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The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq
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The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq

4.09  ·  Rating details ·  598 ratings  ·  92 reviews
One of the New York Times' 100 Notable Books of 2015
One of Financial Times' Books of the Year, 2015
A New York Times Editors' Choice
A New Statesman [UK] Essential Book of the Year 2015
A Times [UK] Book of the Year 2015
Shortlisted for the 2015 Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction
Shortlisted for the 2016 Orwell Prize

When Emma Sky volunteered to help rebuild Iraq after the over
Hardcover, 400 pages
Published April 7th 2015 by PublicAffairs (first published January 1st 2015)
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4.09  · 
Rating details
 ·  598 ratings  ·  92 reviews

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Marcus Fielding
Sep 03, 2015 rated it liked it
I first encountered Emma Sky when briefing General Odierno in late 2008. She was not introduced and sat unobtrusively beside the Commanding General. An inquisitive elfin-like character, Sky observed and listened to my brief to the General. Unlike Odierno’s many questions, she asked just one; but it was very good one. I had to ask my boss who she was after we left the room – suspecting she was some kind of CIA station chief. But no – Sky was there as a civilian advisor to provide a different pers ...more
Jun 14, 2015 rated it really liked it
Emma Sky does a wonderful job in describing the Iraq War from a non-military perspective, moreover, her observations on military culture are spot on. Sky, over the course of nearly a decade developed a profound understanding of Iraqi politics and culture, there may be no better expert other than Iraqis themselves. However...her expertise on Iraqi politics is tempered on what seems to be a lack of understanding of U.S. and British politics. She found it difficult to comprehend why President Obama ...more
May 01, 2015 rated it it was amazing
One of the best “fly-on-the-wall” observations into what went right and wrong in Iraq written to explore what might have been, Emma’s insights, tinged with self-effacing humor, are a bitter-sweet chronicle of the last, lost decade. From the admissions at the Chilcot Inquiry that preparations, strategies, goals and end games had not been considered to the realization in Erbil that the herculean efforts by generals and ambassadors and armies of talented military and civilian personnel were all bei ...more
Oct 30, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Were I President of the U.S., or if I had power of any kind, would make this book required reading for all politicians. Amen. I'm not quite sure why this book has not received more publicity and more praise than it has. Perhaps most Americans won't like the message? Oh why wasn't Miss Emma Sky, or someone like her, around to be political advisor to President Bush, his aides Cheney & Rumsfeld, before they took such short-sighted action and sent our military to invade Iraq? And why were there ...more
Dec 13, 2016 rated it really liked it
Impressive memoir of Emma Sky's time as a political advisor to the U.S. military in Iraq. I read it for research purposes but what was particularly moving was her deep empathy and love for all parties involved in the war, both the Iraqis and the Americans. Despite her deep opposition to the conflict (she is essentially an Arabist) she ends up quite enamored with the U.S. military and its leaders, particularly Ray Odierno, but unlike in other stories I don't think this is just a product of proxim ...more
Jun 16, 2016 rated it it was ok
I am extremely surprised that this is such a highly lauded book. First off, the prose is horrendous. Second, it reads as both self-serving and self-aggrandizing, while also failing to address and/or acknowledge any of the substantial criticisms of the author's American bosses (other than a couple of sentences to dismiss the issues as "exaggeration" and to state that the criticism hurt the general's feelings-- really?!-- p.148-149). The entire book seemed like an infantilization of a complex and ...more
Feb 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
Wanted more accounting and a little less memoir. That said, her perspective is unique, informative, and utterly fascinating. Probably challenging to make this digestible and palatable to general audience but think it largely succeeded in doing so.
Bill Gawne
Jan 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
A very good story about the unlikely adventures of Emma Sky in Iraq. She did more, for more people, with less, than I'd have thought possible. The woman's story should be made into a movie, but nobody would believe it.
Sergio Posada
Oct 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Very enlightining
Jul 19, 2015 rated it it was ok
Who knew the man behind the curtain in Iraq was actually a five-foot-four, petite woman born in London, England? Who knew that same woman would first serve U.S. Army Colonel William Mayville and later U.S. General Ray Odierno as their personal POLAD? (If you live anywhere close to Minnesota, until now, the only POLAD you knew was the Pohlad family, owners of a Major League Baseball team.) Who knew that American military officers even employed civilian political advisers?

