J. Kael Weston is the author of “The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan,” which will be published in May. He spent seven years in Iraq and Afghanistan as a State Department official based in Baghdad, Fallujah, Sadr City, Khost and Helmand.
Eric Fair was a civilian interrogator for the U.S. military for several months in Iraq in 2004 and ever since has felt haunted by his inexcusable behavior.
In his important memoir, “Consequence,” Fair confronts his demons. He recognizes the “things that can’t be undone” and writes about them with painful clarity: “This is the first detainee I lay hands on. I grab him by his clothing and drag him out of his chair . . . I shove him into the wall . . . it feels good.” He describes a joint interrogation of an Iraqi boy. The goal: to wrest a confession out of him. “I scare him. I shout,” he writes. “I throw a chair. It ricochets off the wall. I call the MP [military policeman] inside and he handcuffs the boy to the iron loop in the floor. . . . He suffers. He cries.”
Fair’s story begins in his home town, Bethlehem, Pa. From a young age, he was a dutiful churchgoer: “I grow up learning that I come from a long line of Presbyterians who valued their faith and marched off to war.” His faith was tested over time as he saw fellow parishioners being judgmental and exclusionary, particularly in regard to gays.
Fair’s career took many turns before he began writing. He joined the Army as an Arabic linguist and afterward spent time on the Bethlehem streets as a trainee cop. Diagnosis of a serious heart defect (cardiomyopathy) ended his prospects of becoming a full-time police officer. Despite his chronic health condition, the ex-soldier pursued ways to get to a war zone after 9/11. His language skills and Army background enabled him to be hired as an interrogator. He underwent no medical exam by the private-sector contractor anxious to get its new hires to Iraq as soon as possible. Fair also had stints at the National Security Agency, including a brief (non-interrogation) assignment in Baghdad in 2005.
Leaving the government, he enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he struggled with persistent doubts about the dictates of organized religion and ultimately realized that he no longer wanted to be a Presbyterian pastor. His life as an interrogator had whittled away at his religious convictions; he wrote of the experience: “I cannot ask God to accompany me into the interrogation booth. In Scripture, God often works in prisons, but he is never on the side of the jailer.”
Fair has a compelling, matter-of-fact voice. He never shirks responsibility or offers excuses while recounting his struggles with alcohol, marital strains and mental health. The biggest hero in a book filled with antiheroes is his stoic wife, Karin. A chemical engineer, she agreed to move many times to accommodate Fair’s itinerant career and persevered through his liquor-induced rages. If she had ended their marriage, she would have been justified, Fair believes; but she stayed with him. “As everything else begins to collapse,” he writes, “Karin steps forward to protect me.” They have a baby son and decide to leave New Jersey and return to Pennsylvania, where, still together, they remake their life.
This lean, well-edited memoir gratefully leaves out politicized commentary. Fair gives us simply a record of what happened. He describes, for example, the use by 82nd Airborne soldiers of a brutal device known as the Palestinian chair. The interrogators say the Israeli military taught them how to use it during a joint training exercise. Sitting in the specially built chair, a detainee is pitched forward with his head thrust onto his chest and his hands zip-tied near the bottom of the legs. The device forces all of the detainee’s weight onto his thighs. Fair and a friend tried it out for themselves: “Maybe it’s not as bad as we’ve made it out to be. We experiment with different positions and tell each other what hurts the most. We agree that having your hands secured to the lowest part of the chair puts the most strain on our legs. What begins as a searing burn in the calves and quads evolves into a tearing sensation in the hamstrings and lower back. You sweat, you shake, you can’t breathe. It is a violent and frightening pain. It’s torture.”
Once your legs give out, Fair writes, “you basically start to suffocate. They say everyone breaks in the chair.” A mayor of Fallujah was subjected to the chair, to devastating effect. Fair observed this interrogation but did not try to stop it: “This is a sin. I know it as soon as I see it. There will be no atonement for it.”
In some cases, harsh interrogations got detainees to talk. Fair witnessed an Army linguist slap an Iraqi youth “one solid open-handed strike to the face. It is loud and violent. . . . The young brother provides information about the men who store bomb-making materials out in their fields.”
But Fair makes a much stronger case that less-severe tactics were a lot more effective. One detainee, he writes, “does not want to go to Abu Ghraib. In English he says, ‘Give me food, I have information.’ I return with grape juice and a piece of birthday cake from the common room. He devours them and asks for more. . . . I spend the next six hours delivering food while struggling to record all of the information he provides. It is my most productive interrogation in Iraq. . . . I have discovered weapons caches, located a mechanic’s shop that builds car bombs, and obtained information on the downing of an American helicopter over Fallujah.”
Returning home, Fair went public with his concerns about detainee abuse. He includes some hateful email he received but also sympathetic messages. One from a Vietnam veteran begins: “Welcome to the club brother. I was in the infantry in Vietnam in 1968. I murdered a [North Vietnamese] soldier who was trying to surrender. . . . Our punishment is carrying this guilt to our graves.” Fair also received a laudatory note from Bill Clinton, who praised the interrogator for his courage.
Only one complaint — and it’s not meant as a knock on Fair. In these pages we do not get a good sense of the Iraqis. That may be understandable because Fair spent a relatively short time in the country. And like many U.S. troops, he had limited or much-constrained opportunities to interact with ordinary Iraqis, especially in the early years of the war. As more Iraqi literature chronicles the Iraq War (and the war in Afghanistan), we will undoubtedly hear more from the other side, including from those subjected to our interrogations.
Fair’s memoir is a welcome contrast to the detached accounts by politicians, ex-CIA bosses and retired Pentagon brass. While top officials have largely avoided confessing to their own questionable actions, Fair has taken the opposite approach. And his are brave admissions. This fact alone makes his candid account distinctive and far more commendable than the general run of war memoirs.
Years after coming home from the Iraq War, Fair is driven by his conscience: Never again should the United States conduct, excuse or cover up this kind of behavior. This book is an overdue reckoning. Its pages comprise an atrocity measured in maimed Muslim bodies and minds — and the associated moral injuries to U.S. service members. Scars of the soul do not easily heal. Nor perhaps should they. No other book guides readers so honestly and so succinctly through this grim chapter in U.S. history. Echoes of our previous ill-advised war, fought in jungles instead of the desert, ring loud.
While reading “Consequence” I was reminded of what President Ronald Reagan wrote in a May 1988 letter to the Senate, urging ratification of the U.N. anti-torture treaty. The 40th commander in chief was unambiguous: “Ratification of the Convention by the United States will clearly express United States opposition to torture, an abhorrent practice unfortunately still prevalent in the world today.” The convention was ratified.
Fair viscerally conveys what can go wrong, quickly and violently, in an interrogator’s locked room in a war zone, making this memoir essential reading in this presidential election year as candidates vying to be the next commander in chief debate, deplore or defend torture.
By Eric Fair
Holt. 240 pp. $26