To appreciate this book you have to ignore the misleading hype on the cover that suggests that The Contractor by Charles Holdefer exposes the secret detention and interrogation system expanded and ran by the Bush Administration outside of US and international law. It is political book but not at the level of who is doing what to whom. Instead, it goes to the heart of the western moral and ethical war aims as raised in this passage:
Then the LORD said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?" And he said, "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?"
It is clear that George Young, civilian interrogator contractor and a veteran of the first Gulf war would say no. His reaction when he comes across the burnt out remains of the Revolutionary Guard convoys is to argue:
…Because that day, I learned the price. Sure, I was shaken and sickened, and it is something I’d rather not think about or dwell on, but it also taught me something, steeled me, gave me the resources necessary to understand politics in the grown up world and later to become a contractor. This is what I learned: what we take for granted, hold precious, and celebrate remains viable because of our willingness to do this…To let those men get away would’ve been a serious strategic mistake…Any other description is special pleading or making excuses. Or simply lying to oneself. It gives me no satisfaction to say so, but not only will innocents die-they must die.
The story starts with the consequences of this when in a powerful opening scene we discover how prisoner #4141 dies. The humanity of the Prisoners are denied, as they are merely oranges being crated when they arrive or faceless numbers.
George Young is not a monster, which would let us off the hook so the story needs to show us why a good man would get to that position. It does in that we discover the economic and family pressures that lead systematically to meaningless death. We learn about his poor business track record and happy second marriage (which is being slowly killed by his need to keep secrets). The political playing out of the theme is also examined in his personal life as his big brother is his keeper at key points.
Away from the heat of the desert island and in the cold of a mid west winter on a family Christmas visit we have the amusing and poignant scenes of having to tackle the Father in Law( think of Spencer Tracy at his most grumpy) a minister of a struggling flock and a die in the wool fundamentalist. The family idea of fun is Bible Baseball ( questions are asked with the harder they are the more runs they are and George and his son are clueless). At one level this as they are trapped by the snow falls illustrates the horror that prisoners have to face. Unlike them, he escapes and answers a call by his brother, which sets of a chain of events where he finally does decide that he is his brother’s keeper.
The story moves between George’s professional and family life in the now and with flashbacks so that we understand his actions. The other characters are sketched in nicely which make the horrors of the camp and the choices he has to make even more chilling. The use of language and jargon is also clever and the first person POV gives you the reader chance to understand his world whilst questioning it.
If it makes more of us aware of the travesty of a war on terror for Democracy, and Human Rights based on lies and torturing rather then the politics of being my brother’s keepers then I hope it gets the wider readership it deserves.Other points of view:
One persons journey through a world of books
Writing...writing...writing...what else is there?