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Struggling to blot out our transgressions

09 September 2016

Eric Fair has written a devastatingly frank account of his time as an interrogator in Iraq, and its impact on his life and faith. He talks to Madeleine Davies


Fair play: Eric Fair

Fair play: Eric Fair

“I’VE abused prisoners in Fallujah and in Abu Ghraib,” Eric Fair writes in Consequence. “I have pulled chairs out from underneath young boys. I shoved an old man into a wall. I was silent in the face of the Palestinian Chair. I failed to protect the men in my care. I tortured them.”

A more accurate name for the book, published this year to critical acclaim, might be Confession. When he first started writing, three or four years ago, he was “not as direct”, he admits. “I could feel myself defend­ing myself and . . . wanting to put my agenda out there and say ‘I did these things, but I am not a bad person,’ and it finally dawned on me . . . that I could not defend myself. . . The only way to do it was to expose myself in the worst ways possible: that is what honesty is.” It is humiliating, he says. Even doing this interview is “terribly embarrassing”.

Fair worked as a contract inter­rogator in Iraq in 2004, the year that photos of military personnel taunt­ing and torturing naked prisoners exposed systematic abuse at Abu Ghraib. A month at the prison was “enough to know that all of this is wrong”, he writes. Instructed to “think outside the fucking manual”, he turned to violence.

At Fallujah, he learned about use of “the Chair”, a torture device said to have been devised for use on Palestinians, and listened to screams from interrogation booths. He handed over detainees to a colleague he knew would use harsher tech­­­­­n­iques. He has, he writes, “averted my gaze from one of the most ap­pal­ling chapters in American history”.

More than a decade later, Fair struggles to believe in atonement. He avoids praying, “because I have a debt to pay, and I have no right to petition someone else to pay it”, he writes. “I am a torturer. I have not turned a corner or found my way back. I have not been redeemed. I have no right to expect that I ever will. But I am still obligated to try.”

Writing Consequence is part of discharging this duty. It is the work of a tormented conscience: a man still haunted by the victims of tor­ture, still tempted by thoughts of suicide. His son, to whom the book is dedicated, was two days old when Fair was first tempted to take his own life.

“Prior to Iraq, I could state the Christian vision with a certain degree of clarity about how redemp­tion works,” he explains. “I can’t do that any more. I still recognise it as a critical part of my belief system, but, having lived the life I have, and seen the things I did, I do not have the easy answers I once had. I am not convinced any longer that redemp­tion works quite the way I thought it did. I don’t know how it works. I am still trying to relearn the pro­cess.”


FAIR grew up in the Rust Belt, an area of economic decline in the north-eastern United States. He is descended from a “long line of Presbyterians who valued their faith and marched off to war”. A keen youth-group member, his desire to work in law enforcement was born of a desire to create for others the protection that he felt in the arms of the Church.

He first enlisted in 1995, and trained as an Arab linguist. Al­­though, in retrospect, he considers it “strange” that there is not more discussion in churches about faith and military service, the mix “did not seem at all strange” when he was growing up. He was widely complimented for having enlisted.

After he began military training, the conflict with his faith quickly became apparent. On Sundays, he was encouraged to attend chapel. On weekdays, he was trained how to kill a pet rabbit, and subjected to a mock interrogation in which he was made to strip naked, slapped, and shoved. “They tell us torture works,” he writes. “It always has. It always will. It just takes time.”

On a six-mile run, the Sergeant sings:


I went to the church
Where all the people pray.
I took out my Claymore*
And I blew them all away.

*(an anti-personnel mine)


“There’s something about the Army that makes it difficult to go to church,” Fair writes.

And yet he felt a strong com­mitment to the army, part­icularly in the wake of 9/11. The threat from Iraq was “legitimate”, he believed, and he felt “surprised and frus­trated” that, in the wake of an invasion for which there had been “overwhelming” public support, so few had gone out to support the troops who were battling the inc­ipi­ent insurgency.

He went to Iraq in 2003, after accepting a contract worth $120,000 a year with a defence contractor, CACI. It followed a devastating dia­gnosis of cardiomyopathy, and his relegation to desk work in the police force. His doubts were “over­shadowed by my desire to find my purpose again”, he writes. “My purpose was to protect people, but I’ve lost sight of that focus. I’m going to Iraq to protect myself.”

Despite being sickened by what occurred at Abu Ghraib and Fallujah, he stayed, reluctant to be seen as someone not “cut out for doing their part”, but also desperate to redeem the situation; to find an “honourable way” to discharge his duties. Those who spoke out were “few and far between”.


IT WAS Joe Darby, of the Military Police, who eventually blew the whistle, passing pictures to his superiors in January 2004. Sent to investigate, Major General Antonio Taguba published a report that spoke of “numerous incidents of sadistic, blatant, and wanton crim­inal abuses”. There was “systemic and illegal abuse of detainees . . . intentionally per­petrated by several members of the military police guard force”.

