The Unraveling is a love story. Like many love stories, it starts with two seemingly irreconcilable personalities forming a bond they never anticipated. But, true to form, the ending is tragic. In this instance, the main character is author Emma Sky, the British, Oxford-educated, lefty international do-gooder who falls for the U.S. Army and its religious, flag-waving, America-the-Beautiful officer corps, and one officer in particular: General Ray Odierno, former commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq and the current Army chief of staff. The tragedy, of course, is Iraq.
Sky’s story begins with her volunteering to join the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003 as it set out to put post-Saddam Iraq back on its feet. Reflecting Washington’s lack of planning about what would follow Saddam’s demise, Sky finds herself within days named the “Governorate Coordinator of Kirkuk,” with no instructions and (as she admits) neither “the qualifications nor the experience for the job.”
While there, Sky comes to terms with her role in the occupation of Iraq as part of a war that she had opposed. After an initial false step or two, she also realizes that, to stave off the explosion of ethnic tensions in Kirkuk and the surrounding area into a civil war, she and the U.S. Army would have to become “one team.” But that grudging concession soon turns into a more fulsome appreciation of the American military’s “leadership and its resources,” as well as its capacity to be “flexible, adaptable and a quick learner.” Most important, she discovers that “the soldiers generally wanted to do the right thing.”
It’s also in Kirkuk that she first meets Odierno, then commander of the 4th Infantry Division, the occupying force for northern Iraq. Upon becoming deputy commander in Iraq in 2006, “Gen. O,” as Sky dubs him, asked her to become his political adviser. She remained in that position through the surge, until 2010, when Odierno departed Iraq after being promoted (in 2008) to succeed Gen. David Petraeus as the Multi-National Force commander.
A more odd-looking pair would be difficult to find: a relatively tiny, waifish English woman in her 30s and the bald, six-foot-six, massive former football player who (to her mind) was weirdly fond of Texas and its gun-toting, electric-chair-wielding yahoos. Although they appear to have routinely crossed swords on the wisdom of the decision to oust Saddam—with her dismissing it as part of some crazy neocon conspiracy—she admits she stood “in awe of him” and his capacity to lead such a complex effort effectively and charismatically.
As an insider’s account, The Unraveling is full of descriptions of meetings, events, and key personalities—both Iraqi and American. Of the latter, Sky is especially gifted in capturing, in just a few sentences, the quirks, flaws, and virtues of the individuals who worked in Iraq or who came through as visiting dignitaries. To her credit, she’s bipartisan in her skewering. Chris Hill, the American ambassador put in place by the Obama White House in early 2009, is described as having not wanted the job and uninterested in engaging with the Iraqis at a key transition point in the country’s post-Saddam era. “It was,” Sky writes, “frightening how a person could so poison a place. Hill brought with him a small cabal who were new to Iraq and marginalized all those with experience in the country.” Likewise, Sky aptly captures Donald Rumsfeld and his irritating let’s-be-clear-about-who’s-the-honcho-in-the-room routine in recalling his visit to Kirkuk. As Odierno tried to brief the defense secretary on the situation in northern Iraq, “Rumsfeld kept interrupting, shooting questions at him. How many soldiers in theater? How many killed? How many wounded?”—not for a moment wanting to hear what the commanding general for the area actually assessed the situation to be.
Given Sky’s role in Kirkuk, and later under Odierno, The Unraveling is especially useful in detailing just how complex the reconciliation process was within Iraq’s splintered society. As she notes, Iraq lost civility and a generation of potential leaders during Saddam’s two decades of brutal rule; and so, when his regime was removed, what remained was a Hobbesian free-for-all. As the subtitle makes clear, however, the United States and coalition forces were on the cusp of meeting the challenge of state- and nation-building in Iraq—or at least, with the success of the surge and the Anbar Awakening, they had begun to set the conditions for moving forward. Yet that potential could only be turned into reality if Washington stayed the course.