Torture—enhanced interrogation, if you prefer—is yet again a hot-button issue in American politics. For some presidential candidates, the question isn’t if they’d allow it under their leadership, but how much.
That these candidates know nothing of what they’re blustering about goes without saying. The chickenhawk is a proud American political tradition, and 2016 may indeed prove the chickenhawk’s ideal roosting.
Eric Fair knows all too well what these candidates are espousing. A U.S. Army veteran and former police officer, he joined the Iraq War effort as a government contractor in 2004. Though his military background was as a linguist, he ended up serving as an interrogator, due to his police experience and the bureaucratic demands of the war machine. He’d work in some of the war’s most notorious detention centers, such as Camp Fallujah and Abu Ghraib. He’d later deploy again to Iraq with the National Security Agency as an intelligence analyst.
It’d have been the easy choice to come home and stay quiet about what he’d seen and done in Iraq. The simpler choice, too. Eric Fair isn’t one for easy or simple choices, though. In 2007, he wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post that detailed some of his experiences abroad, and the aftereffects of those experiences on a human soul—his own. This thrust Eric into the public eye and he’s been a reluctant but vital authority on issues of military detention, interrogation, and torture ever since.
Eric’s memoir Consequence is out this week from Henry Holt and chronicles his journey from a boy growing up in Pennsylvania steel country to some of the darkest corners of American empire in the early 21st century. Consequence is one of 2016’s most significant books and one of its best. There’s a directness to Eric’s writing that sears inward and outward, not so much looking to blame or point fingers but because being forthright and truthful matters so much in a world full of deceits and untruths.
Full disclosure: I’ve known Eric since 2010, when we both joined a veterans writing workshop hosted by New York University’s MFA program. In our own ways, I think everyone there wanted to do something important with their writing, but Eric was probably the only of us who needed to. His has been a windy road, and a difficult one. I’m proud to call him a friend.
In anticipation of his book’s publication, I sat down with Eric on a pleasant spring day at Madison Square Park in New York. Here is an excerpt of our conversation.
The Daily Beast: Your journey to Iraq was a unique one. Tell us how you ended up overseas.
Eric Fair: I enlisted in the Army in 1995 in the wake of the first Gulf War and [became] an Arabic linguist. This was during the Clinton years, and the military was getting smaller, and there were very few opportunities for deployment, especially for someone with my job. So I did my tour of duty and then got out, eventually getting hired by the police department in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. A couple years into that work, I was diagnosed with a heart condition, which was absolutely devastating. I’d wanted to be a police officer for many, many years, and suddenly, my law enforcement career was over before it even got going.
This is right about when the Iraq war was ramping up in 2003. Because of the war, and because of what’d happened to me physically, there was this desperate need and feeling to regain some of myself by getting back into [the military world] somehow. I felt an obligation be a part of it all. So I found a contracting company that didn’t require a physical, and they sent me over.
In Iraq, what did you witness or participate in that you felt qualified as enhanced interrogation and/or torture? What is the difference between those two things, and who in your mind gets to determine that difference?
We take great care in this country to offer a variety of protections to citizens when they are being interviewed by law enforcement. If a citizen does agree to an interview, law enforcement can attempt to enhance their approach during that process. We call this interrogation. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights recognize the aggressive and intrusive nature of this type of questioning, and its potential for abuse. For that very reason, every citizen has the absolute right to refuse to participate in this process.
The power of this country is our example. We are supposed to be the exception to the rule. While I do not suggest that prisoners of war should be granted the same constitutional rights as a citizen, any form of questioning that encourages a prisoner to violate his own will is torture. When sleep deprivation, stress positions, confined spaces, and forced standing are used to violate a prisoner’s well being and manipulate his will, they are torture. I broke a part of myself off and forced it on these prisoners through these types of techniques. I’ll never get it back, and they’ll never be rid of it.
Interrogation is an enhanced interview. Torture is enhanced interrogation. To suggest otherwise is to question the most basic principles that define this nation.
You remember Abu Ghraib as a place, but for many American citizens, it’s a series of very disturbing images. It’s also become one of those phrases that’s a fixed part of the cultural memory of the Iraq war, like “Mission Accomplished” or “Shock and Awe” or “Surge.” What are some of your own personal experiences with this?
There’s a scene in Consequence after my first tour in Iraq, when I’d been in Abu Ghraib, Fallujah and Baghdad. I was home, and my wife and I were at a wedding just a few months after the 60 Minutes report [about Abu Ghraib]. Suddenly now this military prison halfway across the globe was part of the American lexicon. I was sitting at a table with old, close friends, and it came up in conversation that I’d spent some time there. The mood at the table changed significantly and suddenly, and I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing. In one way or another, I think a lot of veterans have had that experience. And for civilians, it’s part of the question they have of, “What do you ask [vets] about?”