The report was not initially released to the public, which first became aware of the abuses with the publication of photographs by CBS News in April 2004. Not all images have been made public — President Obama ruled that their release would put troops in danger and “inflame anti-American public op­in­ion” — but those that were released horrified the world. They include a hooded prisoner standing on a cardboard box with electric wires attached to his fingers; and another being dragged with a leash around his neck.

Others show prisoners threatened with dogs, humiliated sexually, and piled naked into pyramids while soldiers pose grinning behind them. Soldiers are pictured giving a “thumbs up” beside the corpse of Manadel al-Jamadi, who was killed in custody.

Eleven US soldiers were eventu­ally convicted of crimes. None of the contractors who worked for CACI have been charged, although four Iraqis are currently seeking damages in the American legal system.

The revelations also sparked debate about the extent to which the practices were authorised. A Senate Armed Services Committee de­­bunked the claim that they were the work of a “few bad apples”, con­cluding that interrogation tactics had been authorised by senior of­­ficials, and that some were sanc­tioned by the then De­­fense Sec­re­tary, Donald Rumsfeld.

Fair and his colleagues were shocked not by the images, but by the reaction to them. “It was policy,” he says. “This was what we were supposed to be doing. We were not doing it behind closed doors and not afraid we were going to get caught. It was authorised.”

The question of authorisation is “not about how high it goes up, but about how far it goes out”, he argues. He points to an interview conducted with Dick Cheney two weeks after 9/11, in which the Vice-President spoke of working “through sort of the dark side”, operating “in the shadows”, and using “any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective”.

These remarks provoked no outrage, he says, and the American people must accept responsibility for what occurred. “I may have been the one who laid hands on people, but I did it knowing the American people were behind me, and all of us wanted it.”

Although he deems himself worthy of condemnation, he is “frustrated” by the speed at which people mete it out. “People need to take a close look at how almost predisposed we are to do these sorts of things,” he says. “Looking back now, it was almost unavoidable. When you go to war, these things happen — not because of the nature of war, but [because of] the nature of us as people. These are my mistakes, and I own them, but they were not done in isolation.”

Those he worked with were not “horrible”, he says, but “good, hon­ourable, critical-thinking peo­ple, lots of men and women of faith who believed in what they were doing; and many still believe today that what they did was justified. This is our nature, and I would hope that my narrative in some ways is re­­latable.”


PSYCHOLOGISTS called to give evidence to Congress in the wake of the scandal made reference to experiments conducted by Stanley Milgram and Philip G. Zimbardo, including the Stanford Prison Ex­­­per­iment. Fair has been left pes­sim­istic about human nature, he says. “I can’t deny that having seen what I have seen, and done what I’ve done, it’s hard for me not to suggest that we do have this inner violent nature.”

Even now, he receives letters suggesting that he not only did the right thing, but should have gone further. A recent poll suggested that nearly two-thirds of Americans believed that torture could be justified to extract information from suspected terrorists.

His account certainly resonated with other veterans, many of whom have echoed the email he received from a Vietnam veteran. “Welcome to the club, brother,” it began.

Fair is not a pacifist — “I do see a need for the military” — but longs for greater honesty in public life about what it means to have an army.

The military is “designed to break, destroy, and kill, and it needs to do that efficiently; so it needs to train people to kill”, he points out. “Society needs to recognise that the army is going to do that, and if you do send people to do those things, they are going to come home broken. There is no other way to do it. . . There is no humane way to fight a war. By very definition it is inhumane. . . There is no way to train soldiers to go into war and expect that he or she is going to come back unchanged.”

While he believes that improve­ments have been made in support for veterans, his belief is that there is “no effective treatment” for the effects of war. “I am not necessarily sure that we should want there to be. If you send someone off to war to kill and see these things, I think the expectation should be that they are going to come back broken, and that needs to be part of the decision-making process in whether or not we go to war. . .

”I disagree with those who sug­gest treatment is just not good enough, or we need to train people better. We need to change the direction of discussion.”


FAIR’s own brokenness is man­ifested in his struggle with faith, vividly depicted in the book. Preparing to interrogate prisoners, he attempts to pray but feels a “terrible sense of shame. I cannot ask God to accomp­any me into the inter­rogation booth.” The realisa­tion that, in scrip­­ture, God is “never on the side of the jailer” produces a physical reaction. “My hands shake. My face warms. I feel nauseated. The sensa­tion is terrifying. Prayer in Iraq is dangerous. I am beginning to realise I’m not on God’s path. I’m on my own.”

He speaks today of an “incredible quandary” in which prayer, med­itation, or Bible study became “a bit of a slap in the face”. He “could not be justifying what I was doing, and then suggesting I was having a conversation with God”, and so “simply ended that conversation”.

