SAN FRANCISCO - Few people have
thought as much about the morality of the U.S. occupation of Iraq than
Joshua Casteel, a former U.S. Army interrogator who served at Abu
Ghraib prison in the wake of the detainee abuse scandal there.
Once a cadet at the
U.S. Military Academy at West Point and raised in an evangelical
Christian home, Casteel became a conscientious objector while he was
stationed at the prison.
wasn't the kind of abuse shown in the famous graphic images that made
him feel morally compelled to leave the military -- Casteel says that
kind of behaviour had ceased by the time he showed up in June 2004 --
but the experience of gleaning information speaking to the detainees in
their own language.
Those experiences, and the spiritual
awakening Casteel experienced inside the walls of the prison, are
contained in 'Letters from Abu Ghraib', a compendium of e-mail messages
he sent home from the prison, which was published last month by Iowa's
The e-mails, compiled in a lean 118-page volume,
are less concerned with the details of prison operations than their
moral implications. By what right, the former interrogator asks, does
one derive the authority to question prisoners as part of a military
It's an important question to ask and timely too
given the steady growth in the number of Iraqi prisoners in U.S.
custody over the course of its occupation of Iraq. Pentagon statistics
show the U.S. military now holds over 24,000 'security detainees' in
Iraq -- more than double the number incarcerated by Coalition at the
time of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal four and a half years ago.
forces are holding nearly all of these persons indefinitely, without an
arrest warrant, without charge, and with no right to any type of open
legal proceedings. It's perhaps a mark of the failure of the United
States' political and religious establishments that it falls to a U.S.
Army Specialist like Joshua Casteel to wrestle with the moral
difficulties of these massive imprisonments. 'Letters from Abu Ghraib'
shows how the ethical failures of their leaders affect soldiers on the
When he first arrives at Abu Ghraib's interrogation
centre, Casteel tells his family he really loves his work. 'I see my
job much more as a Father Confessor than an interrogator,' he writes,
'As a Confessor you cannot coerce a person to reveal that which they
wish to hide. A Confessor's aim is to help the one confessing to be
sincere, to arrive at the kind of contrition that actually desires
self-disclosure -- and to that end, empathy and understanding go a long
But Casteel, who prays daily and considers 'keeping the
liturgy with others and taking the Eucharist -- Communion' to be 'the
most important part of the week,' begins to feel uncomfortable after
just a few weeks on the ground.
'The weight of the job sometimes
is more painfully present to me than at other times,' he writes a month
into the deployment. He is uncomfortable 'exploiting' prisoners for
their 'intelligence' value rather then interacting with them as fully
equal human beings.
Making matters worse is that many of the detainees he interrogated turned out to be completely innocent.
was constantly being asked, 'Why am I being held here? I want
answers!'' Casteel told IPS. 'But that was my job. We were supposed to
be finding answers to our questions, but we kept being put into
situations that were incredibly puzzling because talking to people was
like trying to get blood from a turnip. They were the ones that had a
greater justification for the need to have answers.'
such a dilemma, Casteel turns to an army chaplain for help. 'We talked,
I vexed and I summoned whatever strength we could conclude upon to go
back to my interrogation...He prayed me back into combat,' Casteel
writes. 'I was no longer afraid to demand authority, to play upon
certain weaknesses of my detainee, and to question in a most heated
fashion -- because ultimately, I thought, it would lead me to a more
accurate assessment of the veracity of his statements.'
transgressed no lines of 'proper conduct,' but I certainly, and without
hesitation, used a man's anxieties, weaknesses and fears, and my
particular place of power and dominance to assess him according to his
word...And I even left with what I thought was a clearer picture of the
man I was assessing -- perhaps to his benefit. So, why did I feel like
a complete failure?'
The answer to his question comes in October 2004, five months into his tour at Abu Ghraib.
had an interrogation with a 22-year-old Saudi Arabian who was very
straightforward that he had come to Iraq to conduct jihad,' Casteel
said. 'We started having a conversation about religion and ethics and
he told me that I was a very strange man who was a Christian but didn't
follow the teachings of Jesus to love my enemy and pray for the
persecuted...I told him that I thought he was right and that there was
a massive contradiction involved with me doing my job and being a
'I wanted to have a conversation with him about
ethics and the cycle of vengeance and how idiotic it was that his
people said it was okay for him to come and kill me and my people told
me it was okay to kill him,' he said in an interview. 'Why is it that
we can't find a different path together?'
Since that type of
conversation was not possible as a U.S. Army interrogator, Joshua
Casteel filed an application for discharge as a conscientious objector.
Much to his surprise, his command endorsed it, and offered to speed his
transition out of the Army. He now hopes to serve as a bridge between
conservative Christians and the antiwar left.
He hopes 'Letters
from Abu Ghraib' will 'give conservative Christians an unfiltered
picture of one Christian's wrestling with violence and also help the
secular world get a backstage pass to the way a conservative Christian
Since his discharge, Casteel converted to
Catholicism, attracted by the Church's tradition of 'social teaching,'
and has worked with other like-minded Catholics to push the Church play
a more active role in bringing the war to an end.
his book has been assigned to students at a number of Catholic high
schools in the Midwest and the former interrogator has been invited to
speak at religious schools from New Jersey to Colorado.
are 30 percent of the military. They're equally 30 percent of
Congress,' he said. 'The Vatican had a strong rebuke of the Iraq war
but the Iraq war could not have happened were it not for Catholics.
Christ has turned up in the people of Iraqi bodies and it's Iraq that's
getting crucified and it's largely Christian America that's allowed to
be prosperous in the midst of it.'
IPS correspondent Aaron
Glantz is author of the upcoming book 'The War Comes Home: Washington's
Battle Against America's Veterans'.