Features: Tortured

Eric Fair tells his story that paints a harrowing picture of a rogue, outsourced war.


ON A WINTER NIGHT IN IRAQ, darkness stole across the desert like sleep itself. Cool and quiet and complete.

A man trudged across the sand about midnight, exhaling puffs into the cold air. He walked more than a mile, and finally approached a small building made of brick and concrete. It had served as a slaughterhouse, once upon a time.

Eric Fair stepped through the door, and started what he expected would be a night like any other, interrogating Iraqi detainees. He worked for a private American contracting company in Abu Ghraib and Fallujah, and in a matter of days the world would recoil at the revelation of what some people did there. But not yet.

The little building held about eight rooms, one of which the interrogators used as their office. They did paperwork there, jotted notes, relaxed and talked. Not a cozy situation, really, but Fair worked the night shift with his best friend, Ferdinand Ibabao. And roly-poly Ferd always told funny stories that made the nights bearable.

Another interrogator, ending his shift, briefed Fair on the detainee waiting down the hall: I’m trying something, the colleague told him, before leaving. I want you to take over for a little while.

Fair, a thoughtful and soft-spoken Presbyterian from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, listened to his colleague’s instructions. “All right,” he said. He could do that.

He walked alone down the building’s hallway, with small rooms off each side. He approached the occupied room, which was entirely dark. From the hallway he flipped a switch, and on the room’s ceiling, a bare bulb flickered to life. Fair entered.

The room recollected the building’s original purpose; it was long and narrow, suited to doomed cattle, with a tile floor. It stank of feces, and blood, and unwashed flesh. A man lay in the center, eyes adjusting in the light.

Fair didn’t reflect on how he had come to this dark place, and certainly didn’t know where he would end up, after this night. He simply regarded the sleepless man.

“Entusub,” Fair said.

The man dragged himself from the floor.

The interrogator lifted a finger. “Yadar.”

The man turned, and faced the corner.

ERIC FAIR SWINGS OPEN an enormous door, and we find refuge in Princeton Theological Seminary’s ancient Stuart Hall, among carved wood balustrades and antique silence.

He doesn’t want to hide. But no one at the seminary knows Fair’s past, yet, and he’d rather not be overheard.

We settle into an empty classroom. A professor has scrawled a notice on the chalkboard, about an upcoming Hebrew class. Fair takes a seat, looking slightly misplaced at 35 years old, with flecks of silver in his hair. But he likes the order of scholarship, and the discipline. Even now, after everything that happened, he still keeps the military haircut.

He speaks quietly.

“Coming back here and going to school,” he says. “Studying Greek for hours. Doing chores. Vacuuming the floor. None of that seems important anymore.”

Outside, a group of younger theological students plays some sort of game. They laugh, and the sound seems to slide down the rails of sunlight slanting into the Hebrew classroom. The loveliness and purity of the place make Fair’s story seem even darker, and dirtier, and harder to approach.


“Maybe,” I say, “maybe we should start at the beginning.”

Fair nods.

“Yes,” he says.


FAIR GREW UP THE SON
of two schoolteachers, Presbyterians of Scottish and Austrian descent. They imbued in him, he says, a strict sense of right and wrong, and respect for regimen and authority.

He did well in school, and graduated from college with a degree in history. A smart kid who loved words, thanks to his parents.

Since high school he had wanted to be a policeman, and he quickly realized that serving in the military first would help him find a top job. That’s where his life took a twist, although its full significance would only become clear later.

Fair joined the Army in 1995, and signed up for airborne training, as well as a more severe course called “Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape.” He took the attendant battery of tests — psychological and intelligence — and his score on one of them, the language aptitude test, caught his superiors’ attention.

“You will be a linguist,” one of them told him. “And you will speak Arabic.”

Arabic ranks among the most difficult languages in the world, and Fair spent a year and a half undergoing intense training at a language school in California. His class started with 12 students, and finished with four.