He is reluctant to accept any “self-serving” reading of scripture, such as examples of God’s using fallen men to serve his purposes, fearing that that could “explain away just about any action. . . It would be obscene to suggest that God led me down this path for a purpose to speak out against torture. I won’t own that narrative. The narrative I have to own is one of confession. I know redemption is a critical part of Christian narrative, but don’t think that is one I can write on my own.”


CHAPLAINS make brief ap­­­pear­ances in Consequence. One behaves like a drill sergeant; another tells troops to watch their language. Although Fair believes that there is a “critical” part to be played by min­isters in conversation with the military, he is adamant that the cur­rent structure, whereby US military chaplains have a rank, is wrong. Having to treat chaplains as officers, calling them “Sir”, makes a pastoral relationship “nearly impos­­sible”, he argues. A sub-plot in the book is his encounters with, and rejection of, “judgmental Chris­tianity”.

It is notable that the con­versa­tions about faith he holds in Iraq take place with fellow inter­rogators, including one who asks him to hear his confession. “You’re the one who needs to say some­thing,” the man tells him. “You’re the priest.”


CONSEQUENCE is utterly un­­­sparing, including confessions of ugly behaviour not relevant to the narrative, such as his laughter after a colleague describes a woman officer as an “ugly c***”. But, despite his commitment to laying bare the worst of his actions, there are hints in Consequence that Fair was more lenient than his colleagues. He tried to avoid duty, recommended many prisoners for release, and extracted his most useful information in exchange for cake and Coke. He was usually the witness to torture rather than the perpetrator, but concludes that this makes him “as responsible as anyone else”. His silence is sin.

“Witnessing a man tortured in the Palestinian Chair requires the witness to either seek justice, or cover his face,” he writes. “I’ll spend the rest of my life covering my face.”

Writing the book, an act of revelation, is “another dichotomy,” he says. “I still feel I covered my face in shame; but there is still an obligation to tell the world why I am covering my face.”


HE FIRST spoke out about his work in Iraq in an article for the Phila­delphia Inquirer, in 2006, in which he described the mental scars endured by veterans who were re­­turn­ing from war. In 2007, he wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post that he would never forgive himself for his actions as an interrogator. He provided his email address, and received thousands of replies. He deleted those that described him as honest and courageous. He read over and over again those that contained phrases such as “I hope you die.”

Today, he is dismissive of these previous accounts as cowardly. “Every word, every phrase, and every sentence was crafted to ensure that I did not implicate myself in anything criminal,” he writes. Consequence is a different beast. He names names, including those of his superiors, who were, he emphasises, aware of what occurred. A large part of Chapter 9, which describes his time in Baghdad, was deemed classified by the National Security Agency. The redactions make the chapter appear “far more nefarious than it actually was”, he thinks.

The memoir has received many plaudits, many reviewers singling out his honesty; but one senses that he feels uncomfortable with critical acclaim.

“I am not at all proud of the book,” he says. “It is not a good book, nor something that deserves any kind of accolade, but there was an obligation.”


CONSEQUENCE begins with a passage from Maimonides, a 12th-century Jewish philosopher: “For example, a person is not forgiven until he pays back his fellow man what he owes him and appeases him. He must placate him and approach him again and again until he is forgiven.”

Fair came across Maimonides after meeting a Jewish university chaplain, Seth Goren, who under­stood his struggle to accept forgive­ness as a gift from God, and his need to “earn my way back”. Although his Christian faith is “still a cornerstone”, his old under­standing of forgiveness feels “too easy”, he says: like “cheap grace”. The Jewish tradition had “a system in place that required effort and work, and did not offer a gua­rantee”.

He remains a “staunch Pres­byterian”, attending church in Beth­le­hem with his wife and young son, but he is “very careful about con­victions”. Iraq has forced him to “think differently” about grace, for­giveness, and redemption. This book, a confession, is part of restitu­tion, he says, but the work is far from finished, and he remains un­­certain whether it ever will be.

Consequence ends with a heart transplant, and a hint that there may be a way back, aided by listening to an old recording of his grand­mother’s Aunt Annie: another confession, of sorts. Alongside a tradition of military service in the family runs a tradition of ministry. He thinks that he may one day return to the seminary at Princeton, where he successfully applied in 2005, after leaving Iraq for the last time; in what capacity, however, he is unsure. He is reluctant to label it a calling. He completed this applica­tion while drunk, writing of his desire “to stand before God and ask him questions about all the terrible things that have happened”.

He does not rule out a return to Iraq, but thinks that it will not be for some time. “I don’t know what that would look like,” he says. “I just know it would be critical for me not to be the one talking or speaking.”


Consequence: A memoir by Eric Fair is published by Henry Holt & Co at £19.99 (CT Bookshop £18).

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