"Our sons will ask us what we did here": an interrogator's memories of Abu Ghraib

A single month at Abu Ghraib is enough to know that all of this is wrong, but I stay. Each day, the hole deepens

Published April 3, 2016 12:30PM (EDT)

A detainee in the Abu Ghraib Prison on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq, May 10, 2004.   (AP/John Moore)
A detainee in the Abu Ghraib Prison on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq, May 10, 2004. (AP/John Moore)

Excerpted from "Consequence: A Memoir"



One of the interrogation booths at Abu Ghraib has comfortable chairs. I like to use this booth because there’s a small space heater inside that cuts through the chill of the Iraqi winter. There’s even a hot plate to boil water for tea, but it only works when you run an extension cord from the generator, and that prevents you from closing the door all the way. I’m interrogating an Iraqi general today, so I make the tea.

It’s hard to schedule this booth because everyone wants to use it, and we’re only supposed to use it when we have someone important to talk to. It’s always a good thing if you’re interrogating a former Iraqi army officer, especially a major or a colonel. And if you get a former general, like today, then the booth is yours for sure.

The comfortable interrogation booth is designed for an approach called change of scenery. The prisoner is supposed to think he’s somewhere else; he’s supposed to be tricked into thinking he’s just holding a normal conversation in an office building or his living room; he’s supposed to forget he’s being interrogated at Abu Ghraib prison. But it’s still just a plywood interrogation booth that smells like fresh- cut lumber, and it’s still surrounded by the mud and the filth and the incoming mortar rounds that mark Abu Ghraib.

It’s early morning—the afternoon sun is still a few hours away—so when two U.S. Army soldiers deliver the general to the booth he is shivering from the cold. I haven’t had time to read the screening report, so I don’t know much about him, but I’m sure his story is similar to so many of the others I’ve already heard. He’s Shia, which means he probably commanded some poorly trained army unit that probably had more men than rifles. And he probably couldn’t pay his men because he embezzled the unit’s payroll in order to fund the bribes that got him promoted to general in the first place. He probably deserted during the invasion, never wanted to fight U.S. troops, and just wanted to go home and live in an Iraq free of Saddam Hussein. This is what all the former generals tell us. None of us believe it.

The report says something about the general’s sons being involved in anti-Coalition activities, which doesn’t make much sense because he’s Shia, and it’s January 2004 and the Shia haven’t turned their guns on us yet. But it’s hard to know what’s true inside Abu Ghraib, and it’s hard to make sense of anything going on in Iraq.

I’m working with one of the two good translators today. She grew up in one of Baghdad’s Christian communities and moved to Michigan during high school, so unlike most translators, she’s fluent in both languages. And she’s fast. She doesn’t wait for you to finish your sentences the way the other translators do, or ask you to repeat yourself, or waste time debating the exact meaning of a word. She talks as you talk, making the conversation seamless.

I’m supposed to collect information about the location of the general’s sons, but like so many things in Iraq, it’s an impossible task. He’s been detained since October 2003. It’s unclear what, if anything, he’s done wrong. He’s had no contact with his family, no information about the outside world, and no cooperation from the men who have imprisoned him. My task is to gain his trust and convince him to betray his sons.

By the time I’ve read the initial screening report and gathered basic background information, I’ve given up. 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 hopes of salvaging the experience and finding some way to excuse what I’ve done. With each day, the hole gets deeper.

I have the booth scheduled for another hour and I don’t have the energy this morning to start on someone new. So I take the time to ask the general about his life and learn what I can about Iraq. I do this with most prisoners, whether they have intelligence value or not. When I write the report, I’m supposed to call this the approach phase. I’m supposed to be building rapport. Some interrogators talk about how good they are at this, how they develop relationships with prisoners and come to some sort of understanding, opening lines of communication that will eventually produce good intelligence.

It’s all bullshit. This is Abu Ghraib prison. The Iraqis hate all of us.

As I talk to the general about the village where he grew up, his service in the Iran-Iraq War, and how much he loves his sons, I ignore the memories from the previous night, when I interrogated a young man in one of the uncomfortable interrogation booths. I made him stand with his arms in the air until he dropped them in exhaustion. He lied to me, said he didn’t know anything about the men he was captured with or the bomb that had been buried in the road. So I hurt him. Now I’m in a decent room serving decent tea and acting like a decent man. The comfortable interrogation booth is all I need to convince myself that the general and I are enjoying this conversation. I’ve fallen for my own stupid trick. When I pour the tea and turn up the heater, I complete the illusion.

As we drink our tea, the translator starts a conversation with the general about what it was like growing up as a Christian in Iraq and how her Muslim neighbors always took good care of her. I was an Arabic linguist in the Army, and while my language skills have faded,

I understand enough to allow the translator to steer the conversation for a bit. The general says he was never very religious, but as he gets older he attends Friday prayers more often. The translator seems to like him. I do, too. I pretend the general feels the same way about me.

