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We Buried the Disgraceful Truth

An Army National Guardsman at the armory in Jamaica, Queens, where he and other soldiers were gathered for deployment to Iraq, January 2004; photograph by Thomas Roma from his 2010 book Dear Knights and Dark Horses. It includes an introduction by Alec Wilkinson and is published by powerHouse.
Thomas Roma
An Army National Guardsman at the armory in Jamaica, Queens, where he and other soldiers were gathered for deployment to Iraq, January 2004; photograph by Thomas Roma from his 2010 book Dear Knights and Dark Horses. It includes an introduction by Alec Wilkinson and is published by powerHouse.

Since 2001, at least 2.5 million members of the American armed services have deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. Among returnees, between 11 and 20 percent are estimated to suffer in any given year from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to the Department of Veteran Affairs. The PTSD label is loosely used, but under the clinical definition of the National Institute of Mental Health, an afflicted person may experience for at least one month a combination of symptoms including flashbacks, bad dreams, guilt, numbness, depression, sleeplessness, angry outbursts, and partial amnesia. The sheer size and diversity of this injured population are astounding.

Newspaper reporters including Dana Priest and Anne Hull of The Washington Post and David Phillips, now of The New York Times, have documented the military’s shabby, at times cynical response to this social and medical crisis. The subject has also given rise to memorable written accounts of personal experience. David Finkel, in his remarkable book Thank You for Your Service, chronicles returning veterans of brutal combat in Baghdad and presents nuanced accounts of dysfunction, suicide temptation, and redemption. Matthew Green, in his book Aftershock, introduced British readers to the same crisis and showed how that country’s military health system has failed to reduce the stigma of PTSD. Redeployment, a collection of short stories by Phil Klay, a former Marine officer who fought in Iraq, which won the National Book Award in 2014, is one volume among several that suggest the emergence of raw, distinctive fiction by and for America’s post–September 11 generation that sometimes touches on the PTSD crisis.

Eric Fair’s Consequence is another important reckoning with more than a decade of continuous war. It is a memoir written in a spare, cadenced voice. It describes the author’s self-aware, agonizing moral and psychological descent as he accepts an assignment as an interrogator in Abu Ghraib and other Iraqi detention facilities after 2003. The author’s idealism, pain, and, eventually, expressive political dissent recall Siegfried Sassoon, the British poet and decorated military officer during World War I whose objections to that conflict led the authorities to hospitalize him for what was then called “shell shock.” Sassoon had read history at Cambridge and had charged off to war steeped in the mythologies of privileged Edwardians, only to discern in France how class blindness and jingoism shaped his war’s mindless slaughter.

Fair, too, associates his pain with the failures of the decision-makers who delivered him to the places in which he served. He grew up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and aspired to become a Presbyterian minister before volunteering for the military. In Consequence, Fair searches for the validity of his country’s moral purpose abroad and for the nobility of comradeship on the battlefield, but he is shattered when he cannot accommodate the abuses, stupidity, and collateral violence he encounters in Iraq.

Fair’s parents were schoolteachers in Bethlehem, whose eponymous steel corporation manufactured naval guns and Liberty ships for the two world wars before competition from postwar Germany and Japan devastated its prospects. In 1995, after enrolling in a Christian college and then graduating from Boston University, Fair enlisted in the army. He qualified for Arabic-language instruction and deployed to the Sinai Peninsula, where he mediated disputes between American troops and Egyptian civilians, including, for example, traffic accidents involving camels. He grew bored.

As his five-year enlistment contract neared its end, Fair’s commander tried to persuade him to re-up by directing him toward more intriguing intelligence and interrogation work. To give him a taste, he sent Fair to the army’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape program (sERE). The program was created to help soldiers at high risk of capture endure or at least anticipate interrogation and abuse:

The trainers pretend to be enemy interrogators. They have our personnel files. They know everything about us. They threaten our families by name. At night, they play loud music. One of the guards brings in a recording of his infant son crying at night. He plays it over and over. He also plays the opening portion of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.” We strip naked and stand out in the cold…. They tell us torture works. It always has. It always will. It just takes time.