The graduating students split into two groups: strategic assignment and tactical. Strategic meant analysis, planning and theory. Tactical meant action in the field. Fair’s penchant for action — and his airborne training — landed him a tactical spot. Although that didn’t mean a lot in 1997. He spent the next three years playing war games in Kentucky, battling pretend countries with Soviet-era satellite technology. “A total waste of time,” he says.

Those exercises may seem absurd, in retrospect. But there was one odd departure, and it, in retrospect, seems critical and revealing.

In 1999, the Army’s 10th Mountain Division needed to rotate a thousand or so soldiers into Egypt — part of a standing force in the Sinai — and sent a small advance team of officers and enlisted men to prepare the way. They needed a translator, and so they plucked Fair from his war games in Kentucky. The team flew to Egypt, and in the airport customs area, Egyptian officials ushered them into a side room.

The American officers turned to Fair and said, “All right. Do your thing.”

Fair stood agape. The government, apparently, completely misunderstood Arabic in a couple of ways. First, he hadn’t spoken a word of it in years by then, and Arabic requires constant practice. Second — and devastatingly — Egyptians don’t speak standard Arabic. They speak Egyptian, which is close to an entirely different language.


Left to his own devices, Fair worked out a mishmash of Arabic, Egyptian and English to communicate with his counterparts in the Sinai.

“Are you the new mutargim?” an Egyptian colonel asked him.

Fair said in Arabic, “I don’t know this word, ‘mutargim.’ What does it mean?”

The man grinned. It meant “translator.”

The episode revealed something that would become a matter of life and death: In affairs of the Middle East, the Army might have admired the notions of preparation and skill.

But in the field, it relied on improvisation, as Fair would finally see all too clearly.


AFTER HIS HONORABLE
discharge from the Army, Fair returned to Pennsylvania, married, and took up a position with the Bethlehem police department in 2001.

He worked hard, as an officer. Too hard, sometimes. “I had a reputation for being a pain in the neck,” he says.

He hated to sit behind a desk — he preferred tactical, so to speak, not strategic — and he sometimes went out looking for criminals even if the force was short-staffed.

“What if we had to come back you up?” his commander asked.

Fair felt restless. His longtime desire for public duty had intensified after September 11th; he needed to serve the country in a more demanding role, and he felt uniquely qualified: He embodied both the cerebral, as an Arabist, and the courageous, as a paratrooper trained in stealth.

Fair applied for positions at the CIA and the DEA. Both agencies had hiring processes that lasted many months. They picked through the minutiae of Fair’s background, his character, his motivations.

Finally, only the physical examination remained. At the doctor’s office, something unusual showed up on Fair’s EKG. He had cardiomyopathy, a potentially fatal condition — an enlarged heart that leaked blood. Under stress, no matter what his physical condition, Fair could drop dead without warning. That ended his hopes of fieldwork for the DEA, the CIA, and even the Bethlehem police.

That was spring of 2003. He sat behind a desk for a while at the Bethlehem police station, literally brokenhearted, and then decided to accept his fate and sit, at least, behind a more exclusive desk. He applied to become an analyst at the National Security Agency.

The NSA put him through its own rigorous screening process: six months of background checks, interviews, and a “full scope” polygraph, which lasted for hours. It probed for any deception, any moral weakness, any wobbly mental hinges. Finally he gained a top-secret security clearance, and the NSA hired him in November 2003. Fair moved to Maryland, and reported to work. A week later, his phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Hi,” said the voice on the other end. “I’m with CACI.”

The Fortune 1000 company once went by the nondescript name Consolidated Analysis Center, Inc. That name didn’t give away much, but even so, the company now uses the less descriptive acronym CACI, which its operators unofficially pronounce — the least descriptive term imaginable — “khaki.” According to one sentence from the company’s website, CACI can “ … deliver the IT applications and infrastructures our federal customers use to improve communications and collaboration, secure the integrity of information systems and networks … ” and so forth.


The caller from CACI, however, was very clear and concise on the phone that day: The company needed an interrogator.

