In the wake of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2004, Casteel, 24, who served with the Army’s 202nd Military Intelligence Battalion as an Arabic translator and U.S. Army interrogator inside the prison, faced an internal struggle between his sense of duty as a soldier and his moral and religious obligations.
After he had executed over 100 interrogations, Casteel’s internal battle coalesced in the case of a 22-year-old Saudi detainee, a self-proclaimed Jihadi who never fired a gun in his life, yet came to Iraq to fill his cousin’s shoes.
Ironically, Casteel, who had already been fighting a moral struggle before the interrogation, ended up being the one interrogated.
“When the Saudi told me that I wasn’t following Jesus, I told him he was right,” Casteel told the Iowa Independent during an interview. “If anything, I should be in his shoes, because the people who are the most important to me in my life were prisoners: Jesus, Saint Paul, anti-Nazi martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King. They were never the captors.”
It was this epiphany that convinced Casteel to tell his commanding officer that he couldn’t interrogate the Saudi prisoner anymore because he saw him as a 22-year-old kid and a person, not an object of exploitation.
“I couldn’t argue with him about the virtue of nonviolence, so it was at this point I decided that I needed to make a practical decision in my life,” Casteel said. “I, too, had to lead by example.”
Casteel’s conscience and morality as a human being overcame his duty as a soldier, and it was here that he initiated the process of filing for conscientious objector status, eventually ending his military career.
“I didn’t tell anyone over there about these struggles except my best friend,” Casteel said. “Although I did process them through e-mail messages that I had been writing to my family and friends back home. These letters ended up serving as the background for my CO status, illustrating my growing resistance to violence.”
“I had this huge vat of correspondence that showed the trajectory of becoming a CO,” Casteel said. “I never wrote these letters with the intent of publication, and it wasn’t until I got hooked up with my editor at Essay Press, Eula Biss, a graduate from the UI’s nonfiction writing program, that I decided to publish them. Since I was too close to the material, I needed Biss to help shape the material and streamline an arc that I couldn’t see.”
Casteel, who had another month-and-a-half of interrogating left in 2004 after his decision to file as a CO, wanted to complete his tour in Iraq. “After telling my company commander that I was filing for CO, I refused to go to the promotion board, because I didn’t want to say the NCO [noncommissioned officer] creed,” Casteel said. “I didn’t believe it anymore, but I [said I] didn’t want to hand in my weapon until I returned to the States. I would continue the tour and wouldn’t demand being made a noncombatant, but I told my commander that if he would rather have somebody who is not nervous about pulling the trigger, then he might want to consider that.”
Casteel completed his tour, returned to the United States in January 2005, submitted his CO paperwork in February and was honorably discharged in May.
“This is wildly fast for a CO to get processed and discharged," he said. "I had never heard of such a quick turnaround. Under the military’s ‘Needs of the Army' clause, a CO is a lag to morale, so the military didn’t want me around killing morale.”
Casteel soon enrolled in the UI’s graduate playwright workshop, graduating with an M.F.A. in 2008. As a student in the workshop, he wrote a play about his experiences as an Abu Ghraib interrogator, which premiered at the UI Theaters in February.
Since his return to civilian life, Casteel has been very active in spreading his message through organizations such as the Catholic Peace Fellowship, Iraq Veterans Against the War and UI Anti-War Committee, and he facilitated a panel discussion during the Winter Soldier hearings in Washington, D.C.
“I started doing a lot of public speaking after I left the military, and the more I spoke, the more people wanted copies of my speeches,” he said.
While collaborating with the IVAW, Casteel and other members formed a writing group, Warrior Writers, which recently published a book.
Casteel also shared his experiences on camera in the documentary film, “Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers," and portions of his “Letters from Abu Ghraib” will be excerpted in the October edition of Harper's Magazine.
Iowa Independent interview with Joshua Casteel:
Iowa Independent: Having grown up in an evangelic Christian household, what compelled you to join the military?
Casteel: I also grew up in a military family. My grandfather fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. My father was a captain in the military, and my aunt also served n the Army. I had ambitions of going to West Point, so I enlisted in the military when I was 17 to bolster my chances of getting in to the West Point Academy.
Iowa Independent: How did that pan out for you?
Casteel: After graduating valedictorian from Cedar Rapids Washington High School, I was accepted into West Point. Unfortunately, I hated West Point and had no idea what I was getting into. I thought I would be surrounded by a bunch of people like me, who were intellectually curious, but that was not the case. I did not like the military culture in the classroom, and this environment squelched my intellectual curiosities. I ended dropping out the first month and did ROTC for a year, before transferring to Colorado Christian University.
Iowa Independent: So how did you end up back in the military?
Casteel: 9-11 happened. Plus, I’ve always had some political aspirations, and I didn’t want people to think of me as somebody like President Bush, whose military experience is suspect. I was interested in learning a foreign language, and the only job that guaranteed foreign language training was an interrogator, so I re-enlisted and was deployed immediately after I had completed my year and a half of training at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, where I studied Arabic.
Iowa Independent: Given your religious upbringing, did you have any reservations about going over to Iraq, especially knowing what had happened at the Abu Ghraib prison?
Casteel: Yes. While I was attending the language institute, where most of the instructors were Iraqi Catholics, I watched the morning news with one of my instructors, whose family lives there, and watched Baghdad get pulverized. That personal connection really shook me up. I would go back and forth between ‘I’m in this. Let’s go the whole nine yards’ to ‘What the hell is going on? I don’t believe in violence, and I should file for CO status.’
