By: Greg Mitchell
As I write this, the most popular article at washingtonpost.com comes from an unusual source, a writer described as an Army veteran and Arabic linguist who worked in Iraq as a contract interrogator with the 82nd Airborne in early 2004. His name is Eric Fair, and the opinion piece is titled ?An Iraq Interrogator?s Nightmare.?
Beyond the chilling message of the column, what?s fascinating is the evolution of Fair?s decision to go public with what he saw, and did, in Iraq.
Three months ago, he went part way in another op-ed, this one published on Nov. 19 in The Tennessean in Nashville. It opened much the same way as today?s Washington Post column. Fair identified himself as a civilian contractor and, vaguely, as an ?intelligence specialist.? But that first column made no mention of his interrogation activities, focusing instead on Fair still being haunted by witnessing Iraqi friends killed in rocket attacks ? and how such images must also disturb many other Americans who served or worked in Iraq.
That was plenty strong, but Fair must have remained troubled by his own complicity in the dire treatment of civilians there. For his Washington Post piece brutally takes the lash to himself ? and other abuses by Americans in Iraq.
Each of Fair?s columns open with his description of nightmares. In the first, a pool of blood from the death of a civilians caught in the rocket attack covers his feet. In the second, it?s an Iraqi prisoner he interrogated at a jail in Fallujah screaming for help. Fair observes: ?His memory harasses me as I once harassed him.?
What had happened to Fair since last November? He doesn?t mention his earlier writing today, but this probably explains it: ?While I was appalled by the conduct of my friends and colleagues [in Iraq] , I lacked the courage to challenge the status quo. That was a failure of character and in many ways made me complicit in what went on. I’m ashamed of that failure, but as time passes, and as the memories of what I saw in Iraq continue to infect my every thought, I’m becoming more ashamed of my silence.?
In fact, today?s step seems to have been a long time coming: A Web search turns up a rough draft of that earlier column posted in January 2006 at a veterans group’s site.
When it was published last fall, that column for the Tennessean revealed what he considered an ?untold? story of Iraq: While the death toll gets a lot of attention, ?no one wants to think of the damage that?s been done to those who have returned home.? As for himself, ?The scars are permanent, and I?ve grown tired of hiding them.? The nation as a whole needs to ?consider the full effects? of the war. Now, while the rest of the nation sleeps soundly, ?I?ll go back to my nightmare in Iraq.?
Today, nearly three months later, he opened his Post piece with that nightmare, but this time it featured a civilian he ?harassed,? not one killed by our military.
Here is more from the Post column.
Despite my best efforts, I cannot ignore the mistakes I made at the interrogation facility in Fallujah. I failed to disobey a meritless order, I failed to protect a prisoner in my custody, and I failed to uphold the standards of human decency. Instead, I intimidated, degraded and humiliated a man who could not defend himself. I compromised my values. I will never forgive myself.
American authorities continue to insist that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib was an isolated incident in an otherwise well-run detention system. That insistence, however, stands in sharp contrast to my own experiences as an interrogator in Iraq. I watched as detainees were forced to stand naked all night, shivering in their cold cells and pleading with their captors for help. Others were subjected to long periods of isolation in pitch-black rooms. Food and sleep deprivation were common, along with a variety of physical abuse, including punching and kicking. Aggressive, and in many ways abusive, techniques were used daily in Iraq, all in the name of acquiring the intelligence necessary to bring an end to the insurgency. The violence raging there today is evidence that those tactics never worked. My memories are evidence that those tactics were terribly wrong?.
Some may suggest there is no reason to revive the story of abuse in Iraq. Rehashing such mistakes will only harm our country, they will say. But history suggests we should examine such missteps carefully. Oppressive prison environments have created some of the most determined opponents. The British learned that lesson from Napoleon, the French from Ho Chi Minh, Europe from Hitler. The world is learning that lesson again from Ayman al-Zawahiri. What will be the legacy of abusive prisons in Iraq?
We have failed to properly address the abuse of Iraqi detainees. Men like me have refused to tell our stories, and our leaders have refused to own up to the myriad mistakes that have been made. But if we fail to address this problem, there can be no hope of success in Iraq. Regardless of how many young Americans we send to war, or how many militia members we kill, or how many Iraqis we train, or how much money we spend on reconstruction, we will not escape the damage we have done to the people of Iraq in our prisons.
I am desperate to get on with my life and erase my memories of my experiences in Iraq. But those memories and experiences do not belong to me. They belong to history. If we’re doomed to repeat the history we forget, what will be the consequences of the history we never knew? The citizens and the leadership of this country have an obligation to revisit what took place in the interrogation booths of Iraq, unpleasant as it may be. The story of Abu Ghraib isn’t over. In many ways, we have yet to open the book.
Coming: Part II by Greg Mitchell