In this personal, 363-pa
Susanna Sturgis
An extraordinary and in many ways subversive book. Emma Sky, a British civilian with extensive experience in the Middle East, arrived in Iraq in June 2003, having volunteered to work with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Her assignment was vague, her job description non-existent. "I had been opposed to the war and naturally suspicious of the military. Yet I had volunteered for three months to help get Iraq back on its feet -- and within weeks of th ...more
Apr 15, 2015 rated it really liked it
A lot has been written on the US invasion of Iraq and its aftermath, but this book adds some new elements. The author, Ms Sky, is British, was appalled by the US and UK decision to go to war, describes herself as an internationalist and a supporter of Barack Obama. The tenor of the book however, has several themes that are in tension to her orientation.

As the war was underway, she took a reasonable position to participate in bringing positive change into the aftermath, due to her knowledge of th
Nigel Kotani
Jan 23, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
OK, I will start by admitting that there may be a degree of subjectivity in my giving this book 5 stars in that, with both my parents coming from Iraq, this book undoubtedly resonated with me more than it would with most. That said, at the time of posting it's scoring 4.13 stars on Goodreads, from which I see that it was also 'shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction 2015 One of the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2015 One of Financial Times Books of the Year, 2015 A New York ...more
Nigel Pinkus
Nov 26, 2018 rated it really liked it
Emma Sky entered a country in 2003 where just five years previously, between 1991 - 1998 half a million children (that's 500,000) under the age of five died from curable or preventable diseases. The children died from malnutrition, diseased water lack of medical care. "If you include adults, the figure would be well over a million...." Felicity Arbuthnot, "Tell me no lies: Iraq's Child Mortality", 539. Feb. 1999. And it was all from preventable or curable diseases. Iraq has become a war zone, a ...more
Elizabeth Powers
Jan 20, 2018 rated it liked it
Very interesting insight into just how easy it is for an individual completely lacking in state building and country-specific expertise to use innate skills in human relations to perhaps make a difference on the margins (e.g., leveraging her natural empathy to become an astute negotiator in affairs that in retrospect are unlikely to matter). Emma was essentially a POLAD for senior military commanders, though from my experience working with the Iraqis, her influence and insight with those that re ...more
Oct 15, 2016 rated it really liked it
This is another (terrifying) work describing the disaster that was the Iraq invasion.

It should be requiring reading. Like Rory Stewart's work, Prince of Marshes, describing his being put in charge of a section of post-invasion Iraq by the British with no training and no support - this work describes a similar situation.

The opening pages describing the absence of a plan, support, expectations are an eye-opener.

The author dedicates large blocks of her life, with good intentions, to the reconstruc
The Unravelling by Emma Sky traces the high hopes and missed opportunities in Iraq. Or so it claims. It felt more like: The Unravelling by Emma Sky traces Emma Sky's adventures and achievements in Iraq.

This rather poorly-edited book focused a great deal on the US military's perspective in Iraq, which is fine, because Sky was serving as POLAD to the four-star Commanding General of the US forces in Iraq. (Being British and a woman, this was an interesting place to be for her, a fact she reminds u
Jun 18, 2017 rated it it was amazing
(After a few days:) The prologue sets the tone for this memoir. Emma Sky was asked at the British inquiry: How did she know what to pack? An anti-war activist, she was only going to Iraq for 3 months as a volunteer to assist in governance (institutional) reconstruction. I am at page 105, it's more than 3 months, and I know she's going to be there a lot longer. I can only guess that she will earn her OBE, and what to have packed becomes the least of her concerns under fire. Yes, institutions matt ...more
May 28, 2017 rated it it was ok
It's not often that I consider stopping reading a book. I think I am fairly well-read on the different perspectives on Iraq. Do not waste your time on this book. At least she reveals her bias as she continually states her hatred of war (like all of us) as well as near-contempt for those who would be called to fight it. This is a self-serving memoir that paints Ms Sky as a tireless hero and the majority of Americans as stupid war-mongers.
Perhaps the most telling exchange is when Genera O asks h
Jul 26, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting and insightful memoir. The author obviously has deep love for Iraq and its peoples, and did convince me of the opportunity lost in Iraq w.r.t the 2010 elections and the rapid pullout by Obama administration. Unlike most mainstream narratives it does correctly attribute significant blame on the Obama administration for the current state of Iraq. I think the biggest achievement of the book is the humanization of atleast a section of the American army and how emotionally some were inves ...more
Oct 02, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is an invaluable account of what went on and didn't happen in Iraq after the war. Sky's authority is enhanced as someone who was against the war but ended up working at reconstruction both for the British and the Americans.