CACI, along with Blackwater, DynCorp and numerous other companies, provides assorted services to the U.S. military in Iraq, from security to vehicle maintenance to interrogation. It’s an enormous yet near-invisible presence: The figures vary, but some estimates say there are almost as many private contractors in Iraq as active-duty soldiers — perhaps 125,000, forming a shadow army as large as the official one. But unlike the soldiers, who must adhere to specific rules of engagement, private contractors occupy a legal gray area. (At press time, the Iraqi government was attempting to expel Blackwater, a private security company that protects top U.S. officials, accusing its guards of shooting to death eight civilian Iraqis in Baghdad while protecting a U.S. State Department convoy.)

If CACI hired Fair, he’d have a conduit to the front lines of the war. He could, he thought, use his Arabic, his airborne training, his law enforcement know-how, to serve his country; he could scratch that itch to do something immediate and meaningful.  

Fair sent his paperwork to CACI and braced himself for yet another lengthy screening, with background checks and polygraphs and psychological tests. The first step, he understood, would be a phone interview by one of CACI’s managers. But it didn’t happen quite that way.

The manager greeted him with, “Hey, I hear you’re our newest interrogator. When are you leaving?”

Just like that, he was hired. “There was no interview process. I never met anyone,” Fair says. “I never went down to Arlington to CACI. It was, ‘If you want to go, go!’”

He felt a little apprehensive about that cavalier approach, he says, but “I wanted to go so badly that I just overlooked it.”

Within a matter of days, Fair boarded a plane bound for Texas. CACI and other companies kept a staging area at the U.S. Army’s Fort Bliss. That’s where Fair first noticed a real difference between private contractors and regular military. “I had an idealistic view that we were patriots,” he says. “I sensed that when I got to Fort Bliss there would be all these people just like me who wanted to support the country, who had been in the military. It wasn’t that way. It was instant: guys saying, How much are you making? I’m making one-fifty, how much are you making?”

Some guys switched companies right there in Texas, willing to head overseas for whichever employer paid the most. But there were many good and patriotic people there, Fair notes. And he wasn’t going for free, himself. He’d make about $120,000 a year in Iraq, working 72 hours a week.

Just before he left, he had to undergo a round of injections. He dreaded it, because he had kept his heart condition a secret. Fair stopped a doctor from giving him a smallpox vaccine. “I can’t have that one,” he said, explaining his medical condition. The smallpox shot could kill him.

The doctor eyed him. Had Fair’s personal physician cleared him for this sort of work?


Fair rationalized his answer: What’s the point of sending only healthy men to war?

“Yes,” he lied.

The doctor looked skeptical, but signed a waiver for the smallpox vaccination.

The lie marked new and unsettling territory for Fair; he would never have lied that way to his lieutenant back in Bethlehem’s police department. He couldn’t have.

Fair didn’t know it then, but he had taken his first step into a new style of private soldiering, where he owned himself. Where morality would become subject to his own rationale.

ONE NIGGLING problem remained: the small matter of a weapon. Or lack thereof.

Fair had spent enough time toting a rifle in the Army that he knew better than to stumble into war without one. He had made it a prerequisite, when CACI hired him: I’ll need a weapon. And a bulletproof vest.

Don’t worry, they had told him. You’ll get both in Texas.

In Texas, he and the handful of other new CACI recruits looked around, and saw no hardware. Where was it?

Don’t worry. You’ll get it in Kuwait.

The contractors boarded a plane and flew to Kuwait, where they would spend a few days at a military base, awaiting a flight into Baghdad. They glanced around. No rifles. No armor. Don’t worry. It’s in Baghdad.

Fair and a few of his colleagues talked briefly about staging a small strike, and refusing to leave Kuwait without the proper gear. But they were all former soldiers, and disobedience, at first, didn’t come easy. And otherwise, Kuwait, to tell the truth, was a kick in the pants. The young active-duty soldiers looked at the contractors as elite, super-secret operators. They had special skills. They wore no insignia. They needed no uniforms, didn’t cut their hair, grew beards. For Fair, a former enlisted man, walking past a colonel without saluting brought a nervous thrill.

He had been raised to respect authority, had survived on discipline and order, and this new mind-set felt like driving on a dark country road and flicking off his headlights. Merely a flutter in the belly, as long as he didn’t veer too far.