So before deployment I decided I wanted to be a noncombatant and help soldiers, so I applied and was accepted to seminary. Unfortunately I got accepted two weeks before deployment, so I would have to wait until I returned. I left all of my pacifist literature at home and went to Iraq, thinking to myself that I should know what it is like to be a soldier before I administer to them.
Iowa Independent: Having been deployed in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal, did you find yourself plopped in a hostile environment?
Casteel: The locals knew about the scandal, and they were pissed. The prisoners were also terrified of us. When I was there, the world’s cameras were upon us so, but unfortunately this did not stop the dark activity that had been going on; it just moved away from the prison. Special forces teams and mobile interrogation units were still using questionable techniques.
Iowa Independent: What do you mean by dark activity and questionable techniques?
Casteel: Special forces units, private contractors and the CIA were using induced hypothermia, sensory deprivation, stress positions, sleep deprivation, and smashed prisoners fingers with hammers as a means of extracting information. A really common technique used was shackling a prisoner’s ankles and hands to a loop at the bottom of a shipping container while blaring music and flashing lights for extended periods of time, thus inducing sensory and sleep deprivation. Sometimes dogs would be used as well.
Iowa Independent: What was your role as an Arabic translator and interrogator?
Casteel: I served specifically on a team that interrogated terrorists and foreign fighters. My job was to find information that would help battlefield commanders with missions.
The textbook definition of interrogation is to exploit the greatest amount of information in the least amount of time. We would use the phrase "tactical exploitation" causally all of the time. I was reading Pope John Paul II at the time, and he described the current age as “the culture of death,” which he defines as any time one reduces a human being to an object as a means to an end of exploitation, you participate in the culture of death.
I conducted over 130 interrogations, and I can count on one hand the number of people who were guilty of anything more than being Arab.
Iowa Independent: So who were you interrogating?
Casteel: I interrogated taxi drivers, laborers and young fathers. Units would go out looking for four people and would come back with 80. The problem was that all of the linguists, those who had cultural training, were back with me, so soldiers with little knowledge of the culture were rounding up anyone who looked suspicious in their mind, which meant carrying an AK-47.
What they didn’t know is that the terrorists involved in the violence were a maximum of 2 percent. Political insurgency, people tied to political movements, was 30 to 35 percent. Most of the violence came from the Tribal Defense System, which is like neighborhood watch with guns. They are mainly trying to keep their people safe, and they might be fighting other Iraqis, coalitions or anyone they deem as a threat to their neighborhood. So our soldiers would see these guys and would suspect they may be working for Osama bin Laden, whereas they may just be guarding an alley for safety reasons.
Iowa Independent: When did you begin sensing that your religious faith and your sense of duty as a soldier were clashing?
Casteel: There was this painting at the chapel we used in Abu Ghraib which had this huge, beefy-looking Jesus, who looked like Brian Uhrlacher, a barrel-chested linebacker. He was surrounded by soldiers in combat poses with M-60s and M-16s, and there were a bunch of blue-skinned angels with gold, glowing swords flying about. After meeting the Saudi, I felt like this painting was a good metaphor for America and how things worked out in American Christianity. The painting conveyed the message that Combat Jesus helps me kick my enemies' ass.
I didn’t like that idea.
Iowa Independent: What do you see as your new calling in the post-Abu Ghraib, post-military world?
Casteel: I’m interested in spreading the notion of political nonviolence and teaching Christians about their faith. There is no such thing as Combat Jesus. The single most important issue when it comes to Christianity and violence is nationalism. It is the single most divisive thing that can push a Christian from a discussion of ethics to a discussion about law. I never heard a Christian say that violence is a good thing and hating people is OK. But there has always been a way to frame it so that violence is no longer personal. It is policy.
What I experienced in Iraq is that I had a unique view from the battlefield. I actually had to talk to the enemy. I knew the names and ages of their kids. How long it had been since they had seen their wives. They had real questions about our democracy and how it worked.
The language our leadership use is always purely policy. Nations have interests, and it is no longer about people. As long as we stay within the language of policy, rather than talking about pain which is never talked about, when it comes to the politics of war. … We have given countries and institutions emotions instead of people.
Iowa Independent: What do you think should happen in Iraq?
Casteel: Nothing can happen without deep, serious conversation with Iran, Syria and Jordan. It is their part of the world. Every time I hear somebody say we need to withdraw with honor, I want to throw my shoe at the television or radio. When did Iraq’s stability have anything to do with our honor? We need to fess up to the fact that we did a very dishonorable thing; that would be the honorable thing to do.
We are always concerned about our interests in the long run. The building of the 14 permanent bases in Iraq needs to stop immediately. On the one hand I am more concerned about individuals than policy and using the political power of “no.” I don’t simply think the war in Iraq is the fault of a bunch of neocons; it is the fault of individuals who said “yes” and bought into the myth of nationalism. People, especially the working class, need to be educated that they have no duty of passing on an aristocracy.
Here is what I would say to soldiers: ‘No soldier is obliged to follow an order that is contrary to God.’ Sadly enough our laws don’t allow the conscience the full scope of freedom. For example, we don’t have selective conscientious objection in our country. You can’t object to unjust wars. Once you are in, you are in; you cannot pick and choose your wars, which basically turns our soldiers into indentured servants.
There are plenty of European countries that have selective CO. There has been no declaration of war since World War II, which means wars go through appropriations. This means that the mechanism of fighting wars that our constitution dictates has been bypassed, so individual soldiers are no longer being represented by their elected leaders in Congress. They are being turned into mercenaries. In a democracy, it is the responsibility of individuals to hold their elected officials responsible when they are unjust.
That means we have to care about things like education in our country.