their state visits to the country. She deflates the truism that there are no Americans who understand Arab cultures, or care for them. It is to the world’s sorrow that the US suppressed the talents of such citizens in favour of the NeoCon wave. Early on in the process, many of the military in theatre – both US and UK – knew the strategy was doomed.
In 2007 Emma had an Afghan interlude: “While the Italians were unlikely to win any prizes for their soldiering, they certainly would for morale and welfare. The quality of the food – pasta and pig – was exceptional.” Her humour becomes drier and more assured as the book progresses. Possibly this has some connection with her gradual assimilation of military ways! Some measure of the diplomatic minefields continually in her path can be gleaned: an Iraqi cleric by the name of Abu Mariam declaims in a meeting “If this works out, I will take you for a second wife”!
Neither is Britain’s journey in Iraq (in the 21st C) of course covered in roses. Sky spells out how the cause was not helped by the insertion of one Chris Hill as an inept British Ambassador in April 2009. In Sky’s view his misreading of the situation after Iraq’s fraught election, and his unquestioning support of Maliki, was a major contributor to the subsequent chaos. Obama’s arrival with a fixation to disentangle from Iraq, was also unhelpful, in her view. Sky is rightly critical of his subsequent triumphalism when the bulk of US forces are brought home.
The book’s time period does not cover the most recent descent into further chaos as the region dissolves into hitherto unimagined complexities. Let us end what I thought was a riveting book, with moments of unexpected tenderness, with a suitably pessimistic summary by Abdul-Rahman, quoted by Sky in the closing chapter. “The curse of Iraq is its oil money. Iraq has too much money. And this makes people lazy and increases unemployment. Despite all the resources nothing gets done. Iraq is still going backwards. It is hard to see how the country will remain unified with such politicians in power. Iraq has good people but bad politicians.”
My only gripe? The book’s title – it should have course have been called Sky & Bullets!!