Pushcart 2014: Eric Fair, “Consequence” (non-fiction) from Ploughshares , Nov/Dec 2012

"Abu Ghraib" by Richard Senna (2004)

“Abu Ghraib” by Richard Senna (2004)

I enter my name into a search engine. There are 3,700 results. The word torture appears in most of them. I read the blogs. I read the comments that follow. I find more blogs. I pretend that those don’t bother me either. I check my email: thirty-eight new messages.

Mr. Fair, I’m not at all sure why you have your panties in a twist. It seems clear that you were a willing participant in the interrogation process in Iraq. This is old news. 

A disturbing essay. First, I was disturbed over the events related. Then, I was disturbed over my reaction to the motives behind the essay – and finally, disturbed that I was disturbed. And I still don’t know what to think. Fair’s piece is available online (thank you, Utne) if you’d like to see what I mean. I highly recommend it to anyone who’s ever wondered about right and wrong – and especially to those who already know exactly what right and wrong are, because I’m still trying to figure it out.

Eric Fair served in the military from 1995 to 2000 as a linguist. In 2004, he returned to Iraq as a civilian contractor. An interrogator. In places like Abu Ghraib and Fallujah.

I talk about Abu Ghraib. I talk about the detainees. None of them would cooperate….But the rockets and mortars kept coming. Sometimes they killed detainees, melted their bodies into a mash of blood and flesh. IEDs killed our friends.
And so we deprived detainees of sleep, or made them stand for long periods of time, or shoved them or grabbed them or manipulated their diets. We blared loud music, kept them cold, kept them lonely, kept them scared….
Then I went to Fallujah. It was worse. More people were dying. My friend was standing net to a car. It detonated. He disappeared. They found parts of him the next ay. We detained and deprived and grabbed and shoved and isolated and abused as best we could.

First level of disturbance: This is hideous, and I’m not an innocent bystander here. This was done by my government, so it was done in my name. The blood is on my hands, too. And, if you’re an American, on yours. Not necessarily for the events as they happened, since they happened under cover of war – but at least for the lack of reckoning.

I know there are those who feel, if it saves one American service member, it’s worth it. If it prevents another car bomb, another 9/11 (which had nothing to do with Iraq but it all got mixed up accidentally on purpose to serve political agendas), then torture is worth it, and we’ll call it “enhanced interrogation” and claim it’s legal and when it isn’t we’ll talk about forgiveness until it goes away. I’m not one of those people, but I can understand how, if I came from a military family, I might be. I also understand how it might provide a convenient cover for racism and xenophobia.

The primary frame of the essay is the reaction to his 2007 WaPo op-ed, ” An Iraq Interrogator’s Nightmare”, in which he owned up to his conduct (“I cannot ignore the mistakes I made at the interrogation facility in Fallujah…. I compromised my values. I will never forgive myself.”) and advocates “opening the book” – addressing the issue, instead of sweeping it under the rug because so many aren’t sure they really, truly want it any other way. Seems like a lot of those people didn’t like the idea of opening the book.

Seems a lot of other people thought he had a lot of nerve to play for sympathy as a victim when he was a victimizer. Second level of disturbance: I think I’m one of those other people.

Third level of disturbance: But I’m not sure.

In this essay, Fair again writes about his time as a contractor – I get the impression it was fairly short, under a year – in the way soldiers write about battlefield horrors. The essay interweaves recollections of his experience with his enrollment in Princeton Theological Seminary, and calls to mind PTSD – nightmares, insomnia, flashbacks. He includes the reaction to his WaPo article as part of the trauma. I get one negative comment on a post and I fret for days. I can’t imagine what I’d do with 3,700 emails, knowing that in a controversial situation, people are more likely to write a stranger out of anger than sympathy. Or out of confusion.

Dear Eric, I don’t know what to think… no, that’s not an email I’d send. But it’s a blog post I’d write, here in my own obscure corner of the internet.

I absolutely, positively believe torture is wrong, and it’s something I don’t want my country doing in my name. But I’m not sure it’s that simple. I don’t know where it crosses the line – threats? Physical discomfort? Violation of social taboos? Or do you have to hook up electrodes to the genitals before we call it torture? What about that if-it-saves-one-soldier thing? What if that soldier were my spouse, my sibling, my child? Of course I’d feel differently. I’d feel differently about the death penalty if my loved one had been the victim, but that’s retribution, not justice; justice is supposed to lift us to a higher moral level so we also consider, what if the detainee were my loved one, then design a fair system that applies to both situations. A line from The West Wing I’ve always remembered: “You’re the good guys. You should act like it.” If we – America – want to keep thinking of ourselves as The Good Guys, we need to act like it.

But is it Eric Fair’s fault, or is he just one of the guys following orders? We already know how well that defense plays. And he wasn’t some scared 18-year-old who had no idea what jungle or desert “serving my country” would land him in or what job duties it would entail so he slavishly clung to his CO in a strange land to survive. He’d been in the military for 5 years, and he signed on for this gig as a civilian contractor (for what I’m guessing would’ve been better pay, by the way). But after all, he did quit. When he’d had enough. Too bad the prisoners he tortured didn’t have the same option.

Can you see what I mean when I talk about levels of disturbance? I can’t even agree with myself through one paragraph.

I recently became aware of research into the “hot-cold empathy gap” proposed by Dr. George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University: “When people are in an affectively ‘cold’ state, they fail to fully appreciate how ‘hot’ states will affect their own preferences and behavior” (2005 Health Psychology Vol 24, No 4(Suppl) S49-S56). It’s easy to start a diet “tomorrow” after you’ve finished the dessert course (the “cold” state); once you get hungry, or get a craving – the “hot” state – it’s just as easy to find excuses to let you out of that vow. Sitting here in my living room, or watching the war on TV, reading commentary in newspapers, is a “cold” state. Trudging into a prison in Fallujah to face a prisoner right after my friend was just smeared all over the landscape by an IED is about as hot as a “hot” state gets. I know what I hope I’d do, but is that the same as what I’d do? I can hope so. Or I can not take the job that forces me to find out. Lots of kids are in the military because they have few choices. Eric Fair seems to have had more choices than most, seeing as he went from Fallujah to Princeton.

I meet with a PhD student from South Africa. He is working on his dissertation and wants to talk to me about forgiveness. He tells me about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that followed apartheid. Men were granted amnesty in return for their confessions. He believes we should consider the same thing in this country. He thinks I would be a good candidate for such a process. The other option, he says, is Nuremberg-style trials. He doesn’t think that’s a good idea. But there must be consequences, he insists. Forgiveness requires consequence.

Eric Fair broke no laws. He was operating under the aegis of the US Government which is created of, by, for the people of the United States. That Government seems to have invented its own form of consequence and forgiveness: “It’s just too damn complicated and we’re still at war and we’re going to be at war again so would everyone please shut up and let us – the 1% of Americans who serve – conduct war to win war so you 99% can all sit at home and watch it on your TV.” He has become an outspoken advocate of Truth and Reconciliation for real – and against torture as US military policy. And if along the way, he has nightmares – or you feel sorry for his insomnia – or you scorn his flashbacks – maybe that’s his Consequence. Is it enough? Do those he abused think it’s enough? And what were their stories – why did they do what they did?

A disturbing essay. I can think of no higher compliment, and no better reason for every American to read it.


One response to “Pushcart 2014: Eric Fair, “Consequence” (non-fiction) from Ploughshares , Nov/Dec 2012

  1. Pingback: Pushcart 2014: The End | A Just Recompense

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