Some of her observations are surprising, such as the Bush administration coming out of this better than Obamas but she does seem to have a point. It does seem that Obama went for a quick exit over securing Iraqi democracy.

Sky's account's weaknesses are mostly in what th
Chris Jaffe
Feb 23, 2016 rated it really liked it
This was a very good and informative book about what went wrong in Iraq by someone how had a good view of things. Emma Sky is a British civilian who served as political expert in Iraq on three different occasions. (First in the CPA years of 2003-04 where she was based on Kirkuk, the border town between the Kurd and Arab regions. Second, in the surge year of 2007. Finally, she came back for the final years of occupation, from 2008-10. She also returned for a bit afterwards, but didn’t serve in an ...more
Emma Sotillo
Jun 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A civilian striving in a commingled military world, and not just any military, the best military in the world. I was pleased to read about her experiences in Northern Iraq, Emma pictured a region known to few in the western hemisphere, with strokes of true colors and sounds, and smells, and flavors -- the real thing. Her first-hand accounts of events that were at the center of policy-making and nation-rebuilding, are evidence of the efforts and commitment of teams working together to accomplish ...more
Kevin M.
Nov 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2018-non-fiction
This book is a critical read if one wants to get an insider's perspective of the efforts by the United States to form policy in Iraq after the invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Emma Sky worked very closely with individuals such as General Odierno and has an extraordinarily keen understanding of the history and the populace of the Middle East. Her critique of the post-invasion efforts by the United States to engage in nation-building in Iraq provides a multitude of lessons that our high-ranki ...more
Lawrence Grey
Dec 05, 2018 rated it really liked it
Emma Sky recaps her experiences in Iraq and what went wrong - another account of the mess that George Bush allowed to take place because of Dick Cheney - a disgrace - free from the local public library
John Lathers
Nov 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An invaluable insider's perspective.
Dec 11, 2016 rated it really liked it
Spends lots of time talking about how awesome she is.
Andrew Lucas
Mar 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
I devoured this book over a very short space of time, which is probably a good sign. Sky's time in Iraq from shortly after the 2003 invasion until the 2010 election is amusing, saddening and elicits immense frustration in the reader at the failures of the political class in America and Iraq. Although I suspect that 'The Unravelling' is probably sanitised on a number of levels, Sky's admiration for the officers she worked for and her love of the Iraqi people shines through and makes this a most s ...more
Dec 19, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book is a memoir of a British diplomat/administrator who volunteered to help in Iraq after the invasion and ended up being the political advisor to the top US general in the transition from the invasion to the turning over of authority to civilians and the cessation of combat involvement. Ms. Sky is a talented and thoughtful advisor who brought an initially critical perspective to provide advise and a sounding board for American decisions.

Sky is frequently lauded as a skilled advisor with d
Steven Hull
Aug 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing
After reading this book, whether one agrees with the author or not, it is necessary to ask several tough questions. Did any American really understand what was likely to be at stake if we invaded Iraq in 2003? Why did the American political leadership continuously, from 2003-2011, misread the Iraqis and make poor decisions regarding the country’s future? Why was the American public kept in the dark about the daunting complexities facing the American military as they worked tirelessly to put the ...more
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“I could not help but marvel at the way in which the military had got stuck into trying to improve the lives of the Kirkukis. They were identifying priority projects in the province, tendering out work to local contractors, and managing large amounts of money. Tank commanders were working on economic development, paratroopers on governance, civil affairs officers on education. They were totally dedicated to the task at hand.” 0 likes
“The American Forces Network (AFN) blared out across the base and its announcements still seemed geared towards those with subnormal IQs.” 0 likes
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