Fair smiles while he remembers the scene. But then his face changes.

“Kuwait,” he says, with a different, wry smile. “That was about the end of the fun.”

FAIR AND THE other new CACI contractors touched down at Baghdad International Airport, and found CACI leadership waiting.

Where are the guns, the body armor?

We’re working on that.

The leaders took the men to a small building in the compound, and into a room with a few cots. Get some sleep, the leaders said. Get your heads on straight. We’ll see you in a couple of days.

The contractors sat for two days and stared at each other, waiting for word of their fates, and their weapons. Finally, the leaders returned with an assignment. We’re going to a prison, they said. It’s called Abu Ghraib.


The name meant little, then. Fair knew it slightly, due to his familiarity with Arabic language and culture. He knew that Saddam Hussein had used it as a prison, and that an American pilot had been held there. The contractors got into a couple of stock Land Cruisers — bright white, unarmored, perfect targets — and headed out across Baghdad.

American forces had caught Saddam Hussein just a couple of months before, and a lull seemed to have settled on the city. Fair marvels now at the optimism he and his colleagues felt. “There was this sense that things were going to get better,” he says. All they needed to do was show up and survive.

At Abu Ghraib, he and the other contractors quickly saw there were no guns for them, and maybe never would be. But Fair wasn’t stupid. Or bound by military regulations.

He climbed into a Land Cruiser and made the perilous run back to the airport. As incredible as it seemed, amidst the rubble of war, Baghdad International was a fully functioning airport, and offered everything from a Burger King to a duty-free shop for travelers. Not that many tourists passed through.

Fair knew active-duty soldiers couldn’t drink liquor, in Iraq. But he, as a private citizen, could drink himself into a stupor if he liked. He entered the duty-free shop and bought a case of Jack Daniel’s whiskey. The finest sour mash, straight from Tennessee.

He tossed it into the Land Cruiser and returned to Abu Ghraib, where American soldiers guarded an enormous depot of seized weaponry — AK47s and RPGs and every machine gun made. Fair greeted the guards with the liquor. They told him, “Don’t take any of these weapons, but we’re not going to be here for the next 15 minutes.”

A few minutes later, Fair emerged carrying a machine gun.

He felt a twinge of shame. But he had no choice; he needed to defend himself, in the war. A war, moreover, that he thought of as a righteous mission.

He had done a very small bad thing, in the service of a greater good. It seemed almost nothing, just a friendly swap among the good guys. What difference did it make, in a country awash with weapons?

The exchange signified much, though. It marked Fair’s second meager deviation — after his lie to the doctor giving him the vaccine — from the prescribed course. His path had diverted just two degrees from America’s planned byway in Iraq.

But given enough time, two degrees becomes a vast departure.


ABOUT THAT TIME, Marshall Adame, an American from North Carolina who’s now running for Congress, arrived in Iraq.

After more than two decades in the Marines, Adame served as the U.S. State Department’s logistics adviser to the Iraqi Minister of the Interior. The position required bodyguards and convoys provided by private contractors, so Adame enjoyed a unique perspective on the differences between regular American military and the new-style privateers.

One of his first, stark encounters was in 2004, during a traffic jam on the streets of Baghdad. His three-car convoy came to a halt, as did the vehicles ahead. Then, suddenly, there were shouts and blaring horns from the rear, as another car tried to push through. It was full of armed contractors.

“They pulled up beside us with their weapons drawn and aimed at us,” Adame, now back home in North Carolina, remembers. “They didn’t know I was with guys who had their own guns, who drew them out. We almost had a firefight right there.”

Adame started to notice other cavalier behavior by contractors. Sometimes when a convoy of American military vehicles moved through the city, for instance, a truck might accidentally sideswipe or otherwise damage a local car. Whenever that happened, a designated member of the convoy would stop and hand the Iraqi citizen a card bearing contact information; he or she could receive compensation for the damage.

Not so the contractors, Adame says: Some of the companies are said to build clauses into their contracts with the U.S. government stipulating that their employees can’t be held accountable for their actions in Iraq — including, even, killing someone.

