Consequence: A Memoir is the confession of a good man who became complicit in evil. Eric Fair, an American and a Christian with a strong sense of vocation to God and country, found himself working as an interrogator in Iraq, where he became involved in torture and war crimes. With unflinching honesty and a total absence of self-pity, Fair tells the story of his time as a private contractor tasked with extracting intelligence from Iraqi detainees during the American occupation of the mid-2000s. While never asking for our sympathy, he shows how a seemingly decent person can continue to make compromises and excuses for their moral failures until they find themselves in a spiritually catastrophic place.
Born to a middle class family in a depressed Pennsylvania steel town, Eric Fair was a timid child who found a refuge in his family’s Presbyterian church. While he became more robust in high school, his childhood left him with a profound respect for protector figures and a sense that he had a calling to a career in law enforcement. In 1995, after university, Fair chose enlistment in the army as a brief means to an end, since training as a military policeman would make him an attractive candidate to civilian police departments. Instead he was selected to become a linguist in Arabic.
In describing his time as a young NCM in the Army, as a member of a conservative church, and as a civilian police officer, Fair reveals a sense of disquiet and even alienation from cultures that were intolerant and violent. The murder of a soldier in his unit, who was suspected to be gay, haunts him. The violence of being a street cop proves disillusioning, while the judgemental culture of his church culture alienates him. As he finds himself estranged from the institutions and ideals that gave him his moral purpose, Fair struggles to find purpose and meaning in his life.
In 2003, a diagnosed heart defect left Fair unemployable as a policeman. By then the second Iraq War is underway, and friends are encouraging Fair to go there as an Arab linguist, while his wife is encouraging him to go to seminary because she admires his sense of compassion and thinks he would be a good pastor. Driven by his sense that he was called to serve and protect his country, he begins to research civilian contractors and government agencies that might employ him as a linguist. “I don’t listen to Karin, and I don’t listen to the voices telling me to be patient, or consider changing course. I apply to seminary to appease these voices and silence the advice. In the meantime, I chart my own path back. I intend to make Iraq the first step”.
It’s not uncommon to see men, still young and vigorous, who deny the betrayal of their bodies after a heart attack or similar illness. In 2003, as the US was hiring a legion of civilian employees to administer Iraq, it was easy for Fair to get hired without a medical exam. While he may have wanted to recover his self-image as a soldier and protector, the disorganized and unprofessional nature of his private-sector employer troubles him. He is assigned to Abu Ghraib, a former prison of the Saddam regime now used to warehouse the many Iraqis being rounded up in US sweeps, where Fair’s job will be to interrogate these men and decide who poses a threat. The assignment fills him with dismay and leads him to this disturbing revelation:
“In Scripture, God often works in prisons, but he is never on the side of the jailer. He is always on the side of the prisoner. The realization brings on 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 realize that I’m not on God’s path. I’m on my own.”
What happened in Abu Ghraib is well known. While Fair was not involved in the worst excesses that were documented in now-infamous images, he is honest about his own role there. Extreme methods of interrogation, including sleep deprivation, stress positions, and physical intimidation, were standard and he participated in them. Fair’s time in Iraq, his return to the US and subsequent physical and mental collapse are honestly described and make for harrowing reading. In 2006 he spoke to the media about his role in Iraq and was involved in the US government investigations into torture in Iraq. Some of the final pages of the book are redacted, the blocks of black ink testifying to the official secrecy and even guilt that lingers over this period.
An opening quotation from the medieval Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, seems to signal Fair’s purpose. Maimonides wrote that “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”. The reader may struggle to decide if he or she is indeed placated, or if Fair is even seeking our forgiveness. At times the book feels like nothing more than an extended confession, to which our task is only to bear witness. In April of this year, after the book was published, Fair told National Public Radio that while his book offers “long discussions about why those things happened ... and how difficult it was to sort of break from those expectations of being a soldier … none of that matters. I made horrible mistakes. ... I have a responsibility to confess those things openly."
For military chaplains, Fair’s book offers much food for thought. It invites us to reflect on the vanities that may lie concealed in our sense of vocations, and whether our projects and identities come from ambition rather than true calling. Fair’s confession shows how easy it can be to rationalize our involvement with evil, and how we can compound the moral damage by cutting ourselves off from God when we persuade ourselves that our prayers are unworthy of him. Finally, as moral and ethical advisors in these dangerous and alarmed times, Fair reminds chaplains of the need for truthful language about how we humans injure one another, rather than using dishonest words such as “enhanced interrogation”. As Fair told NPR, “I think that the minute you violate another human being's will … we have an obligation to call that torture.” [i]