Wednesday, April 27, 2016


"I think I may go to jail for what I am about to say. And I think it is exactly what I deserve." 

I'm not certain I've ever had such difficulty boiling down a 240-page book to an essence. I'm ultimately of two minds about Eric Fair's Consequence. With respect to much of the content, I found it a momentous, gut-wrenching, searingly honest account of one man's experience with torture and interrogation as a civil contractor during a time of war. With respect to other parts of Fair's story and the prose itself, I struggled to connect.

Raised in Pennsylvania, Fair was a middling, sometimes-bullied student who found solace in his church and the watchful eye of local cops. These early influences impacted his life for decades as he struggled with a yearning to join law enforcement ("I want to be a quiet professional who saves starving refugees") and a pull towards the seminary.

Over the course of the next fifteen years, Fair followed a winding path that touched both leanings, including local law enforcement, Presbyterian college, the Army, a private military contractor, the NSA, and seminary school. The moral conflict Fair felt between his military and religious paths is one that arcs over the portion of his life shared in Consequence. Once asked about that conflict, Fair responded, "Sometimes it's necessary to lie to evil."

Diagnosed with heart failure as a young man, Fair's law enforcement/military career veered off into the private sector. A valuable commodity due to his ability to speak Arabic, he wound up working as an interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison, as well as in Fallujah and Baghdad. Fair unflinchingly details what went on at these postings, both what he took part in and what he observed:

I shouldn't be here. I should have quit by now. A single month at Abu Ghraib is enough to know that all of this is wrong, but I stay, in the hope of salvaging the experience and finding some way to excuse what I've done. With each day, the hole gets deeper.
I am silent. This is a sin. I know it as soon as I see it. There will be no atonement for it. In the coming years I won't even have the audacity to seek atonement. Witnessing a man being tortured in the Palestinian chair requires the witness to either seek justice or cover his face...I'll spend the rest of my life covering my face.

Even as his nightmares begin and escalate, his faith is tested, and he begins to avoid his wife, Fair gets mired deeper in the morass, returning to the fray over and over again as if he can't escape. Not an easy read, taking in Consequence felt something like a need to bear witness. Author Phil Klay (2014 National Book Award Winner for Redeployment) sums it up perfectly:

An act of incredible bravery. If we are, as a country, ever to fully account for the past decade of war and what it meant, we need those who participated to have the courage to tell us what was done in our name.

At this, Fair does a more than admirable job under difficult circumstances. As we know from the Abu Ghraib scandal, and what Fair confirms in the book, much of what went down there was gruesome. Rather than shy from that or make excuses, Fair shines a blinding light on his own actions and emotions, which were fascinating in a "can't look away from that car wreck" type of way. This is a book everyone should read to understand, as Klay puts it, "what is done in our name."

Written in a semi-journal format, Fair's prose is fairly plain and no-nonsense. It felt like it was taken almost literally from a diary he'd kept during these experiences. That made it both a little difficult to immerse myself in and also to follow at times, since there were time jumps and gaps that sometimes came unexpectedly.

I often wondered if something was a gap or if Fair just hadn't dealt with the issue in reality. At one point Fair's heart condition becomes so dire I had the distinct impression he was near death. Yet the next section had him simply proceeding status quo. He didn't seem to address the issue, either within himself or with his wife, whose reaction/response was deafening in its absence.

I understand this was not a story about Fair's marriage. And yet, in a way it was. Consequence is about all the consequences of Fair's path, and he includes the story of his marriage and the impact of his choices on it. So it was a curious omission, this lack of reaction to a supposed death sentence, and again made for a disconnect with the material.

Overall, I think Consequence is an important book. Important for its content, a real look at interrogation and the scary reality of private contractors, the impact of the "job" on the real people on all sides of the equation. The consequences are not to be taken lightly or swept under a rug, and Fair has done an admirable job of lifting the rug so we can all see the dirt.

STREET SENSE:  If this were not an important memoir on something of a taboo subject, I may not recommend it due to the writing style and sometimes choppy timeline. However, it is an important memoir, and I encourage you to pick it up if you don't already have a sense of what happened/happens at places like Abu Ghraib. I keep coming back to it, but it is important to know what our country and military are doing in our names, whether we agree with it and support it or not.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  Death scares me. Or at least, an easy one does. I do not want to die on an escalator or in an air-conditioned hallway or at the end of the Army Ten-Miler. I wanted to die in Iraq. I wanted to die like Ferdinand. That would have been fair. I wouldn't owe anything. Instead, I have a debt to pay. For Abu Ghraib and Fallujah. For the Palestinian chair.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I honestly don't remember the cover of the advanced reading copy I first saw. When the physical ARC showed up, I really loved the cover, though I assumed, correctly as it turns out, it was not the final cover. I wish it had been, it spoke to me much more than the final work shown above. I'm not sure why, but the real cover reads as fiction to me, not non-fiction. I get the boxes, the darkness, the shades, they just don't make me feel anything. I found the ARC, with its stark artwork and quotes, much more evocative. I think a great cover could have been put together with the images there. 

Raised by two schoolteachers in Bethlehem, Pa., along the Lehigh River, Eric Fair was a quiet, marginal student with a weight problem--one of "the kids who don't play sports and who buy their jeans in the husky section." Bullied, he sought shelter under the security of local cops patrolling his paper route and found refuge in the First Presbyterian Church. These early attractions to regimen and service manifest themselves throughout his life in a Presbyterian college, the U.S. Army, the private military contractor CACI, the NSA and seminary at Princeton. With a matter-of-fact, diary-like chronology, Fair's memoir, Consequence, tracks his gradual dissolution as military monotony, war, lies, guilt, marital stress, heart disease and alcoholism eat him alive. At the center of his disintegration is his role as an interrogator at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.

Trained in Arabic by the army, he joined CACI for a lucrative assignment questioning and badgering detainees. "They tell us torture works. It always has. It always will." Fair describes the pain and intolerable prison conditions with some detachment, distancing himself from what he sees and does. However, the cruel "Palestinian chair" torture tool pushes him over the edge: "I am silent. This is a sin. I know it as soon as I see it. There will be no atonement for it." Although sometimes hard to read, Consequence is Fair's effort to confess and find that atonement--made more disturbing because he may be just one of many trying to understand the barbarity of Abu Ghraib.

No comments:

About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


  © Blogger templates Newspaper by 2008

Back to TOP