What a strange freedom, within a war: a whole class of people who float outside any geopolitical rule, untouchable by any country’s laws.

Stan Soloway is president of the Professional Services Council, an organization that represents the interests of contractors around the world. He questions Adame’s take on untouchability. “I’m 99.9 percent sure the CACI contract doesn’t have that sort of clause,” Soloway says. “There are various remedies available to the government [to prosecute wrongdoing]. That said, I’ll acknowledge, there remains some uncertainty which jurisdictional regime takes precedent.” (CACI officials declined numerous requests for comment about the company’s work in Iraq.)  

That’s a mighty important uncertainty, as the stories of misconduct by contractors tumble increasingly from Iraq: allegations that an operator for a Virginia-based company told his colleagues he was “going to kill somebody today” and then shot at Iraqi citizens, possibly killing one; videos leaked to show contractors driving through Baghdad, shooting at Iraqi cars; and now the accusations that Blackwater security workers had killed eight civilian Iraqis in Baghdad.

Adame says he watched private convoys — his own convoy, sometimes — plow through Iraqi traffic, forcing local cars to smash into each other. On one occasion, as his convoy traveled from Baghdad airport to the U.S. Embassy, it approached an official checkpoint, manned by Iraqi soldiers. As the vehicles drew close to the checkpoint, Adame noticed the driver kept his speed up.

“Why aren’t you slowing down?” Adame yelled. This was an established, government-sanctioned checkpoint, not some ragtag dip in a desert road.

“Shut up,” the driver yelled back, “and stay low.”

The convoy crashed through the checkpoint, and the Iraqi soldiers opened fire. At least two rounds socked into his vehicle, Adame says. But he knew the contractors could get away with no explanation; they had blown through the checkpoint because they didn’t feel like stopping.


“The single greatest recruitment tool for the insurgency in Iraq,” Adame says, “is the American private contractor.”

Iraqis don’t differentiate between regular soldiers and private contractors: They’re all simply “Americans.”


IN HIS FIRST
days at Abu Ghraib, Eric Fair immediately noticed small, almost trivial details that signaled underlying trouble.

Little things. Soldiers wearing t-shirts instead of their uniform blouses. Unshaven, and unpolished, soldiers.

And to Fair’s dawning horror, nobody seemed to know who was in charge.

Someone gave him a quick tour of the facilities — this is where you sleep, this is where you eat — and then led him to the interrogation rooms and told him to get to work. And that was it. No interrogation training, no discussion of long-term aims or the legal boundaries that marked the threshold of torture. The abruptness of the introduction set Fair on his heels; it was a much more dangerous version of that day in Egypt, when the misguided Army officers had turned to him and said, “All right. Do your thing.”

Abu Ghraib is an enormous facility, covering 280 acres of open ground, surrounded by a wall. Within it are numerous buildings, including a site built for interrogations. The whole setup was wrong; it was made of plywood, for one thing. Detainees could hear each other during questioning, speaking in a language most of their captors couldn’t understand. Even the police back home in Bethlehem knew better than this.

Fair stepped into an interrogation room and approached his first subject, a former Iraqi army general. American forces had entered his home five months earlier, looking for his son, a suspected insurgent. Not finding him, they had grabbed the old general and brought him to Abu Ghraib.

“Where is your son?” Fair asked.

“I don’t know,” the man said. “And even if I had known five months ago, how would I know now?”

Fair shook his head. The old man was right.

Most of his interrogations went that way; he demanded information of people who knew little, if anything. Sometimes the military would deposit several members of the same family and instruct Fair simply to interrogate them.

For what? he would ask.

Find out, was often the answer.

The great majority of his subjects, he imagined, had been rounded up in broad sweeps of neighborhoods, and had nothing to offer. A sense of foreboding settled on Fair: What was happening here?

Meanwhile, the small irreverences that had thrilled Fair in Kuwait — like not saluting officers — were magnified to a systematic degree. The unclear chain of command troubled him, but he didn’t know, then, the depth of the rot; he didn’t know much about a man named Charles Graner, who was at Abu Ghraib at the same time. He didn’t know Graner and his cohorts were perpetrating perhaps the greatest national embarrassment in the history of the United States.


