I spent this semester teaching creative writing at Lehigh University. I’ve been a soldier, a police officer and an interrogator. So hearing students call me “Professor” and assigning homework was a significant change of pace.
But the course’s title, Writing War, kept me from straying too far from the memories that have haunted me over the last decade. I am grateful to Lehigh for the opportunity to teach the course. The school’s willingness to put a veteran in the classroom is the very thing this country needs to be doing in order to collectively process what the last 13 years of war have wrought. But teaching a class about war reminded me daily that I am no college professor.
I was an interrogator at Abu Ghraib. I tortured.
Abu Ghraib dominates every minute of every day for me. In early 2004, workers inside Abu Ghraib were scrambling to cover the murals of Saddam Hussein with a coat of yellowish paint. I accidentally leaned up against one of those walls. I still wear the black fleece jacket with the faded stain. I still smell the paint. I still hear the sounds. I still see the men we called detainees.
Last month, my students at Lehigh read “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. During class I talked about the things American soldiers carried in Iraq. I brought in a cigar box filled with the trinkets and mementos I had purchased from Iraqi vendors at Baghdad International Airport. I brought along the black fleece jacket.
When I asked the students to share their memories of the release in 2004 of the Abu Ghraib photographs showing the abuse of detainees, I received the sort of looks students give when they think they should know something and are too embarrassed to admit they don’t. Most avoided eye contact, some gave a sort of noncommittal nod, while others went for pure honesty and just yawned.
It was my first encounter with a generation that doesn’t consider the release of the Abu Ghraib photographs to be a critical moment in their lives. I don’t fault them. They were in elementary school at the time. It’s something for history books. It’s something their parents talk about. It’s an answer on a test.
As I looked at their blank faces, I realized I could let myself feel a powerful sense of relief. Abu Ghraib will fade. My transgressions will be forgotten. But only if I allow it.
I’ve published articles in newspapers detailing our abusive treatment of Iraqi detainees. I’ve done interviews on TV and radio. I’ve spoken to groups from Amnesty International, and I’ve confessed everything to a lawyer from the Department of Justice and two agents from the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command. I’ve said everything there is to say. It’s not hard to pretend the best thing to do is put it all behind me.
I stood before the class that day tempted to let apathy soften the painful truths of history. I no longer had to assume the role of the former interrogator at Abu Ghraib. I was a professor at Lehigh University. I could grade papers and say smart things in class. My son could ride the bus to school and talk to his friends about what his father does for a living. I was someone to be proud of.
But I’m not. I was an interrogator at Abu Ghraib. I tortured.
Eventually I encouraged the students to track down the photos from Abu Ghraib and record their reactions in creative essays. We spent time talking about the abuses that took place and I even exposed them to some of my own writing. They still called me “Professor,” but I suspect they no longer thought of me as one.
Today, the Senate released its torture report. Many people were surprised by what it contained: accounts of waterboardings far more frequent than what had previously been reported, weeklong sleep deprivation, a horrific and humiliating procedure called “rectal rehydration.” I’m not surprised. I assure you there is more; much remains redacted.
Most Americans haven’t read the report. Most never will. But it stands as a permanent reminder of the country we once were.
In some future college classroom, a professor will require her students to read about the things this country did in the early years of the 21st century. She’ll assign portions of the Senate torture report. There will be blank stares and apathetic yawns. There will be essays and writing assignments. The students will come to know that this country isn’t always something to be proud of.
Eric Fair, an Army veteran, was a contract interrogator in Iraq in 2004.