Iraq’s Unlikely Eulogist

There was no more improbable duo than Odierno, the hulking general with a shaved head, and his petite English adviser.

The Wall Street Journal

APR 13, 2015

By Emma Sky 
PublicAffairs, 382 pages, $28.99

The British Empire, which at one time dominated the lands stretching from Egypt to Persia, produced a long line of distinguished if often eccentric Arabists —Richard Francis Burton,Gertrude Bell, St. John Philby, T.E. Lawrence, Freya Stark, Wilfred Thesiger and more.

The deepening American involvement in the Middle East over the past decade has inspired its own crop of ardent experts. Some have been Foreign Service officers, such as Robert Ford and Ryan Crocker.Others military officers like Rick Welch,Derek Harvey and Joel Rayburn. Still others—perhaps the largest share—have been temporary recruits, helping the U.S. government understand the “human terrain” and filling gaps left by insufficient State Department resources. This group includes Ali Khedery, a young Arab-American who served as an aide to U.S. ambassadors in Baghdad; Matt Sherman, currently serving as political adviser to the U.S. commander in Kabul after previous stints in both Iraq and Afghanistan; and Carter Malkasian, who advised Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The new generation of American Arabists, busy in the field trying to help win two wars, has not yet produced the outpouring of writing that characterized their British predecessors, but they are starting to catch up. Mr. Malkasian penned a first-rate account of his experiences in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, “War Comes to Garmser” (2013), and, last year, Col. Rayburn published a wise book on “Iraq After America.” And now Emma Sky, dubbed “Our Miss Bell” by Iraqi interlocutors, has produced a radiant and beautifully written account, at turns funny and sad, of her service in Iraq.

There could have been few more unlikely candidates to advise U.S. military commanders. British-born and Oxford-educated, Ms. Sky is the kind of “progressive” who imagines that Texas is “a State of cowboys, electric chairs and right-wing zealots who spend their weekends down by the border shooting Mexicans who tried to cross illegally.” She welcomed Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, writing, “After the crazy era of the neoconservatives, the US was now led by a man whose worldview I believed I shared.”

She had come to assist the American war effort in Iraq by chance in 2003 after having spent a decade as a humanitarian worker in the Middle East. Employed by the British Council, a cultural organization sponsored by the Foreign Office, she received an email asking for volunteers to help the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. Single and 30-something, she raised her hand and wound up in Kirkuk, where she became political adviser to Col.William Mayville,commander of the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade.

Ms. Sky had no experience of the military and was “wary” of her new colleagues. Upon first meeting Col. Mayville, she threatened to haul him to The Hague if he did anything that violated the Geneva Convention: “I took my brown Filofax with me everywhere,” she writes, “and began documenting everything Colonel Mayville said and did.” Before long, however, she realized that behind his “bravado was a deep intellect—and a wicked sense of humor.” She developed such admiration and affection for the soldiers of the brigade that when they rotated home in early 2004 she “sobbed inconsolably all afternoon.”

She returned home herself in June 2004 but “could not settle back” into her humdrum job. She spent nine months in Jerusalem advising the U.S. military mission monitoring Israel’s disengagement from Gaza and then did a tour in Afghanistan for Britain’s Department for International Development. In 2006, Gen. Raymond Odierno, who had been Col. Mayville’s division commander, invited her to become his political adviser when he was appointed the deputy American commander in Iraq.

There was no more unlikely duo than the hulking, 6-foot-5 former football player with the shaved head and his petite English adviser. To add to the incongruity, Ms. Sky needled Gen. Odierno relentlessly in a way that no one else would have dared—and he returned the favor. On a helicopter ride after “General O” comments that Saddam Hussein was a mass murderer, she replies, “We still don’t know who killed more Iraqis: you or Saddam, sir.” This was greeted by total silence among the general’s aides, but he jocularly shouted, “Open the door, pilots. Throw her out!”

It is part of Gen. Odierno’s greatness as a commander that he realized he needed the independent viewpoint that Ms. Sky could provide to avoid the groupthink that so often characterizes military command. He made her his indispensable aide, and she stayed by his side not only during his tour as the deputy commander in Iraq in 2006-08 but also when he was the top commander, from 2008 to 2010.

Along the way, she helped the U.S. military drag Iraq back from the brink of the abyss—only to see all of their achievements squandered. In Ms. Sky’s telling, the turning point was the failure to allow the secular Shiite Ayad Allawi a chance to form a government after his party had emerged as the top vote-getter in the 2010 election. Ambassador Christopher Hill and Vice President Joe Biden, the architects of the Obama administration’s Iraq policy in spite of their invincible ignorance of the country, threw U.S. influence behind the sitting prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who had refused to accept his electoral defeat. In his second term, he pursued the sectarian agenda that drove many Sunnis into the arms of Islamic State.

Ms. Sky ended up disenchanted with the administration she had once supported: “Biden was a nice man, but he simply had the wrong instincts on Iraq. If only Obama had paid attention to Iraq. . . . But his only interest in Iraq was in ending the war.” By contrast, her respect for the whole U.S. military and in particular for Gen. Odierno—who warned the administration of Mr. Maliki’s authoritarian tendencies—was never higher. He told her, “I gave my best military advice.” She laments: “But he had been ignored.” That is as good an epitaph as any for the American misadventure in Mesopotamia.