Named one of "8 Books You Need to Read" by Vulture
A man questions everything--his faith, his morality, his country--as he recounts his experience as an interrogator in Iraq; an unprecedented memoir and "an act of incredible bravery" (Phil Klay, author of Redeployment).
In 2004, after several months as an interrogator, Eric Fair’s call to serve his country has led him to a dark and frightening place. By the time he leaves Iraq after that first deployment, Fair will have participated in or witnessed a variety of aggressive interrogation techniques including sleep deprivation, stress positions, diet manipulation, exposure, and isolation. Years later, with his health and marriage crumbling, haunted by the role he played in what we now know as “enhanced interrogation,” it is Fair’s desire to speak out that becomes a key to his survival. Spare and haunting, Eric Fair’s memoir urgently questions the very depths of who he, and we as a country, have become.
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About the Author
Eric Fair, an Army veteran, worked in Iraq as a contract interrogator in 2004. He won a Pushcart for his 2012 essay "Consequence," which was published first in Ploughshares and then in Harper's Magazine. His op-eds on interrogation have also been published in The Washington Post and The New York Times. He lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Read an Excerpt
By Eric Fair
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2016 Eric Fair
All rights reserved.
In Pennsylvania, Bethlehem Steel is dying. I grow up watching it die. It built naval guns for World War I and Liberty ships for World War II. It built the Golden Gate Bridge and the New York City skyline. But the country eventually lost its thirst for steel. In Bethlehem, there were too many pensions, too many vice presidents, too many corner offices. In elementary school, we learn words like "pig iron," "coke," "limestone," and "slag." But we also learn words like "Kraut steel" and "Jap steel." We watch neighbors lose their jobs. We put on a spring musical and sing a Billy Joel song.
Out in Bethlehem they're killing time
Like the fathers in the song, my grandfathers fought the Second World War. My father received a deferment for Vietnam. In my boyhood, he tells me stories about how the Army was going to train him to fly helicopters, but they passed him over because he was a public school teacher with a daughter on the way. He says it's a good thing he never flew helicopters, because at the time "they were knocking those things down with tennis balls." The image fascinates me. I ask him to tell these stories often.
My mother is a substitute teacher. On the days she teaches, I eat breakfast at Steve Kave's house. Steve's father works at the steel mill, where he is forced to share a single job with two other steelworkers. The plant allows them to split the salary. It's the only way to keep them all employed. Mr. Kave only has one leg. He lost the other in Vietnam when they shot down his helicopter.
When I'm sick, I stay home from school at the Kaves' house. I lie on their couch and watch TV. In 1981, I watch Ronald Reagan get shot. In 1983, I watch paratroopers ride on helicopters and invade Grenada.
On Sundays, we attend the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The church is large and wealthy. Eugene Grace, the CEO of Bethlehem Steel till 1945, and chairman of the board until 1957, attended services here. Employees looking to climb the ladder poured into the church pews on Sunday mornings in hopes of being seen by Mr. Grace.
As a boy, I don't know much about Presbyterians. I know we baptize babies and I know we aren't allowed to clap in church. I never see anyone carrying a Bible. But all the men wear suits and ties. A talented choir makes beautiful music. When they finish, there is silence. Occasionally someone tries to applaud. Older members, including my grandmother, shake their heads and say, "We are here to worship God, not the choir."
My grandparents, Dorothy and Phillip Fair, are well known at First Presbyterian Church. My grandfather worked as a reporter in Altoona, Pennsylvania, after the war. Multiple sclerosis has confined him to a wheelchair. There is always someone willing to help unload him from the car on Sunday mornings, or wheel him up the ramp, or escort him into the sanctuary and help him page through the weekly bulletin. My grandmother works in the visitors' booth between services. She serves coffee and tea and holds long conversations with people she's never met before. Then she introduces us to these people and talks to them as if they are old family friends.
We visit my grandparents on Saturday mornings. I'm allowed to ride my grandfather's wheelchair down the ramps that have been installed throughout the house. The VA hospital has provided my grandfather with a remote-controlled television. It's the first one I've ever seen. The remote has two large buttons. You can only turn the channel one way, so you have to cycle through all thirteen channels to get back to the beginning. I sit and press the button and watch the channels change as my parents and grandparents sit in the other room and talk about family.
My grandmother tells stories about the MacFarlanes, Campbells, and Burds. She talks about the deep Scottish roots and how important the Presbyterian church has been to the family. There are drawers full of photo albums with black-and-white portraits of well-dressed men. Colonel Burd posing with his unit at Gettysburg in 1898 as they prepare to deploy to the Spanish-American War. A photo of William Burd standing in front of his Presbyterian church in 1902 after preaching one of his sermons. And there is a collection of letters from James MacFarlane, written during his service in the Civil War.
I grow up listening to my grandmother's tales. I grow up learning that I come from a long line of Presbyterians who valued their faith and marched off to war.
