by Eric Fair
Henry Holt, 240 pp., $26.00The Mirror Test: America at War in Iraq and Afghanistan
by J. Kael Weston
Knopf, 585 pp., $28.95
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 andSERE 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. . .