No one ever instructed Fair to do anything torturous or sadistic, he says. The few who performed such acts — infamously, now — were, he thinks, anomalies. But the lack of oversight, at a facility in willful disarray, made the anomalies inevitable. “What did they expect to happen?” Fair wonders now.

After he’d been at Abu Ghraib for a month or so, word of a new tactic reached Fair. He and other CACI contractors would move west to Fallujah, an insurgent stronghold.

Too many Abu Ghraib prisoners, like the old general, had sat so long in their cells that their information — when any existed — had gone stale. So a handful of interrogators was being sent upstream, to intercept and question suspects immediately after capture.

Fallujah made Abu Ghraib seem like summer camp. In Fallujah, Fair interrogated men still oozing from fresh wounds, with bullets lodged in their tissue. Young men, old men, extended families.

And still, often, he interrogated people without really knowing why: What had these people done? What were they supposed to know?

Then came the night when Fair took the handoff of a detainee from his colleague. The colleague was applying sleep deprivation in an attempt to pry information from the captured man. He wanted Fair to keep the man awake throughout his shift.

Fair walked down the hall, flicked on the light, and found the detainee lying on the tiled floor. He commanded the man to stand facing the corner, then approached him.

The stink of the man filled Fair’s nostrils. How long had it been since he had bathed?

The man wore a thick brown winter robe. Fair reached up and removed it, and was surprised by the man’s nakedness underneath. He stared at the man’s dark, flabby, shivering skin.

Something shifted in Fair at that moment. As he looked at the man’s middle-aged softness, the split of his buttocks, Fair saw that he stood naked in the coldest, blackest sense of the word: exposed. Vulnerable.

As a boy, and then a soldier, and eventually a policeman, Fair had held a clear view of right and wrong, and the role of power. When he arrested someone in Bethlehem — the drunk drivers, or even, say, the wife-beaters — he always viewed them as fellow humans, once he had subdued them. “When I put those cuffs on,” he says, “those people came under my care. I was responsible for their welfare.”

Unther,” Fair told the man: “Wait.”

Fair flicked off the light and left the room, and the man started to cry. There was nothing to wait for, but the detainee didn’t know that, standing naked in the pitch black of a slaughterhouse stall. The man’s imagination could conjure worse possibilities than Fair ever could.

In taking this man’s robe, Fair had crossed an invisible line that separated good and patriotic work from degradation and cruelty. The cruelty didn’t compare to the inhumanity perpetrated by other interrogators elsewhere, to say nothing of terrorism, which the sleepless man may have been guilty of. But Fair made no moral equivalence; he judged himself only against his own sense of rightness.


For Eric Fair, what he was doing — the very reasons he had come to Iraq — suddenly made no sense.

Throughout the night, he returned again, and again, denying the man sleep and inciting his fear while struggling against an insurgence within himself: Fair had taken the things he loved — law, discipline, order — and bent them against themselves. He had used that power to take away another man’s humanity.

How long could he continue this? And the detainee? Sleep is an elemental thing, as necessary to life as water.

In the early hours of the morning, Fair spoke to his friend Ferd, the fellow interrogator. “Something is wrong here,” he said. Ferd nodded.

Fair decided to let the man sleep. And he resolved, further, to quit private interrogations.

BACK IN the tiled room.

The man stood again in his corner, crying. Screaming.

Screaming.

And then Fair awoke, to the sound of his own screams. He lay in bed back in Bethlehem, next to his horrified wife.

Just a dream. But he feared sleep, now.

So he forced himself to stay awake.

A FEW MONTHS passed, and the nightmares continued to plague Fair. He was back with the NSA. He continued grappling with his role in the Iraq war, and whether he had ceased to believe in that war entirely. He briefly returned to Iraq as an analyst for the NSA — a desk job, no interrogations — but even that didn’t suit him anymore.

People would laugh, he knew, and call him soft: What about what they — the enemy — did to us, or would if they could?