In 1983, I start sixth grade. I am small and slightly overweight. I'm not fat, but my mother buys my jeans in the husky section at the Hess's department store in Allentown. I am slow. At Nitschmann Middle School, we take the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. My father tells me it was President Eisenhower's idea. Eisenhower was unimpressed by the fitness level of World War II draftees, so he decided it would be a good idea to make sixth-graders do pull-ups. I can't do pull-ups. I just hang on the bar with my face to the wall. My fellow students sit behind me on the gym floor and laugh. There is also a shuttle run and some sort of stretching exercise. I fail to impress on those events as well.
At Nitschmann we have special activity days. Students are allowed to choose an activity that interests them. I choose a class about statistics and board games. Mostly we just play Risk. A popular girl from the majorette squad is in the class, too. We start to become friends. A few weeks later, during homeroom, Principal Kartsotis announces my name over the school's intercom. He recites other names, too. They belong to the kids who don't play sports and who buy their jeans in the husky section. Principal Kartsotis tells us that we will be removed from our special activities classes and enrolled in a fitness program. The gym teacher, Mr. Lindenmuth, makes us run laps and hang from the pull-up bar.
At home, I remember being told that I shouldn't feel embarrassed. At Nitschmann, I remember meeting the majorette in the hallway a few days later and lying to her about why I couldn't play Risk anymore. I remember spending much of that year being sent to the guidance counselor's office for crying during school.
I spend my weeks at Nitschmann Middle School looking forward to Sunday mornings at First Presbyterian Church. The chimes of a large bell in the towering white steeple greet us as we arrive. I like the sound my dress shoes make on the slate floor in the narthex. Ushers in crisp dark suits, with white shirts, escort us down the aisle and hand me a program. I am twelve years old, but they call me sir, or young man, or, on occasion, Mr. Fair. They offer a firm handshake. My family lets me sit in the aisle seat, where I have a better view of the choir and the pulpit. If an adult sits down in front of me they always turn around to ask whether I can see.
The pastor at First Presbyterian is handsome and popular. He shakes my father's hand and points at my tie: "Attaboy." He played quarterback on his college football team and he often talks about the Pittsburgh Steelers during his sermons. There are no theatrics during the sermon. His voice is strong, but there is no yelling. He stands nearly still in the pulpit, removing his glasses to emphasize certain points. The sermons are almost always about love and the need to reach out to those in pain. I watch as the adults in the sanctuary sit nearly still. Occasionally they nod their heads, or write something down on the back of the bulletin, but they are completely silent. It is the one time during the week when I feel safe.
In 1986 I make the transition to Liberty High School. In ninth grade, we study world cultures. There is a week about Vietnam. Mr. Gentry, a history teacher at the school, comes to class and talks about his service in the Army. One day he goes drinking in Saigon. As they stumble outside, a young boy shoves his hand in Mr. Gentry's pocket. He thinks the boy is trying to rob him, so he grabs the hand and yanks it out. The boy has a grenade in his hand. Mr. Gentry's friends attempt to get control of the grenade but the boy won't let go. They overwhelm the boy and pin him to the ground. Someone kills the boy. They don't want to pry the dead fingers loose so they saw off the arm and toss it into the air. It detonates and sprays the men with shrapnel. Mr. Gentry shows us the scars. He says, "I think about that boy a lot."
There are twenty-five hundred students at Liberty. The school consists of three main buildings, the oldest of which was built in 1918. It has marble staircases and large dark hallways. A labyrinth of overpasses and concrete walkways connects the three main buildings. Between classes, students congregate on these overpasses and walkways, creating choke points where larger students threaten smaller students. One day, in ninth grade, I accidentally step on the heel of a larger student. The student says something threatening. I try to walk away, but he approaches from behind and strikes me on the back of the head with an oversized textbook. The blow leaves me nauseated. The crowd makes room; larger students cheer while smaller ones look on in silence.
At home, I cry. My father is a history teacher at Liberty. He offers to intervene. I don't know how to survive high school, but I know I can't ask my father to protect me. I tell my father he should let me handle this on my own. He hands me a roll of quarters and shows me how to make a fist around them. He says, "Last resort." I am terrified. The next day I am forced to navigate the crowded overpass again. My father is standing guard in the center of the crowd along with a group of students from his senior history class. My father and I have been friends ever since.
In October 1986, the Boston Red Sox lose the World Series to the New York Mets. The next day, I wear a Red Sox hat to school. A boy wearing a Mets hat beats me badly for this, while his friends stand by and laugh. I go home and cry again, but not in front of my father. My older sister takes notice and forces me to tell her what happened; then she calls some of her friends. One of them plays linebacker for the Liberty High School football team. She tells him to handle it. The next day, the Mets fan approaches me in the hallway and apologizes. His friends do the same. My sister and I have been friends ever since.
For the next two years, before my father drives me to school, I drink Pepto-Bismol with breakfast. The memory of the mint-chalk flavor lingers into adulthood. At night, I'm too afraid to concentrate. I struggle in Mr. Wetcher's honors-level algebra class. He returns our exams in order of performance, saving the best grades for last. My tests are handed back first. Eventually, Mr. Wetcher drops me into a lower-level algebra section. He announces my departure to the class, then walks me down the hall and delivers me to the new teacher. The new class is seated alphabetically. Almost everyone is forced to move to a new desk. There are loud complaints as they shuffle their belongings and drop their books. Mr. Wetcher wishes me luck.