It’s also strange because Abu Ghraib isn’t what I think about all these years later, not what wakes me up at night. I had a far worse time at Fallujah—the detention center there was my low point.
Circling back to the cultural memory aspect of things: for me, it’s Abu Ghraib. For others, it’s the Surge, or Sadr City, or something else. It’s just how people relate to Iraq, or war in general, or don’t relate to Iraq or don’t relate to war. I think that’s something we all have to carry with us and recognize, whether that’s fair or not.
What about your journey as a writer? You have this compact, literary style that is both understated and refined. How did that develop?
I’d been a history major [at Boston University], so writing was a necessary part of that. But the focus for me had long been law enforcement. Writing’s a tool there, too, and an important one, but not the end itself.
I didn’t decide to write about Iraq until after my second tour in 2005. It was then when I recognized that the narrative being told about things like interrogation and Abu Ghraib were completely wrong, and that other voices needed to put themselves out there to push against it. Cheney still hadn’t admitted that he’d ordered waterboarding, there was certainly no Senate Torture Report … back then, I think there was still this sense that enhanced techniques were only being used on one or two top-level detainees. I knew firsthand that wasn’t the case.
Large sections of the latter chapters of Consequence are blocked out or “redacted.” Who did that? Why?
My second tour to Iraq was with the National Security Agency [as an intelligence analyst] and you sign a nondisclosure agreement with them in the process. You also sign an agreement that says anything you publish for the rest of your life has to go through their publication review.
For this book, I had an obligation to send it pre-pub to the NSA, as part of it included my time with them. It took a few months … what you see in the finished book blocked out is what the National Security Agency deemed on some level confidential or classified. Now, my intention when writing this book was never to reveal classified information. That’s not where I was coming from at all. Do I agree with what they decided to strike? Absolutely not. Nevertheless, it was an agreement that I signed and was obligated to follow.
Don’t they realize this allows readers to put whatever preconceived notions or worst-case scenarios they want into those sections? Seriously, are they daft?
There’s an endless conversation there about unintended consequences. I’ll just leave it at that, I think.
Your upbringing as a devout Presbyterian plays a large role in the pages of Consequence, and you very openly explore the role that faith has had on your life, before, during and after Iraq. Why was that important to you?
It’s a foundational part of who I am and how I view my place in my world. And it has been my entire life, just how I was raised and how I’m raising my son now. It’s been a lifelong upbringing. I remember a youth pastor teaching me as child that faith was not this mystical experience, or not just it. Faith takes a lot of work and it takes a lot reading and care. Having that foundation helped me prepare for when things went totally wrong, which will happen one way or another to just about everybody.
Since Iraq, I will say that I’m far more cautious to suggest that my faith gives me any sort of right or privilege to tell anyone else what they’re doing is right or wrong. Approaching my faith with this type of humility is something I learned to do more of over time.
“I want him to be comfortable in the quiet.” This is my favorite line in a book full of beautiful writing. It’s about your son and his own developing faith, but what does Being Comfortable in the Quiet mean to you now, as a person, father and author?
Growing up in the Bethlehem community, the Presbyterian Church had this beautiful choir, a very well known choir, at least in our area. Bethlehem Steel had purchased this beautiful pipe organ for the church many years before … anyhow, every Sunday, they’d put on this incredible, incredible performance. Afterwards, though, there’d be nothing but silence. You were not to applaud or express outward admiration. And if you did, you were looked upon as someone who didn’t quite know what they were doing. The idea was that you modeled everything in your life after this approach—you don’t do things for show, or with expectations of affirmation. You simply just had to be comfortable in the quiet, and had to be willing to listen, and listen in a way that meant actually hearing what others were saying, rather than just waiting for your turn to speak.
The theological side of that quiet is when a person can experience God, or the Holy Spirit, or something spiritual, or what have you. Those moments of quiet are when we all chart our course of life, whatever it may be. And that’s what I want for my son.
“War stories aren’t for me.” We’ve talked before about hearing that from friends and readers alike. What’s your response to that sort of mindset, especially in regards to Consequence?
Well, certainly a reader can make their own decision, but I’m of the thought that war stories are, unfortunately, for everyone. That’s particularly the case in a country such as ours, a democracy, a republic. On some level there’s an obligation to be engaged with some war stories … that doesn’t mean that people have to read mine, but I think that if someone wants to self-identify as well informed, and well-read, and as a good citizen of the country, you need to interact and encounter this stuff. Literature is just one way to do that.