After September 11, the CIA and the Pentagon converted SERE’s curriculum for defense against torture into classified programs to carry out interrogations of suspected al-Qaeda, Afghan, and Iraqi militants. Because Fair’s résumé included Arabic skills and SERE training, he soon ended up in the middle of this new regime. Initially, in 2000, he left the army and joined the Bethlehem police as a patrol officer, but he was diagnosed with a heart condition that would consign him to deskwork. Restless after the invasion of Iraq, he signed up at the National Security Agency as an intelligence analyst, and then moved quickly, for more money, to CACI International, a private contractor, to work as an interrogator. The corporation sent him to Iraq.

Fair’s memoir never strays far from moral introspection, but his account of his travel is funny and sharp. It draws the reader into dark corners of the Iraqi battlefield—chaotic prisons, overheated interrogation booths, tactical intelligence cells in bunkers—where few other war memoirs enter. The book is also damning about CACI International and the improvised, tragically hubristic use of private companies and contractors that were part of the Bush administration’s early schemes for the occupation and stabilization of Iraq.

As they deployed, Fair writes, he and his fellow CACI employees received no body armor, no training, and no weapons. Once in Iraq, early in 2004, as they prepared to ride a violent road to Abu Ghraib prision, their team leader handed them assault rifles captured locally, explaining that while corporate rules required them to travel unarmed, “no one in their right mind drives to Abu Ghraib without a weapon.” At the prison, local insurgents were lobbing in mortars daily while enemy snipers just outside the walls threatened to pick off stray Americans. “My concerns are growing,” Fair writes of his experience.

As former soldiers and Marines, none of us were comfortable with the lack of planning…. No weapons, no communications equipment, no maps, and nothing for first aid. We all expect something to go wrong very soon.

But the longer each of us stays, the more tolerant we become…. All of us talk about quitting, but no one wants to be the first to do it.

Fair gets to work in an Interrogation Control Element, a plywood booth near the “hard site” at Abu Ghraib where the army holds “high-value” prisoners. His efforts to reconcile his religious faith and his interrogation tasks leave him in a state of chronic self-loathing and physical stress. “In Scripture,” he reflects, “God often works in prisons, but he is never on the side of the jailer. He is always on the side of the prisoner.” Fair prays for guidance but realizes, “I’m not on God’s path. I’m on my own.”

The Priority Intelligence Requirements he receives from the army guide his daily interviews. The requirements set out the subjects about which US military intelligence officers want detainees to provide insight, such as the fact that Saddam Hussein’s supposed chemical weapons arsenal, part of the Bush administration’s casus belli, hasn’t been found. Fair’s Arabic has atrophied. He relies on a Sudanese translator whose dialect the Iraqi prisoners cannot understand and whose English Fair can barely make out. The frightened ex-Baathist sergeants he questions for long hours try to explain that they don’t understand what he wants from them. The scenes would be comical if it weren’t obvious how many Iraqi families suffered from the abuses then spreading across Abu Ghraib.

Fair was initially instructed in the patient, nonviolent interrogation techniques of the Army Field Manual, which comply with international law, but he learned that “soldiers who rely on field manuals are called barracks lawyers. No one likes barracks lawyers.” A sergeant teaching a refresher course to interrogators at the prison tells his class to “think outside the fucking manual.” Soon Fair is invited to the hard site, a two-tiered building where Iraqi prisoners are kept naked in cold temperatures, handcuffed to chairs, deprived of light, and subjected to blaring heavy metal rock music. He begins to manhandle some of the prisoners he questions. “It feels good,” he writes.

Overall, Fair was more witness than participant in the crimes at Abu Ghraib and his exposure to the worst abuses there appears to have been limited. He worked for Steven Stephanowicz, a CACI contract interrogator who was named in an army report, written by Major General Antonio M. Taguba, concerning abuses of prisoners in Iraq. Taguba recommended that Stephanowitz be stripped of security clearances because he made a false statement to investigators and gave instructions that he “clearly knew…equated to physical abuse.” Yet because Stephanowitz was a private contractor, he was not subject to military justice. He was not prosecuted for any wrongdoing.