I seek refuge at church. Don Hackett, the youth pastor at First Presbyterian, is the first adult who allows me to call him by his first name. Don takes me under his wing. In the mornings, before school, he picks me up and takes me to breakfast. He challenges me to memorize Scripture, holding me accountable to a strict weekly schedule. He asks me to help teach the sixth-graders on Wednesday nights and makes me give the weekly announcements, forcing me to face my insecurities about performing in front of large groups. He teaches me how to be properly prepared for meetings and stresses the importance of public speaking.
As I continue to struggle in school, my parents look for ways to turn me around. Grades matter most, and mine are terrible. There are long, loud arguments about trying harder and not making excuses. I tell my father that some of my other friends are struggling, too. He tells me to find smarter friends. I take my frustrations out on my parents. I start stealing money from my father's dresser drawer. When he catches me, there are more loud arguments about consequences and accountability.
My father forces me to take on a paper route as punishment for stealing the money. In the mornings, before school, I ride my bike to a neighborhood apartment complex and deliver the Bethlehem Morning Call. Every month, I am required to collect money from my customers. I can hear my customers through the thin walls of the apartment complex saying, "It's the paper boy, don't open the door."
In the 1980s, Bethlehem Steel loses more than a billion dollars. There is talk about a brief return to profitability, but only after a significant portion of the workforce is laid off. Unemployment brings crime, and Bethlehem is not immune.
One morning, after finishing my route, I return to the light pole where I lock my bike. There is a large man removing my front wheel and rifling through the storage bag on the backseat where I keep my collection book. When he sees me, he begins to walk away, taking the wheel with him. I say, "That's my bike." He turns, takes a few steps toward me, and says, "Well, you shouldn't leave it out here unattended." I begin to walk away, but he follows. There is a fire station across the street. In a panic, I wheel what's left of my bike to the front door and ring the bell. No one answers. I ring it again, and again, and again, not knowing what the firemen can do, but hoping they'll at least let me come inside. The man with my wheel eventually leaves, but the firemen never answer.
When I get home, my father calls the police. The police officer is large and intimidating. He sits down at the dining room table and listens to my story. He laughs when I talk about no one answering the bell at the firehouse. He says, "Fucking firemen." My dad and I laugh, too. The police officer says I did everything right. He says they know about the apartment complex. It has a reputation for this type of thing. They probably won't be able to catch the guy, but they'll certainly be looking for him.
The next morning I walk to the apartment complex to deliver the papers. I'm scared. I arrive to find that same police officer parked across the street. He stays until I finish the route.
Eventually high school becomes a better place. I can do pull-ups. I have friends. I begin dating a girl from church. She French-kisses me in the church parking lot.
I don't think I'm supposed to be kissing girls at church, so I don't tell Don. But it isn't difficult for him to find out from others what's going on, so he pulls me aside and talks about how it's best to avoid shallow relationships at my age.
I break up with the girl from church, but only for a short time. I like the way she looks, I like the way it feels to be next to her, and I like the things she does to me in the church parking lot. And there are other girls too, including ones who don't go to church. But Don's words mean a great deal to me, so I do not have sex. I'm afraid to do something that can't be undone.
In 1988, during my sophomore year in high school, I begin attending youth group meetings on Sunday nights. But instead of the quiet and reserved services I've come to love in the sanctuary, there are drums, guitars, and lots of clapping.
Don does not always attend the meetings on Sunday nights. When he doesn't, volunteer leaders, college students mostly, talk about Jesus and being born again. One Sunday night, a volunteer leader stands up in front of the group and tells us about how Jesus died. He tells us to stand up and lift our arms in the air. When some of us start to struggle, he yells at us to hold our positions. He says we could never handle what Jesus did for us on the cross. You can't breathe, so you have to hold your weight up with your arms, and eventually they give out and you suffocate to death. I don't think that I had anything to do with Jesus dying in this horrible way. I don't think I would ever ask someone to do something like this. I don't think I need to be saved.
When I attend the Sunday night youth group meetings, I sit in the back, stay silent, and watch others clap their hands and talk about being born again.
In December 1989, the United States invades Panama. In history class, Mr. Deutsch makes us read newspapers. I read an article in the New York Times about the 82nd Airborne Division and its role in the invasion. The article says the 82nd Airborne represents the best the country has to offer. They are men who lead by example and do not draw attention to themselves. They are quiet professionals who do impressive things like kill bad guys and feed starving refugees all on the same day.
By 1990, my senior year in high school, I no longer take beatings under the overpass. I take honors-level courses and participate in the high school activities that my guidance counselor says will make me look more impressive on my college applications. I apply to a variety of small liberal arts colleges in Pennsylvania and New England, but I also spend time in the Army recruiting office. The church has played a critical role in my life. Men like Don Hackett offered a safe place where I could grow and mature. I want to offer that same protection to others. I want to be like the police officer who showed up at my paper route. I want to be a quiet professional who saves starving refugees.
Excerpted from Consequence by Eric Fair. Copyright © 2016 Eric Fair. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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