I subscribe to several periodicals, among them the “Smithsonian.” The current issue includes a fascinating article, “The priest of Abu Ghraib.” The subject of the article, Joshua Casteel, was an Army interrogator turned anti-war pacifist. The author, his friend Jennifer Percy, was given full access to Casteel’s journals, emails and letters. Her story of Casteel’s life, coupled with his thoughts and reflections, is fascinating reading. I was reminded of other things I had read, especially St. Augustine’s “Confessions,” Blaise Pascal’s “Pensées (Thoughts),” Dag Hammarskjold’s “Markings,” and John of the Cross’s “Dark Night of the Soul.” This column can only give you a taste and a flavor of Casteel’s life. For more details, buy the magazine or read it online at Smithsonian.com.
Casteel was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, into a family with a strong military background, his father having served in Vietnam and his grandfather in World War II and Korea. His father was also an evangelical minister and both Casteel’s father and mother worked as Christian marriage therapists. Casteel anguished over how his Christianity fit with his military commitments. In an unfinished memoir, Casteel wrote, “If Jesus is anything, he is incomprehensible. This is my story of wrestling with that incomprehensibility.”
After graduating from college, Casteel was accepted into a seminary but instead volunteered to join the Army as an intelligence officer and later served as a prisoner of war interrogator in Abu Ghraib prison just outside Baghdad. Abu Ghraib already had made worldwide headlines for its “enhanced interrogation techniques” which were well outside the Geneva Convention rules. Several interrogators and some of their commanders were court-martialed, reduced in rank, discharged, and, in some cases, imprisoned.
After receiving his orders, Casteel wrote his mother, “Better that they have someone like me in the interrogation room than someone who doesn’t care about the Geneva Conventions, or just wants to drop bombs.” To ground himself, Casteel always carried his rosary, and usually either his Bible or the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. His fellow soldiers, knowing that he had been accepted into a seminary, sometimes went to confession to him in a bathroom stall. Casteel himself always went to confession to another chaplain after a prisoner interrogation. His fellow soldiers often referred to him as “the priest of Abu Ghraib.”
Becoming an interrogator was a fateful decision. For the first week, Casteel sat in on interrogations and listened as his supervisors explained how to use fabricated stories and charges of homosexuality to shame the prisoners and manipulate them. “These men,” as one officer said, “are the agents of Satan, gentlemen.”
That characterization seemed much too simplistic. Casteel soon saw the similarities between the interrogation rooms and a church confessional, and he imagined himself as priest and the prisoner as penitent. His goal was to guide the prisoner toward self-disclosure. “To that end,” he wrote his parents, “empathy and understanding go a long way.” “From my very first interrogation, I have simply lacked the ability to look at the person I interrogate in a way that does not demand I also think what is best for him.” He once told a prisoner, “You are not a criminal, you are not a terrorist,” and the prisoner wept, because no American had ever called him anything but evil.
But empathy is a two-way street, requiring one person to see through the eyes of another. In October 2004, Casteel began to interrogate a self-professed Saudi Arabian jihadist. The interview eventually led to the question, “Why did you come to Iraq to kill?” As he asked the question, Casteel was gripping the crucifix on his rosary with his left hand while the prisoner counted his prayer beads on his right hand.
The jihadist responded that vengeance was his right, since the Americans were an invading army. He added, “You claim to be a Christian, and yet you don’t follow Christ to pray for those who persecute you or pray for your enemies. Your Lord, our prophet Isa, tells you to turn the other cheek, to love those who hate you. Why do you not do this?”
“You’re right,” he replied to the jihadist. And something snapped. Writing to his parents afterward, Casteel said, “I confessed to him my sins, and asked him to look to his own. I’m certain this interrogation was not ‘doctrinal’ by Army standards, but to Hell with the Army and their doctrines. Today was a moment when life mattered!” He wrote later, “I left, and I prayed I would be given the chance to see him one day in the future when I could say, ‘I left that world behind me, so can you.’ ”
His way seemed clear. Casteel told his commander he could no longer serve in the Army because his job as a soldier and interrogator contradicted his obligations as a Christian. He wanted to apply for an honorable discharge and “conscientious objector” status. Much to Casteel’s surprise, his commander was encouraging, adding that Casteel was one of his best and most effective interrogators. At his hearing, Casteel said, “To take another’s life is the quintessential divine judgment, . . . I wish to end the delusion that good is gained by evil means, or that maintaining my own economic and physical security is something to be defended by means of violence. I believe that idea to be a lie.”
Casteel was honorably discharged in 2005 and returned to Cedar Rapids where he enrolled in the University of Iowa writing program. Over the next several years Casteel wrote several plays and traveled widely, lecturing about his experiences across the United States and in England, Ireland, Sweden and South Korea. He was invited to the Vatican to speak with Pope Benedict XVI.
In 2009 Casteel was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, most probably linked to the time Casteel spent manning the burn pits in Iraq. But Casteel wasn’t ready to give up; he still had plans to complete a Ph.D. and become an ordained Episcopal priest. “I’ll suffer and I’ll get better,” he said.
It was not to be. The cancer spread throughout his body, and on a Saturday afternoon in 2012 Casteel died. His last words to his friends are instructive. “I have been given back a hope I remember from childhood, but which has been chastened by suffering and baptized by a voluntary love. And I am a happier man.”
Jim Schinstock is a former philosophy instructor. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org