Book Review: Emma Sky's The Unraveling

Emma Sky's new book The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq solves a number of problems for professors trying to teach about the War on Terror to undergraduates.

1. Female voice: It is difficult to find book-length female analyses for teaching the War on Terror (Lisa Stampnitzky's Disciplining Terror excepted - see my review here). Sky does not write as an omniscient narrator. Rather, her memoir explicitly addresses how being a woman in a war zone shaped her experiences, including the often very funny jokes that others made at her expense (or she made at theirs). Students will appreciate the candor and frequent use of dialogue and all students regardless of gender will benefit from learning about the war from an extremely intelligent observer and participant.

2. Positive portrayal of the military: Too often, writing about the Iraq war conflates disdain for the policy with disdain for those soldiers who participated. Sky, though initially very critical of the US military, is nuanced and ultimately praiseworthy of the soldiers she worked alongside in Iraq. This is important for undergraduate classrooms because many veterans seek out classes on Middle East politics in order to understand their experiences, but end up alienated by the negative tone taken by their professors.

3. Brief and cogent syntheses of complicated developments: Writing on the Iraq war tends to oscillate between oversimplification and a deluge of information. Sky frequently summarizes extremely complicated situations in a matter of paragraphs, boiling down the most important information without veering into inaccurate or simplistic renderings. As a result, the book could easily be paired with more complicated readings. Students should be encouraged to read the relevant portion of the Sky text first, so that they can use it as a reference, particularly if another reading is very detailed or poorly written.

4. Breadth of Coverage/Capturing Evolution: The book is divided into four parts: Direct Rule (June 2003-June 2004), Surge (January - December 2007), Drawdown (May 2008-September 2010) and Aftermath (January 2012-July 2014). Viewed from this ten year span, Sky is able to comment on the significant changes that took place in the Iraqi context and coalition strategy, a welcome reprieve from the narrative that the War in Iraq was an unmitigated failure. Rather, Sky presents how many small successes still did not ultimately add up to a stable or democratic Iraq.

5. Primacy of Politics: Finally, political science faculty will welcome the (implicit) conclusion of the book - that military strategy cannot compensate for political processes and strong democratic institutions and processes.

Faculty considering the memoir should be forewarned that the book is very long-- 363 pages of text, though individual chapters are often brief.

Overall, though, I highly recommend the text for use in undergraduate classrooms.