May 14, 2012

Name: Eric Fair
Returned from: Iraq
Hometown: Bethlehem, PA

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 those don’t bother me either. I check e-mail, 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, 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 eight hundred now. I read the new ones and some of the old ones too. I read my article again. I check e-mail, fifty-seven 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 admissions 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 charts and case endings. I return home in the early evening, tell Sarah about the day, eat dinner, watch the news, get drunk, and read e-mails 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 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.

I sit for my final Greek exam in August. It is a passage from Paul’s letter to the people of Thessalonica.

You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition.

I am not one of the believers in Thessalonica. I am one of the abusers at Philippi.

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 Niebuhr. 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 buy 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.

The hour is up. The interview ends. I am the first of two guests that morning. The next hour is about to start. I remove my headphones, gather my notes, and move out of the way. The producer meets me outside the studio and thanks me for my time. She leads me out a back door to the guest parking lot. It closes and locks behind me.

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 entitled No2Torture at Columbia Seminary in Georgia. The conference is attended by notable members of the antitorture 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 break into small groups. Each group has a large placard placed 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 fishermen. 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 the following week and offers me the job.

Near the end of the semester, a BBC camera crew follows me around for the day. “Act normal,” the producer says. I stand in front of smart-looking buildings. I sit at a desk and pretend to read. I sit with a friend at lunch and pretend to have a conversation. I enter the chapel and pretend to pray. The crew sets up chairs on the main quad for an interview. I am illuminated by two large spotlights. In the background, the senior class sits for its graduation picture. I see them pointing at the lights.

Eventually, I quit.

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 go to work. 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.


This article originally appeared in Ploughshares.


Mr. Fair,

I just read your Sandbox posting and felt compelled to add a comment. It may not help you or the situation you've been trying to live through, but for what it's worth, I wish you well. Were I not agnostic I would be moved to say and pray ‘God help us all’. Your suffering is, to me, powerful validation of holding that if there is a power above the human level, it is not God. I can only say, as one mortal to another, I hope you will find peace in life. If there is some sort of cosmic justice, Karma or whatever, you must be balancing the scales and more.


Thanks for your article. I found the WaPo article at and believe your chagrin at failing to take action is/was honest. The critics who wrote those hateful comments and emails diminish themselves. I hope you find peace and get whatever help you need.

Best wishes.

"There have been times lately when I dearly wish that I could change the past. Well, I can't, but I can change the present, so that when it becomes the past it will turn out to be a past worth having." Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight.

Mr. Fair, I tried to send you an email, but was glad to see that the account listed on the Washington Post no longer accepts messages. I hope that you can find forgiveness in the Presbyterian Church and can find a way to make the present better, so that it will become a past worth having.

Mr. Fair,

You did what you did so that I wouldn't have to.

I am more troubled that it has hurt you than anything else.

Thank you.

Jeff Sobel

Mr. Fair,

Your eloquence and honesty in telling your story lend a very human face to the horrors of what you have been through. Much as Stanley Milgram's research showed how normal people would do horrible things with very little inducement, the descriptions you provide of your experiences stand as a warning to how naturally those circumstances can arise.

While you seem to bear the brunt of much righteous anger, I hope you (and those who wish you ill) also recognize that you are as deserving of sincere compassion as those who were victimized.

May we all learn from this tragedy and seek out ways to avoid it's recurrence. Your voice seems a powerful tool to that end.

Thank you,

--Miles Noell

Mr. Fair

It bothers me greatly, that some people have sent you such disgusting
E-mails. They have no right to criticize you for what you did in the interrogations. So - you roughed up a few guys who had been taken prisoner by the troops in the field - big deal! If the situation was reversed, and they held you prisoner - then they would have sold you to Al Qaeda. Then AQ would probably have cut off your head and posted it on You Tube!

Don't worry about it. The info you extracted during those interrogations probably helped to save the lives of some of our troops on the ground. The men whom you interrogated were eventually sent back out on the street. It isnot like theywere permenately maimed or anything.

Be proud of your service - don't be ashamed!

I salute your service and wish you the best in the future. My advice is to minimize your booze intake - don't take solace in the bottle - that will ruin your life. Talk to your wife instead!

Good Luck

Randy Henkle


thank you for your service. Its not right that people want to blame you for doing what you could do in order to save the lives of soldiers that would otherwise be blown up by IEDs. It was a job that was supposed to be unpleasant, anyone who enjoyed these kind of interrogations would be someone that i would not trust around children. But it needed to be done. You of all people should know that you did what needed to be done. You couldnt save that one buddy of yours, but you saved countless others and through your actions sent fathers and husbands back to their families stateside. The fact that you feel bad about doing what needed to be done proves that you are not a bad person. The fools who judged you and said things intended to increase your burden prove that they are themselves unworthy of the Christian ideals that they (probably) profess to believe in. I wish that i was a good enough Christian to bring myself to feel sorry for them, but instead i must struggle not to hate them for having their heads shoved so far up their own posteriors.

all the troubles of the world are not your responsibility, make your wife your proirity and try not to let all this other stuff drag you down anymore than it already has.