I talk about growing up in Pennsylvania and attending a Presbyterian church as a boy and how hearing the call to prayer from the mosques of Baghdad reminds me that I should be praying to my god more often. “No, no,” the general says in English. “Not a different god. Same god. Same god.” He points at both the translator and me.

“We are same god.”

The general and I are excited to discover that we are both former police officers, so we talk about how hard that job could be and how police officers are the ones everyone turns to when something goes wrong. He says he always thought about going back to police work, but now something is wrong with his kidneys and he has to take too many kinds of medicines.

I take too many kinds of medicines, too. I have heart failure. It cost me my job with the police department. I shouldn’t even be in Iraq, but I’d been a soldier once, and I felt an obligation to be part of the war, so I lied during the physical and became a contractor. “Besides,” I say to the general, “why do doctors only send healthy men to war?”

This makes the general laugh. He hates his doctors, too. He grabs his belly and shakes it and says the medicines make him gain weight. He says I look too healthy to be sick. But he says I should do what my doctors tell me. American doctors are much better than Iraqi doctors. I am too young. I have more life to live.

He asks more questions about where I am from. I shouldn’t be letting him do this, but I’ve already lost control of the interrogation. I look to the translator. She says the general likes me and I should just keep talking and see what happens. I talk about Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and the steel mill there, which just went bankrupt. He doesn’t understand what I mean by “rust belt,” so we talk about the dying industries and the closing factories. He says this is just like Iraq: no jobs and no place to work. There is no place for men to feel like men.

The general asks me about my time in the Army. I tell the general I was a sergeant, not an officer like him. He finds this hard to believe, because most enlisted Iraqi soldiers have little or no education. I tell him that I was a paratrooper, and talk about my time learning to jump out of planes and patrol the swamps and forests of American military bases. Training was difficult, but it helped us become better soldiers. The general gets excited when I mention that I served with the 101st Airborne Division. He says his unit was like mine. He mentions the Hammurabi Division.

But now that he is comfortable and the conversation is easy, the general has just confessed to a lie. The Hammurabi Division was a part of Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard, trusted troops who were expected to defend Baghdad to the death. But they didn’t. They surrendered and blended back into the populace. The general hasn’t mentioned this before, and while it’s not critical intelligence information, it’s a slip that is enough to change his status at Abu Ghraib: he’s now a high- value prisoner. His interrogations will be more frequent. They won’t be conducted in the booth with comfortable chairs anymore.

But I pretend not to notice his mistake. I steer the conversation away from the military and avoid subjects related to the war. I want to recreate the world we were just in, a world where I am kind to an old man and he says nice things about the way I speak Arabic. I don’t want to admit that the general is probably trying to manipulate me, fishing for common ground and finding ways to relate. But our discussion about church and mosques and calls to prayer has reminded me about where this journey to Abu Ghraib started, and how far away I am from where I had hoped it would go.

At Abu Ghraib, I have put my hands on detainees, shoved them into walls, and turned a blind eye when others did the same. I have walked the halls of the hard site where the harshest interrogations take place, and averted my gaze from one of the most appalling chapters in American history. But as I talk to the general, I pretend there will be a day when these memories have faded, when all I remember are good conversations with Iraqi generals and the decent tea I learned to serve. I can go back to my Presbyterian church and pray to my god. But that’s an illusion, too.

As the hour with the general comes to a close, I’m convinced I’ve developed a genuine rapport. It’s worth making one final effort to ask about his sons.

I give the general a speech about the future of Iraq, a speech that, by now, I’ve given to many detainees, about how we need honest and brave men willing to carve out a new future for Iraq. It doesn’t matter why America invaded Iraq or what mistakes were made along the way; all that matters is we move forward and stay on the path. The right choices will build a strong foundation for a new Iraq. The wrong ones will have consequences.

The general is nodding in agreement, so I return to the issue of his sons. In an effort to establish common ground, I tell him I have kids, too. I don’t. But when I do, this speech will haunt me.

I say that someday our sons will ask us about what we did here. We will tell them that we made the right choices, the difficult choices, and they will be proud of us.

The general is crying. Even the translator, who has three sons of her own, is beginning to tear up. I’m tempted to think I’ve gained the general’s trust, that he’s willing to provide information about his sons, and that he thinks of me as a decent man.

None of this is true. Instead, I’ve succeeded only in making all of us homesick.

I deliver the final part of the speech in my own broken Arabic, but the translator still repeats my words. The general hears both my heavily accented Arabic and the translator’s perfect Iraqi dialect. It comes to him as an echo.

I say a new day for Iraq is here. We must seize it. We must save Iraq. We must do what is right. For our sons! For our sons!

“God willing,” he sobs. “For our sons, for our sons.”

Excerpted from "Consequence: A Memoir" by Eric Fair. Copyright © 2016 by Eric Fair. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Co.

By Eric Fair


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