What Toll War? Classic Storytelling Puts a Face on Iraq War's Civilian Contractors

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Charles Holdefer

Truth is stranger than fiction, it's sometimes said. But fiction often gives us our best chance to experience and comprehend an increasingly strange reality.

Take, for instance, the U.S. war in Iraq: a conflict most American civilians learn of through reportage that often raises more questions than it answers.

It was such news coverage -- photographs related to the prison at Abu Ghraib, to be precise -- that seized the attention of novelist Charles Holdefer, an American living and teaching in France, and led him to write the just-published novel The Contractor (Permanent Press), a Book Sense Pick for November.

"There was one photo particularly, of the so-called Ice Man," said Holdefer, speaking by long-distance telephone. "This [dead] man being kept in a bag of ice? And there were photos of [Army personnel] horsing around with his corpse -- rather grisly photos.... When I saw those, I was taking stock, like lots of people, wondering, 'Well, what's going on? What's his story? How did he end up in that kind of situation?'" According to U.S. government documents, it was after being interrogated by a member of the OGA, explained Holdefer, "which is an acronym often used for the CIA, and by a private contractor.... For me, that set the wheels turning."

Holdefer found lots to fuel his curiosity and imagination. "Naively, before I had not assumed that private contractors were involved in that type of interrogation, and with secret prisoners," he explained. "This was a person who was a 'ghost' detainee. And so I started trying to figure out, 'Well, what's it like in a contractor's mind?'"

Holdefer is the author of two previous novels (Apologies for Big Rod and Nice), books rather different in tone and subject-matter from his new work about a Gulf War veteran who accepts work as a contracted civilian interrogator for the U.S. government and is sent overseas to a secret holding facility for suspected terrorists.

"My earlier books were, I suppose, more comedy of manners," the writer said, "and the humor is maybe a little bit more in the forefront. This one is more of a mix, I suppose." Yet there is a lighter side to The Contractor, Holdefer insisted: "A lot of the story is a family story. It is a book that addresses torture, but there aren't very many of those kinds of scenes. A lot of it is about family relations, and also job-contact relations, so there is humor there."

His intention, Holdefer said, was to write a novel -- not a work of journalism, and not a political tract. "A lot of political fiction is just kind of boring, in my opinion. It's too preachy. I don't like being told what to think.

"I do feel that a lot of American citizens have been a bit asleep on some of these issues, or have maybe not asked enough questions. But literature is full of ambiguity. I have a main character who does some pretty awful things, but I like to think that he is someone worthy of our attention and our sympathy -- not a monster. And that's part of the human condition that I think literature is well suited to address."

What interested him, Holdefer said, was trying to figure out the motivations of his protagonist -- and the price he pays. "It's not just his victims, but his own price, and that of his family, too. I think that's an untold story, generally speaking."

As a novelist, Holdefer said, he has sympathy for his character. "I mean there are lots of things he does which I think are absolutely objectionable. But I think he's bit off more than he can chew.... He initially thought that he was helping out his family and serving his country, and it turns out that this is sort of a simplified version of the truth, which doesn't really work."

The voice of George, the first-person narrator, came to Holdefer on New Year's Day 2005, as he rode a train back to France from Brussels. "George's voice grabbed me, and I couldn't stop writing -- just doing longhand, trying to keep up with what he was saying. That's kind of a good problem, in a way: when a character takes charge. And then, of course, there's the painstaking side of things. You have to go back, and make things add up, and polish. It's the quickest first-draft I've ever done, and some of the slowest subsequent drafts I've done ... but I could see my destination. And the final 30 pages, the climax was something that I did feel the driving-towards -- this hole I was falling into -- fairly early. And it was both kind of exhilarating, and scary."

Holdefer's George is, like his creator, from Upper-Midwest America. But there the comparisons end. Holdefer grew up immersed in reading -- "When you're on the farm, you know, your public library is such a precious resource" -- and eventually attended the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop.

"Iowa City's a special place," Holdefer said, "like every [few days] there's a reading. On Tuesday, you go see Toni Morrison; on Friday, you go see Angus Wilson. It becomes part of your experience, like going to the movies. That helps you become part of this conversation. Having seen those people, I thought, well, I'll try to get into the Workshop ... And I got in, and then I discovered that of most of the people there, there's almost no one from Iowa. Everyone comes from the East Coast or West Coast ... and they bring with them their perspectives. That was an experience in itself: being like the only local there."

Among Holdefer's favorite writers as an adolescent was Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., another Midwesterner who wrote (in Slaughterhouse-Five) about American males involved in combat and its ambiguous and often awful consequences. And among the authors and works he thinks of now, in at least tangential connection with his book The Contractor, is Stephen Crane and The Red Badge of Courage. Crane wasn't even born when the Civil War was going on, noted Holdefer, "but a lot of our sense of the Civil War ... we have a grasp on it, with the help of this type of storytelling. And this type of storytelling, I think, is just very precious." -- Tom Nolan