Best wishes,

Dear Mr. Fair,

Thank you for your article. You give us some glimpse of the true costs of war -- the lives twisted or destroyed on both sides, regardless of the justifications. I do not mean to say all wars can or should be avoided, but I do mean we need to face the reality of what war is. And of course that holds most strongly for those who would start wars.

I respect you for trying to come to terms with this, and to make what amends you can by telling the truth.

I do not mean to say all wars can or should be avoided, but I do mean we need to face the reality of what war is. And of course that holds most strongly for those who would start wars.

May you one day visit Heaven to live

Dear Mr. Fair,

I'm not usually the commenting kind, but I was so moved by your essay. You have bared yourself to the world in order to attempt to make the world a better place, which is an act of great bravery and conscience.

The last thing you probably need is another blog comment - but it's not up to me to judge you. I feel nothing but compassion for you, and I truly believe God forgives you.

My prayers for you being able to get through every day. One step at a time.

Mr. Fair wrote in the Washington Post:

"The violence raging there today is evidence that those tactics never worked. My memories are evidence that those tactics were terribly wrong."

Those of you who think something useful comes from such things don't get it. The US government asked its soldiers and sailors to do things against their conscience and also paid private contractors to do so. Now the same government - even though it has a new president / executive branch - continues those same policies. NOTHING GOOD CAN COME OF THIS. It is poisoned fruit from a poisoned tree.

Mr. Fair, thank you for sharing. It is the first step down the healing path. Maybe it will be the same path as the Episcopal Bishop George Packard. Maybe it will not. But take your anger out on the government and corporations that turned your spirit against its true self. Your wife knows this of you and it sounds to me she is hoping you return to that center. But don't drive her away from your side with anger and drink. Love is an even harder thing to lose.

Mr. Fair,

God bless you. I am not wise enough to judge you. Thank you for doing what you thought and think was best, and may you have peace. We have to leave those places, and I pray we can do it in the best way and time, for us, for the poor b-----ds putting up with us over there, and for all mankind.

Why is everyone gushing to absolve him of everything? He has to live with what he did; is it punishment enough? I hope so.

Dear sir,

Just wanted to tell you that I admire your honesty and decision to change what you were doing. We all make mistakes and do wrong, what matters is that we take responsibility and try to improve ourselves and make up for our actions. As far as I'm concerned I would be honoured to have you as my minister and/or friend. I hope that you will have more positive and pleasant experiences from now on.

Ps. To all the haters: Read the bible about throwing stones, we're all human and make mistakes. When this happens what matters is how you deal with it.

Warum ist jeder bashing, ihn von allem freisprechen? Er muss mit dem, was er tat, leben, ist es Strafe genug? Ich hoffe es.

Das letzte, was Sie wahrscheinlich benötigen, ist ein weiterer Blog-Kommentar - aber es ist nicht an mir, Ihnen zu beurteilen. Ich fühle nichts als Mitleid für dich, und ich glaube wirklich, dass Gott vergibt dir.

Eric: Your article is extremely moving. I am not as eloquent as the other commentors, but wanted to say that I hope you continue your efforts to recover your true self. Try not to judge yourself too harshly, as you have been truthful and forthcoming, and that will eventually give you some measure of comfort.
Thank you for sharing your experiences, as they help to inform other persons of the true horrors of war, which we are spared by the sacrifices of brave individuals like yourself.
I wish you peace.

I cannot imagine what it was like to stand in your shoes during your time in service. I find your story to be heart wrenching. My boyfriend came out of an abusive relationship and I try to help him as best I can with his scars. Your wife, I am sure, is doing her best to try and help you with your scars as well. The things you endured as an interrogator sound as if they were extremely scarring, and I hope that someday you can find a way to live with those scars without them destroying you.
Emotional scars are very difficult to live with, and sometimes impossible to heal completely, but that does not make life hopeless. Those who send you the e-mails that wish you ill have never felt an anguish that tears at the soul. I am not christian myself, but I do hope that the christian path can bring you some of the peace that you want, and need. My biggest hope for you, sir, is that you find some reason, some motivation, to continue living and to live your life to the fullest. Personally, my suggestion would be to look to your wife. At the end of the day, she is the person that you should be sharing your burdens with. That is part of marriage.

Dear Mr Fair,

I don't know why you would receive hate mail for the piece in the
Washington Post. The presence of guilt and shame which you write
about is exactly what emotional boundaries parents strive to instill
in their children. Feeling shame when you should feel shame
means that your parents got it right.

Life experiences and certainly rude, brutal and vulgar experiences
can inhibit the normal formation of these boundaries or rip them out.
I have always imagines that war did that to a lot of men.

I can not tell by your essay if you are anxious about the current state of your humanity. Do you suspect it is has been damaged or irreparably harmed by your service in the military? Don't you give yourself credit for feeling anxious about your actions? You are not a sociopath so give it a rest.

You should probably hug your parents and thank them for making sure you could feel the difference between right and wrong. You got lied to and you are one of millions.

I am reminded of a memoir by a beautiful human turned monster.

I am sure many people have told you the you are chin deep in the
process of recovery.

Good luck to a decent guy.


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