The Unravelling: Emma Sky at #AWF16

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pp_emma_skyI had never heard of Emma Sky before I saw her name in the festival programme, and this was a mistake, because it turns out this self-deprecating English woman has been quietly influencing 21st-century world history. She was the Governorate Coordinator of Kirkuk, Iraq, for the Coalition Provisional Authority from 2003 to 2004, and served as the political advisor to U.S. General Ray Odierno from 2007 to 2010. She’s met Obama, argued with Joe Biden, and tried to keep the US military in Iraq honest.

I haven’t read her memoir The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, and in fact haven’t even touched it, because the hundreds of copies the booksellers had in stock sold out in a flash. Simon Wilson had read it carefully, though, and his interviewing was excellent.

cv_the_unravellingSky was strongly influenced by her time on a kibbutz as a young woman, and wanted to help make peace in the world. When the war in Iraq broke out – with which she strongly disagreed – she wanted to help. She answered a call for volunteers from the British government and went to Iraq “to apologise”.

“I’m Emma from England and I’m here to volunteer.” When she arrived in Iraq there was no one to meet her and she was shifted from pillar to post before ending up in Kirkuk. “I assumed the British government knew what they were doing but had just neglected to tell me.” Sky was equally wry about the violence all around her: “Insurgents tried to assassinate me in my first week … it usually takes longer for people to try to kill me.” She met the US army when she went to ask them for accommodation: “It’s all rather awkward and embarrassing but my house has been blown up”. She told another funny story about her employer back in Britain asking when she’d return: “I’m very sorry but I can’t come back to work in Manchester because I’m running a province [of Iraq]”. They told her to stop exaggerating.

As well as filling me with a desire to learn more about Iraq, Sky also made me miss England (I am an English Kiwi). I was reminded of Kate Fox’s Watching the English (one of the truest books I’ve ever read), in which she argues that the distinguishing characteristic of English humour is not is dryness but its omnipresence. There was humour underlying nearly everything Sky said, and when Wilson asked her to speak of the horror of living in a war zone, she became uncomfortable. She did try to articulate it, though, telling us that at one point Iraqis stopped eating fish because the flavour had changed, because the fish were feeding on all the corpses in the river.

Based on the success of her work in Iraq, US General Odierno invited Sky to be his political advisor. Her job was to follow him around and tell him when he was screwing up: “It was fantastic!” They were two very different people but obviously developed an enormous respect for one another. One senior US official Sky has far less respect for, however, is Joe Biden. She blames him for screwing up Iraq’s chance to create itself a robust democracy by focusing instead on his own political gains.

Wilson asked Sky about the sexism she had experienced. She seemed reluctant to talk about it too much; maybe – as Mallory Ortberg said at Writers Week in Wellington earlier this year – she’s sick of the ‘you’re a woman, that must be so hard’ kind of question. In any case, if bombs and gunfire couldn’t slow her down, mere sexism never stood a chance. She made a couple of intriguing allusions to her upbringing in a boys’ school, which she likened to a Lord of the Flies experience. Men, she said, “are much better when they’re adults than when they’re boys”. Feels like there might be another book right there.

The hour we had with Sky flew by, and we could easily have done with a whole other hour for audience questions. I would have liked to have heard her thoughts on voluntourism and the white saviour complex, for example. She says her students at Yale, where she now teaches and writes, tell her to get back out into the world. I’m sure that, for Sky, there are many more history-changing years ahead.

Attended and reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage 

Book: 
The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, by Emma Sky

Book Review: Fives & Twenty Fives, by Michael Pitre

cv_fives_and_twenty_fivesAvailable now in bookstores nationwide.

Author Michael Pitre wanted to bring to life the stories of the manual work that goes into a war – a depiction beyond glossy Hollywoodised combat. Fives & Twenty-Fives achieves its aim brilliantly, telling an honest & compelling story of the realities of a heroic platoon through the grisliest period of the Iraq War.

Pitre’s experience as a Marine in Iraq lifts Fives & Twenty-Fives from a tale to an account as it follows a US Marine platoon carrying out ‘route clearance’ in Iraq in 2006. Routinely rolling out into the sandy roads around Fallujah, each time the road repair convoy halts, the Marines immediately secure the five metre radius around their vehicle. Once cleared, they secure a twenty-five metre radius. Check your five & twenty-fives: get safe. Their task is to repair potholes created in the road by exploded-IEDs to allow smooth mobility for the Coalition of the Willing. The catch: insurgents use the potholes to plant new bombs – 647 times from 647 holes. Lured out to repair, the platoon sit as targets, firstly to new bombs planted in curb-stones, and next to snipers & jihadists as they work against time pouring concrete into potholes under the scorching Iraqi sun.

Pitre’s writing style is skilfully economical & uniform in a way that matches the novel’s military setting. As Fives & Twenty-Fives executes the reality of the Iraq War, Pitre’s characters & character interaction is equally on the mark. While Iraq in 2006 is the focus of Five & Twenty-Fives, the novel is set in 2011, flickering between Lieutenant Donovan, Lester ‘Doc’ Pleasant & interpreter Dodge’s memories of Iraq & their present day lives. As Pitre threads us back and forth between Iraq (2006) & Louisiana (2011), the internal struggles of men coping with a world after Iraq are painted. Donovan is deemed a hero by a Google search on his name, yet the weight of responsibility for the harm his leadership has caused sits heavily on his shoulders. Doc Pleasant, sent home from Iraq with ‘general discharge,’ is scarred like a schizophrenic animal, struggling to find employment, move out of home & sustain relationships. Further afield, Dodge is living in Tunisia on the eve of the Arab Spring, once again being sought for his English ability to help a cause that is not his own.

Fives & Twenty-Fives is a gripping & important read, giving a crisp insight to the physical reality of today’s wars & the conflicts war haunts its participants with.

By Abbie Treloar

Fives & Twenty-Fives
by Michael Pitre
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 9781408854457