Orders, Truth and Torture at Abu Ghraib

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Illustration By Scott Waters
“Domestic Violence: A7”

I enter my name in 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 those don’t bother me either. I check email; 38 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, as a civilian contractor, in the interrogation process in Iraq. This is old news. 

I navigate back to the opinion page of The Washington Post. The comments section is still growing. More than 800 now. I read the new ones and some of the old ones, too. I read my article again. I check email; 57 new messages.

Eric, your words are empty and hollow. I do not accept a single one of them. But let me offer you a suggestion if you want to do the honorable thing: kill yourself. Leave a note. Name names. Until that day, I hope you never sleep another hour for the rest of your life. 

I keep pretending not to be bothered. Then I drink. In the mornings, I pretend to have slept. I watch Sarah drive off to work. We both pretend our marriage isn’t suffering. During the day I pack boxes; we are moving to Princeton. I’ll be studying at the seminary, pursuing ministry in the Presbyterian Church. I hope no one there reads the article.

The admission office calls. I speak with the Dean. “I can’t get most students to read a newspaper let alone appear in one,” he says. “Maybe your time in Iraq will become part of your ministry.”

I enter the seminary’s administration building to file paperwork for my veterans’ benefits. I am early. The office is closed. Other students wait with me. I avoid them. I look at the pictures on the walls. They are black and white, taken during the Civil War. There is a grainy photo of Brown Hall with a blurred image of a student walking across the quad. I wonder if he is a veteran of Antietam or Gettysburg. I wonder if he knew Andersonville or Camp Douglas.

I enroll in a summer language class. I study Greek in order to read the New Testament more effectively. It reminds me of the Army. I studied Arabic in order to interrogate Arabs more effectively. I settle into a life of muggy morning walks to class, followed by chilly afternoons in the seminary library. I arrive on campus in the early morning, review my homework, attend class, eat lunch, and then spend the rest of the afternoon memorizing verb chants and case endings. I return home in the early evening, tell Sarah about the day, eat dinner, watch the news, get drunk, and read emails with subject lines like Iraq, interrogation, and torture.

Mr. Fair, I still have a .45 caliber 1911. I suspect you know the firearm. I’d loan it to you gleefully if you get really depressed. And I’d happily take whatever legal consequence might come my way for having done so. You’d be doing the world a favor by removing yourself from the gene pool.  With revulsion at the subhuman you and others like you surely are.

I get to know my fellow students. There is a children’s book author from Boston, a mathematician from Los Angeles, a youth worker from Kansas, an actor from New York City, and a former NFL lineman from Florida. One is a recent graduate from college. One has been traveling in Europe. One is middle-aged. One is retired. There is not a single veteran among them.

I say nothing about Iraq. I mention it in passing that I’d served in the Army, worked as a police officer and then gone on to consult for the U.S. government, but I never mention the words Iraq, contractor, interrogator, or Abu Ghraib.

As Greek consumes my mornings and afternoons in Princeton, Abu Ghraib dominates what remains of my day. I return home to the apartment and field phone calls from reporters in Philadelphia, filmmakers from Norway, psychologists from Boston, authors from the world of academia, lawyers from Amnesty International, and investigators from the Department of Justice.

Someone tells me to speak with a lawyer. The lawyer tells me not to speak with anyone. He tells me not to antagonize the government. He tells me to be honest. He tells me he will keep me out of prison. He tells me to focus on Greek. He arranges a meeting.

I tell my professor I am sick. I put away verb charts, participles, and lexicons, board a train for Washington D.C., and meet with Department of Justice lawyers and Army investigators in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. I disclose everything. I provide pictures, letters, names, firsthand accounts, locations, and techniques. I talk about the hard site at Abu Ghraib, and I talk about the interrogation facility in Fallujah. I talk about what I did, what I saw, what I knew, and what I heard. I ride the train back to Princeton. I start drinking more. Sarah takes notice. I tell her to go to Hell.

There is a break before the start of the fall semester. The campus is quiet. I spend time alone in the seminary library. I read Karl Barth and Reinhold Neibhur. I read C.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I read Kurt Vonnegut. I pretend I will make a good Presbyterian pastor someday.

The semester begins. I enroll in a preaching class. One week we study poetry. I memorize a poem and perform it in front of other students. The professor asks me to read lines over again. My pace is too fast. I haven’t stressed the right words. “Like a devil’s sick of sin.” It still isn’t right. I say it again. “Good,” he says. “Bring that energy to the pulpit.”

I make new friends. None of them read newspapers. I join a flag football team. I agree to volunteer as a referee. I show up for a game, don my striped shirt and blow the whistle. Players from both teams are furious. I am a terrible referee. One player is particularly incensed. He approaches me, grabs my shirt, pulls me toward him, and then shoves me to the side. “See, see, this is what they’re doing. They can’t do this. It’s called holding!”

In Fallujah I am grabbing a detainee, shoving him to the side, moving him through a line of Iraqis who have just been taken from the battlefield. Some are still bleeding. One is missing part of his face. We are processing them, sorting them into groups for future interrogation. Well-dressed ones to the right, shabby looking ones to the left, faceless ones to the medic. The well-dressed ones are likely men of influence. The shabby ones are the pawns. But the shabby ones never seem to understand directions. They just stand there looking dumb. So we grab them and shove them and push them.

