“It Was Torture,” a Conversation About Abu Ghraib Prisoner Treatment

On April 28, retired Major General Michael Lehnert will interview author Eric Fair about a topic few yearn to think about, but may again become relevant—the ethical treatment of prisoners captured during war.

Both Fair and Lehnert were active in the Iraq war. Lehnert led 5,000 men into combat while Fair worked as a contract interrogator at Abu Ghraib and Fallujah. He arrived in 2004 in Iraq, untested and untrained, but was ordered to interrogate prisoners as soon as he arrived.

To be clear, Fair was not involved in the extreme torture that was depicted in the deeply disturbing photos seen around the world. But he did put prisoners into painful stress positions and deprived them of sleep. His actions ate away at his soul, and he wrote the memoir Consequence with hopes that Americans would acknowledge the mortal injury of torture and take a stand against it in the future.

Earlier this month, Lehnert asked Fair a few questions in advance of the event. Here is an excerpt.

Lehnert: I think you’ve written an important book for anyone who reflects on the War on Terror and our American values. Your writing style is clear, concise, but this isn’t a book you read for pleasure. It is a book you read for understanding. Because of my background, I had to reflect on things too. I read it twice. It was extraordinarily meaningful and I thank you for writing it.

Probably a good place to begin this interview is with a quote from Maimonides, a 12th-century philosopher: “A person is not forgiven until he pays back his fellow man what he owes him and appeases him. He must placate him and approach him again and again until he is forgiven.” By writing this book, were you looking for forgiveness?

Fair: No I don’t think I was. I think the theme I settled on was not knowing if forgiveness was ever coming but feeling obligated to spend a significant amount of time and effort working for it, but with no promises that it would ever be handed to me.

Lehnert: You grew up in Pennsylvania in a dying steel mill town. Your grandfathers both fought in World War II. Both of your parents were teachers. Your family was active in the Presbyterian Church. You attended a small Christian college. You became a cop. Your upbringing represented typical Midwestern values. What did you see in Iraq that challenged those values?

Fair: Those values run through my veins and steered me toward the military in the first place. When the war started in 2003, I wanted to be part of it. A Midwestern value is you do your share. I supported the invasion of Afghanistan. I tentatively supported the Iraq war, assuming chemical weapons were real. But Iraq was not the country we thought it was. I knew from what I saw in Abu Ghraib and the way they handled the interrogation of prisoners that the war was lost the minute we entered the country. [Eric’s chief mission as an interrogator was to find out if Saddam had chemical weapons. Clearly, they had no way to tell him because Saddam didn’t have them at that time.]

Lehnert: I led 5,000 troops in the invasion of Iraq. I asked them, “How many of you think you are going to find chemical weapons of mass destruction?” Not a single hand went up. So tell us about the process of applying for a job as an interrogator with the CACI.

Fair: The military had always contracted—food service, aircraft maintenance, construction, but the idea they were going to contract direct action positions—interrogation—that was brand new. It was a combination of things: the war had been organized in a sloppy manner, and it was unknown how big it would be and when it was going to end. CACI was desperate to get people to Iraq as fast as they could. I spoke Arabic, had a high-level security clearance, was working for the police—I had checked all of those boxes necessary to send me over as an interrogator. But there were no face-to-face interviews, nobody called my supervisors at the police department. It was just get you over there …

Lehnert:  … without a flak jacket, no hardened vehicle, and a scrounged AK-47. History is full of wars that we thought would end quickly and cleanly. So you began interrogating prisoners and you are praying, but you recognize that you can’t ask God to accompany you into the interrogation booth.

Fair: That was a classic moment; I remember it like it was 10 seconds ago. I had explored my faith long enough to know there are numerous examples of God appearing to prisoners but there are no narratives in Scripture in which God is supporting the man doing the questioning. It was a slap in the face in some ways, to realize that if God was in Abu Ghraib, he was in the detention facilities with the prisoners.

Lehnert: I used to have discussions with my troops that there is nothing more soul destroying than having total control over another human being. Every day you have to check your moral compass and make sure you haven’t done anything to violate it. Not only do they have a responsibility to treat these people humanely, whatever they do will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Fair: I don’t give myself much leeway about what I did. But I feel frustrated with the more progressive-minded readers when they ask, “How could I have not known better?” I was desperate for a voice like yours, someone in leadership who said, “You need to be careful and keep these things in mind.” That would have given me the courage I needed, but those voices were not there.

Lehnert: If you were like me, at Guantanamo, you begin having doubts about the quality and number of prisoners, and whether or not these individuals actually deserve to be there.

In Guantanamo, it was clear to me we had the worst of the worst, we had some bad people, but the majority of the prisoners were, at best, foot soldiers.

Fair: To your point, American troops were given an impossible task to figure out how to put the country together again; it was a brush fire insurgency. U.S. troops were sent out to clear out houses, they rounded people up thinking someone would sort it out and send them back home. I don’t think there was an understanding they’d be sent to Abu Ghraib. It was clear this war was headed in the wrong direction.

Lehnert: Your supervisors were dissatisfied with your interrogation results and introduced you to a more successful interrogator. Describe how he takes you to the hard site.

Fair: Steve was working on special projects, high-value prisoners at the hard site, connected to terrorists, finances outside the country, people close to Hussein or Al Qaeda. Steve found out I had worked at the National Security Agency and could speak Arabic. He wanted to use me because he didn’t trust the Iraqi translator. They took me to the hard site to test me and evaluate me to see if I would keep quiet and go along. The hard site was what Americans saw in the photographs: forced standing, exposure to loud music, lots of naked men chained to the boards in the cell, lots of shoving, yelling, keeping a prisoner in a cell with no windows, all the light blocked out so they didn’t know what time of day it was. This was my first exposure to enhanced techniques, which was torture. Steve filed the paperwork so there was nothing hush, hush. It was, fill out the paperwork and make sure you follow the rules. Be as aggressive as you want.

In my mind it was morally wrong, repulsive in many ways. But there was confusion whether it was legally wrong. War in general is morally complicated. If you’re going to fire rounds at someone, you want to be sure you’re justified in doing that. As horrific as the hard site was, there was not a sense they [the interrogators] were outside the bounds, doing anything that was illegal. A number of us, including my closest friend, Ferdinand, told me to stay away from it. It seemed wrong and we were able to operate on a different level. That’s where I began to fall apart. There was no question that what I’d seen was morally questionable but I wasn’t raising any alarms. That’s when I began to spiral out of control.

Lehnert: What is America’s collective burden?

Fair: It’s a failure to be honest and have a fear of honesty. And not really being curious about what we’ve done and what we’re going to do and not facing hard truths and not confessing about what we got that wrong. We have to say why we got it wrong, how we got it wrong, our involvement whether as a taxpayer or an interrogator, and to sit with it awhile.  As I look at the last 16 or 17 years of war and what transpired since 2001, we need to find a leader or a national consciousness that pushes us toward honesty and confession.


The National Writers Series

Where Great Conversations Happen
Featuring Eric Fair, author of Consequence and Guest Host Major General Michael Lehnert

April 28, 2017, City Opera House

Doors open at 6 p.m. with live music, cash bar and Morsels. Conversation starts at 7 p.m.

For more information, go to www.nationalwritersseries.org. Call 941-8082, 201 for tickets.


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Article Comments

  • bergschlawiner

    Who the hell is Eric Fair? I was a CACI employee at Abu G. in 2004 and 2005 and along with many other employees and military who were there at that time never heard of Eric Fair and we would have known him. Not a single one has the slightest idea of who Eric Fair was. We have our own Facebook.