In Fallujah, Fair encountered army interrogators who had built what they called a “Palestinian chair,” which they said Israelis taught them to construct during a joint training exercise. As Fair describes it, “The chair forces you to support all of your weight with your thighs. Once they give out, you basically start to suffocate. They say everyone breaks in the chair.” Fair later cooperated with a Justice Department investigation about this and other abuses, but nothing came of that inquiry. The Obama administration had little interest in bringing criminal cases against those involved in torture, in part because the policies had been authorized at the highest levels of the Bush administration and in part because it feared prosecutions of line officers would alienate intelligence agencies and the military while it pressed on with warfare in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Army medic James Worster (left) with fellow soldiers in Baghdad, 2006. Worster, who worked in a combat support hospital, suffered from PTSD and died of an overdose days before the end of his second tour.
Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos
Army medic James Worster (left) with fellow soldiers in Baghdad, 2006. Worster, who worked in a combat support hospital, suffered from PTSD and died of an overdose days before the end of his second tour.

Most of the soldiers around Fair accepted or joined in the violence toward Iraqi prisoners without compunction or apparent stress. Some seemed to enjoy participating, while others accepted the abuse as necessary in a dirty war. Fair was deeply affected by what he encountered, wracked by shame and guilt. He recognized that his emotional depression was also caused by independent factors—heavy drinking, feelings of alienation, and struggles over faith and identity. Some veterans of Iraq may dismiss Fair’s suffering as self-inflicted; he did not endure the worst violence or combat stress on offer in Iraq by any means.

Yet he did encounter scenes that would test any sentient soul. In one harrowing sequence, rockets kill two Iraqi boys on his base. Fair has to handle the fragmented remains and break the news to the boys’ fathers, speaking in his shaky Arabic. Yet he apparently managed the task with grace, as a minister might. The routine depravity of war shook Fair to the breaking point, yet the most extreme events he encountered apparently called forth a better self.

He returned to the NSA as an analyst covering Iraq and then redeployed to the country for the eavesdropping service. “Dozens of analysts, linguists, and intelligence professionals from around the world rely on me…. But, like most analysts in Iraq, I spend much of my day playing solitaire and Minesweeper.” The last part of his memoir contains blacked-out pages that show where the US government forced Fair to remove material from his book concerning intelligence collection operations. Sentences deemed unclassified float like islands in seas of black: “There is to be no redemption for me in Iraq…. I no longer sleep well…. A package from Karin arrives. It has the two mouthwash bottles filled with liquor. I send an e-mail and ask for more.”

After leaving government, Fair published articles in The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Washington Post describing his involvement in prisoner abuse and the guilt it caused him. He was flooded with e-mails, some praising him for his honesty and courage, others denouncing him as a coward. He deleted the praise and obsessed about the criticism. He reconciled with his wife, fathered a son, and enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary. Yet he thought regularly of suicide, apparently for years. For all of its considerable literary achievement, to its final page, Consequence reads as a tentative act of survival.

When J. Kael Weston took the Foreign Service exam in 2000 to become a diplomat, he answered questions about American history, the Constitution, and Jelly Roll Morton. Presumably, the exam writers had in mind a diplomat’s life during the cold war. As he chronicles in The Mirror Test, an ambitious, uneven, but closely observed and illuminating memoir, the State Department Weston served after September 11 required adaptation to the militarization of American foreign policy following the attacks. Between 2003 and 2010, Weston spent seven consecutive years in Iraq and Afghanistan, as a political adviser to US Marines during combat in Fallujah and Helmand, and on a reconstruction mission to Khost province, in eastern Afghanistan. Unlike Fair, Weston seems to have borne battlefield stress in good health, but the wars drew him into moral and political reflection, and finally, dissent.

One of Weston’s early assignments in Fallujah, during 2004, was to assess for the US embassy in Baghdad how well Marines were collecting and disposing of the remains of Iraqis killed in the city’s rising violence. Weston immersed himself for days in the Marines’ Mortuary Affairs unit, which processed Iraqi dead at a desolate place known as the Potato Factory. He traveled to an interment ceremony:

The sun was setting, casting an orange glow across trenches. A Marine backhoe had graded perpendicular lines, several feet deep. The grid had a mathematical quality to it, the product of engineers laying out an impromptu cemetery for hundreds of dead.

I watched as black body bags were lowered into the ground…. The operation had a brutal and methodical efficiency to it. It was essentially a mass grave.