I return to the apartment after the game and find Sarah. I tell her about the student who shoved me. I tell her I will kill him. I am angry. I am yelling. I am yelling at Sarah. Thirty minutes later I am still angry. I am still yelling at Sarah. I say something terrible. I leave to my whiskey.

Mr. Fair, I am a former WWII vet. You think you saw hell, well pal let me tell you that you haven’t seen anything that bad. Don’t be ashamed, you did your job. What you saw was no worse than some college fraternity initiation ritual. Have a good life and sleep well from now on.

I visit the seminary chaplain. She directs me to the office of student counseling. There is a questionnaire with multiple-choice questions. I elaborate on additional sheets of paper. The head counselor calls the next day. She will see me personally. We meet. We talk about terrible things. She tells me I am smiling. She calls it a defense mechanism. I tell her more terrible things. I ask her if she thinks I am a terrible person. She smiles. She says no.

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.

In the spring I appear on “Radio Times,” a PBS radio program out of Philadelphia. I skip a class on systematic theology and drive into the city. Calls are taken from listeners. Many have questions about my motivations for going public, some want to know what can be done to prevent future abuses, and others think I haven’t gone far enough. Some ask about torture, others about seminary. Someone wants to know what I think about Dick Cheney. The last caller is screened by the producer during a brief promotional break. He is angry. The producer wants to know if I am comfortable fielding his questions. I accept. He asks me if I believe in Hell.

Eric, I hope you burn in hell for the rest of your life, you son of a bitch. You’re a piece of shit.

Later that spring, I attend a conference titled No2Torture at Columbia Seminary in Georgia. The conference is attended by notable members of the anti-torture movement within the Presbyterian Church. The speaker list includes Lucy Mashua, a torture survivor from Kenya. She has endured female genital circumcision, forced marriage, and then additional abuse for speaking out. She is there to speak for the victims of torture. I am there to speak for those who tortured them.

We then break into small groups. Each group has a large placard on the wall in front of a table to identify its purpose. My placard reads “Victims and Perpetrators.” Lucy, the victim, sits across from me. We are surrounded by other participants who want to hear what Lucy and I have to say. We say nothing. A photographer approaches. We stand for a picture. People gather to watch. Someone says it is a vision of Heaven: victim and torturer hand in hand. We are not hand in hand.

I sit and listen to the speakers. They talk about torture. They talk about the Roman Empire and the early Christians. They talk about Just War and The Doctrine of Last Resort. They talk about Nazis. Then I am introduced. I read my article. They applaud.

Mr. Fair, you should be tried for treason. I hope that terrorist in your dreams catches up with you and reminds you that he is there to kill Americans including you. You have disgraced the uniform you once wore.

Back at Princeton, I interview for a summer internship. A church is looking for someone to run its youth program and preach on a set number of Sundays. We talk about my background, my education, and my interests. They ask about my first year at Princeton. I try to talk about class, but they read newspapers, so they ask about Iraq. They say I should preach about war. We talk about interrogation. They are interested. They ask more questions. I am tired, so I answer them.

I talk about Abu Ghraib. I talk about the detainees. None of them would cooperate. None of them would work with us. None of them would tell the truth. They all pretended to be farmers or mechanics or fisherman. They pretended to be drivers or cooks or clerks. No one was Republican Guard. They all hated Saddam. They all supported America. No one was hiding weapons in their backyards or explosives in the irrigation canals. None of them knew anything about the teams of men burying artillery rounds in the highway. They insisted it was all a misunderstanding. But the rockets and mortars kept coming. Incoming rounds killed detainees, melted their bodies into a mash of blood and pus. 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. It made some of them cooperate. Maybe it would work on others, too.

Then I went to Fallujah. It was worse. More people were dying. My friend was standing next to a car. It detonated. He disappeared. They found parts of him the next day. We detained and deprived and grabbed and shoved and isolated and abused as best we could.

I grew weary. I went back to Baghdad. It was quiet there. I thought about where I’d been. I thought about what I’d done. I quit. I went home. I applied to seminary. I published an article in The Washington Post.

The interview ends. I return home. The nightmares are waiting on me. I dull them as best I can. The church calls me the following week and offers me the job.

In Iraq, I attend chapel. I recite The Lord’s Prayer, take communion, and say The Apostles’ Creed. The Chaplain offers a benediction.

May the Lord bless you and keep you.

May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you.

May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

I review the next interrogation. It will be the youngest brother again. He frightens easily. I tell him I will protect him. I tell him he will remain anonymous. I cover his head with a burlap sack. I muzzle his father and brothers with strips of duct tape and file them into the room. I tell him a confession will free his family. It won’t. It works. I remove the sack. He cries.

I pretend not to be bothered.

Eric Fair is a graduate of Boston University and a veteran of The United States Army. He is a participant in NYU’s Veterans Writing Workshop. Excerpted from Ploughshares (Spring 2012), an award-winning quarterly literary magazine from Emerson College.

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