The American Soldiers Who Tortured in Bush's Wars Are Starting to Write About It
On May 16, journalist Michael Isikoff reported that the CIA inspector general’s office, the agency’s internal watchdog, admitted to “mistakenly” destroying its only copy of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s infamous 6,700-page torture report. While another copy is reported to exist elsewhere in the agency, little else is known about its integrity or its whereabouts. The document contains detailed records of CIA memos pertaining to “enhanced interrogation” techniques sanctioned by the Bush administration for its War on Terror (the Senate released a 500-page summary of the report in December 2014). This mishap, according to the inspector general’s office, was a one-two punch of bureaucratic mismanagement: first the digital file containing the report was deleted, then a hard drive was destroyed. It’s a familiar reminder of how rare it is for military personnel to divulge valuable information in the public interest, even under sustained pressure from journalists, citizens, and non-profits. Instead, these disclosures have become the purview of whistleblowers, and at great personal risk. The kinds of state-sanctioned confessions, or “military memoirs,” that do make it to the press almost never contain new revelations—nothing the CIA would ever bother to misplace. So they must rely on other tools to raise public consciousness, like self-reflection, criticism, and sentence structure. Unfortunately these confessions are usually as poorly written as the government’s official fictions.
Now that the Bush-era wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have dragged on for well over a decade, many of its soldiers are returning home to publish records of their time in the service. A 2012 New York Times article on the rising popularity of military memoirs attributed their success to the vividness of these heroic tales. In the last few years the market has been saturated with first-person accounts of patriotic soldiers and generals that showcase qualities advertised by the military itself—like obedience, tenacity, leadership, and daring. The most propulsive success among them has been former U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s 2012 memoir of his highly lethal career, the source for Clint Eastwood’s movie American Sniper
Eric Fair’s new memoir, Consequence, hews closely to this confessional genre, but with a twist: Fair feels deep remorse. In 2004, Fair was working as an interrogator for the private military contractor CACI, first in Abu Ghraib, then Fallujah (he made the transition in April, just as the media began publishing the infamous photographs of American soldiers proudly torturing Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib). Fair has already admitted to witnessing and participating in some of these acts—first in a February 2007 Washington Post op-ed. Later that year he gave a full account of his days as an interrogator to a lawyer from the Department of Justice. He was not prosecuted. If no new information about American torture is contained in the book and Fair has not gambled his legal status in writing it, what, then, are its consequences?
One of the many discussions the Abu Ghraib revelations reignited concerned the stakes of representing atrocity, whether with photographs, memoir, or official reports. To say such records are merely “powerful” or “true” may be a fine start, but it cannot be the final word. How should an audience receive such work? The artist and writer Coco Fusco posits in her 2008 book on the sexual politics of imagery arising out of Abu Ghraib—A Guide For Female Interrogators—that representations of war do more than merely inform us: they also form us as political subjects. “War is something more than the experience of it on the ground,” Fusco writes, “and the factual and fictional representations of war do their work on us by coaxing us to accept, decry, or ignore it.”
Such portrayals can give the impression that the resolution of atrocity hinges on the moment the audience engages with its representation, when, in fact, these conflicts are ongoing: legal battles over the release of government torture reports; a Republican presidential candidate who thinks U.S. forces should use torture techniques that, “go tougher than waterboarding”; a systemic failure to hold known perpetrators accountable; a global war on terror characterized by ever-multiplying threats and complexity. When the writer Maggie Nelson considers the Abu Ghraib photographs in her 2011 The Art of Cruelty, she urges the reader to think around the representation. “[I]s it really the looking that’s so hard?” she asks. “Or is it all the work that looking at atrocity doesn’t do.”
The stakes for reading a book written by a perpetrator of atrocity that is advertised as such, and from which he stands to benefit financially, are high, but coverage of Consequence has not grappled with issues of language and representation. Fair’s readers have reacted to his book in a form and tone similar to that with which a growing mainstream audience renders accounts by oil-war foot soldiers and cool-headed desk murderers unimpeachable. Its reviews rely upon a template for interpreting confessional memoirs, suggesting that in the face of such courage—the courage to recount violence witnessed and carried out—we should all be left breathless. In the Washington Post, J. Kael Weston wrote of Fair’s “brave admissions. This fact alone makes his candid account distinctive and far more commendable than the general run of the mill war memoirs.” If this is Fair’s audience’s automatic reaction to his book, then it’s not clear to me how he is taking on more of a risk in telling his story than a pro-torture American hero appearing on Fox News. Weston goes on to laud the book for “gratefully leav[ing] out politicized commentary.”
Outside of his book, in interviews with outlets like Democracy Now! and NPR, Fair has unequivocally condemned torture. At the same time, he often contradicts himself. He’s said that in 2004 he was both just carrying out orders and believed in what he was doing. At different moments he’s explained that he was “dipping his toe” into the role of torturer and that hierarchies of torture techniques shouldn’t matter. NPR’s Terry Gross asked Fair about his return to Iraq in May 2005, as an analyst for the NSA. Nearly a year after the Abu Ghraib torture scandal broke and Fair quit his job with CACI, he pushed for a position with the NSA in Iraq—he still believed in the war and was determined to replace his memories of torture cells “with something better.” This portion of the book, heavily redacted, strongly suggests that he witnessed and perhaps carried out acts of torture yet again. Fair told Gross he has no intention of revealing classified information against the orders of the NSA and that he reveres the agency as a whole.
But Fair’s book does not even contain this level of analysis (ambiguous though it may be) or explanation in hindsight. Every sentence places the reader in the mindset of an ingratiating soldier who keeps his mouth shut and his mind as blank as possible. Fair tells the story in placid prose, haunting and grim because of the information contained therein and its detached delivery. “I learn to leave the room during the worst of the sounds,” Fair writes of his experience interrogating prisoners at Abu Ghraib. “I place a hood over my detainees, secure their feet to the iron loop in the floor, and abandon them to their own imaginations. I sit outside in the quiet. I return and remove the hood.” This chilling recitation exudes the consciousness of a man who is still, in many ways, just following orders. It’s a missed opportunity for reflection.
I’m not interested in denouncing Fair. But I question whether telling one’s story is inherently brave or valuable and why it should lend the narrative some special, unassailable authority. Not all interrogations are superficial displays of power like those depicted in the book; it is possible to ask more of writing than the paranoid revelation of what we already knew. And I can tell you this for a fact: there are many people with book deals who aren’t brave.
Hannah Arendt wrote in her essay “Understanding and Politics” that bad books make good weapons, the purpose of which is to settle certain political, moral arguments once and for all. Fair’s sentences are syncopated and unswerving like the footsteps of marching soldiers. They blaze a path forward but do not ask why. They are simple, staccato, nearly always begin with a subject pronoun, and are free of poetic devices or attempts to inhabit other perspectives. These are the hallmarks of clichÃ©, not understanding. At worst, they coax the reader into a shallow and gratifying identification with Fair. He is a hero for telling his story, she is a hero for reading it, and the book gets a medal. But to be critical of the American regime, it is not enough to recount, firsthand, the facts of atrocity. If this were the case, we’d need the permission of perpetrators to believe that torture were possible, and dissent would dry up every time the government accidentally corrupted a damning file. And we don’t, and it doesn’t. If Fair had affirmed this in writing his book, it would have been of greater consequence.