To prevent Fallujah’s alienated residents from digging through the pit to find missing relatives, Weston negotiated a deal with an influential imam, who said he would discourage insurgents from using the site to inflame residents. The embassy and its local allies persuaded themselves that Fallujah was improving that year, but Weston “knew the deeper truth…. I had seen dogs that had made their way north, following the scent of death, even if the people had not yet. Some of Fallujah’s families inevitably would.”

At its best, Weston’s reportage recalls the finest foreign correspondence of the Iraq and Afghan wars. Yet his perspective is that of a government insider, one shaken by the human costs of the failures he participated in and especially by the strategic folly of the invasion of Iraq. He recounts his own guilt over having recommended forcefully, over the objections of some Marine officers, that the Marines provide extensive security around Fallujah for Iraq’s election in 2005, even though many Sunnis in the area planned to boycott that election. During security preparations, a helicopter crashed and thirty-one Marines died.

To recover from this and other losses, and to organize his memoir project, Weston commits himself to preserving the memories of the deaths and injuries suffered by Marines, soldiers, and American diplomats with whom he served. Weston left government in 2010. His book’s last chapters chronicle his journeys across America to visit the hometowns and graves of Marines who died on his tours. The memoir becomes a kind of scrapbook, not always satisfyingly so. Its final entry, however, is a stunning map of the United States with dots marking all the hometowns of US war dead in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.

On his travels, talking with returned veterans, Weston often withheld the details and extent of his own experiences in the field. “I had my reasons,” he writes. He felt he

knew too much because of my job functions—the interagency debates often driven by egos, not wisdom, the officious memos full of preachy talking points to Iraqis and Afghans, and the self-serving excuses when we got it wrong. I also knew too much about how the politicians and White House war cabinets had failed them, how much I had failed thirty-one of them in particular.

Weston is too hard on himself, of course, but he is rightly skeptical about America’s capacity for expeditionary war and governance in poor, nationalistic countries. He accepts the Obama administration’s dichotomous view of the Afghan conflict as the “right” war and the Iraq conflict as inexcusable. Like Fair, he seeks accountability but feels helpless about how this might be achieved, practically and fairly. As a junior diplomat, Weston was present at the United Nations Security Council debate in February 2003 when Secretary of State Colin Powell presented the Bush administration’s case that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Driving through Texas on his journey to the families of the dead, Weston reflects on the lives that might “have been saved if America’s chief diplomat and former top military officer had chosen a different course.” He recalls the Powell he watched at the UN as “a statesman who chose not to make the case against a voluntary war. A secretary of state, former four-star general, and Vietnam veteran who might have resigned in protest, but did not.”

Among the industrialized democracies, the United States has shown a distinctive capacity since 2001 to absorb many thousands of casualties while committing its volunteer soldiers to seemingly endless wars. President Obama’s presidency succeeded politically in part because he denounced the Iraq invasion along lines similar to Weston’s criticism. Despite authorizing a “surge” of troops to Afghanistan, he promised strategic restraint when considering new commitments of ground troops to the Middle East.

Yet the United States remains at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, albeit at a reduced tempo. Obama is escalating Special Forces deployments to Syria to fight the Islamic State, and his administration periodically conducts air strikes in Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. There are few public protests about these continuing commitments. The all-voluntary military fashioned by the Pentagon after the degradation of draft-era Vietnam partially explains this public acceptance, as does the enduring strength of American nationalism. Yet the emerging accounts of those who have returned from the Middle East and the Afghanistan war suggest another likelihood. The truth about American hubris and suffering on battlefields over the last fifteen years has often been buried, stigmatized, and sublimated into rage against political elites.

It is not only Wall Street bailouts that explain the emergence of Bernie Sanders. It is not only offshore factories and white anxiety about immigration that have given rise to Donald Trump. Two and a half million American families, spread widely across the country, understand truths about the price of badly conceived wars that their political leaders and foreign policy theorists will not confront. Among our public intellectuals, we may have replaced bishops with television pundits, but not so much has changed since Siegfried Sassoon wrote “They” in 1916:

The Bishop tells us: “When the boys come back
They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
In a just cause: they lead the last attack
On Anti-Christ; their comrades’ blood has bought
New right to breed an honourable race,
They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.”

“We’re none of us the same!” the boys reply.
“For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.”
And the Bishop said: “The ways of God are strange!”