But Fair remembered his Christian upbringing, and particularly the portion where Jesus admonished his followers: “Love your enemies. … If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic.” Fair had drifted far from that gentle ideology, literally so, to the point of removing another man’s cloak.

Fair started writing letters to his local newspaper, and then the Philadelphia Inquirer, and finally the Washington Post. He wrote editorials both crying out for personal forgiveness and alerting America to the destruction of its collective soul.

Thousands of people wrote back. Some supportive, some not. And some like this:

“Eric, you were trying to relieve your conscious [sic] — probably would have been better had you put a bullet in your head.”

Another man offered to help make that happen:

“I still have a .45 caliber 1911. … I’d loan it to you gleefully if you get really depressed. And, I’d happily take whatever consequence might come my way for having done so. You’d be doing the world a favor by removing yourself from the gene pool.”

And here’s the thing: The first person supported coercive interrogation. The second person railed against it. But both despised Eric Fair to the point of calling for his suicide.

None of his critics, though, kept him awake at night. Only a robeless, shivering man did that.


FAIR STARTED training this summer at Princeton Theological Seminary. He hopes to become a Presbyterian minister, although he suspects his public confessions may keep him from finding a church to lead.

He doesn’t sound like a typical pastor when he describes the call to ministry: “I think maybe people place too much emphasis on this idea that you’ve been somehow selected by God, and an angel comes down to tell you. It’s just everything I’ve been through the past few years, and a real caring for people, and a real interest in Scripture.”

For now, he sits in a classroom in Stuart Hall, where the sunlight reaches sweetly through high windows. He couldn’t be farther from the slaughterhouse outside Fallujah. Geographically, at least.

“Everything seems useless, when you come back,” Fair says. “Nothing has that same adrenaline, nothing has that same purpose. Once you’ve seen it, once you’ve felt that … ” And his voice drifts away.

When he came back from Iraq, he and his wife Karin had great roaring fights over the way to wash dishes. She liked to wash them throughout the day. He liked to wash them all together, at the day’s end. They just about killed each other over that.

Fair worries for those thousands of private contractors who will, eventually, return from Iraq and crash back into American life. The regular military has built a strong safety net for its returning fighters, a whole system of counselors and hospitals to find and catch struggling soldiers. But the contractors will hit American soil left to their own devices.

After his private tour of Iraq, Fair questioned not only what he had seen there, but the nature of war itself. He had seen it — smelled it — and the whole endeavor struck him as wrong down to its bones. A war too fast. A war, even, too cheap: Despite the billions the Iraq war costs each week, most Americans remain untouched by it. There’s no rationing of sugar, butter or gasoline. Rosie the Riveter serves cappuccinos at her local coffee shop.

Fair struggles now to reconcile his revelation — the elemental wrongness of war — with other wars he knows to be just.

I ask him about the Second World War, and all the lives it saved. His face visibly warps, as two righteous but opposite ideas collide in his skull: “Yes, but look how we waited to enter that war,” he finally says. “We waited until the last possible second.”

And, I say, how many Jewish families wish we hadn’t?

“Yes,” he agrees. “That’s true.”


Fair now lives trapped in an endless spiral of reflection, reflection on his reflection, and so forth, until the guilt is almost crippling. “I liked it better when I had convictions about everything. Life was easier that way,” he says.

One of his critics threatened to physically harm Fair if they ever met on the street. Soon after, in downtown Bethlehem, a stranger tapped him on the shoulder: “Eric Fair?”

A combat stance gripped Fair’s mind, and adrenaline poured through his body.

The stranger, it turned out, was an old acquaintance from high school. But Fair stood trapped, stuck, tortured. “It dawned on me that in the heat of the moment, my conviction wasn’t strong enough to prevent me from fighting back,” Fair says. When tested, his sinew and blood and glands had leapt to defense; he had no intention of offering his cheek.

And so life goes, for Eric Fair: the tortured soldier whose large and bleeding heart should have kept him from ever waging war.

He has become the sleepless man.

Email: mteague@phillymag.com

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