The Priest of Abu Ghraib

An in­ter­roga­tor ques­tions his be­liefs

Smithsonian Magazine - - Contents - By Jen­nifer Percy

Jwhen he OSHUA CAS­TEEL WAS 24 YEARS OLD learned he would be sent to Iraq as an in­ter­roga­tor with the 202nd Mil­i­tary In­tel­li­gence Bat­tal­ion. This was his first de­ploy­ment. It was June 2004, and the war in Iraq had been go­ing on for a lit­tle more than a year. Cas­teel packed a copy of the Book of Com­mon Prayer and didn’t stop read­ing un­til he saw the lights of Bagh­dad in the desert be­low. From Ali Al Salem Air Base, out­side Kuwait City, he took a mil­i­tary bus overnight to Bagh­dad In­ter­na­tional Air­port. Out his win­dow he saw oil fires, road­side wed­dings, sand that went on for­ever.

The next day, he suited up in body ar­mor, strapped on his M-16, and took a heav­ily ar­mored three-ve­hi­cle con­voy 20 miles out­side Bagh­dad to Abu Ghraib prison. On the way, he was think­ing about Pope John Paul II, who wrote about suf­fer­ing, hu­man dig­nity and the na­ture of per­son­hood and its re­la­tion­ship to the di­vine. Then the com­man­der asked about new­com­ers: “Who has never done this be­fore?” Cas­teel raised his hand. The com­man­der ex­plained that they didn’t fire warn­ing shots. “If you move your se­lec­tor level from ‘safe’ to ‘semi’ au­to­matic, you shoot to kill,” he said.

Cas­teel stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 240 pounds. He was a blond, blue-eyed evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The de­ploy­ment came six weeks af­ter the rev­e­la­tion of pris­oner tor­ture and abuse at Abu Ghraib shocked the world. An Army in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer and a pa­triot who’d long dreamed of serv­ing his coun­try in uni­form, Cas­teel also had doubts about the moral­ity of the so-called war on ter­ror. Two weeks be­fore he got his as­sign­ment let­ter from the Army, he was ac­cepted to sem­i­nary school. He chose Iraq.

His mother, Kristi Cas­teel, could never pic­ture her son as an in­ter­roga­tor. “He just wasn’t cruel to any-

This ar­ti­cle is pub­lished in part­ner­ship with Epic Mag­a­zine.

one,” she told me. She wor­ried the job would change him. Cas­teel tried to ra­tio­nal­ize. “Bet­ter that they have some­one like me in the in­ter­ro­ga­tion room,” he told her, “than some­one who doesn’t care about the Geneva Con­ven­tions, or just wants to drop bombs.”

Abu Ghraib was al­ready a prison be­fore the Amer­i­cans ar­rived, where Sad­dam Hus­sein in­car­cer­ated, tor­tured and ex­e­cuted Iraqi dis­si­dents. When Sad­dam’s regime col­lapsed, the Amer­i­cans took the place over and re­placed Sad­dam’s por­trait with a ban­ner that read “Amer­ica is the friend of all Iraqi peo­ple.” There was hardly any veg­e­ta­tion, just ex­panses of dirt and mud be­tween build­ings. “At the prison’s edge is a tee­ter­ing sky­line—minaret, palm trees, the mo­saic dome of a mosque, rooftops,” Cas­teel wrote home to his par­ents. “At sun­set I can hear the calls to prayer from the south and from the east. At times it may even ap­pear as if in a round, like choirs of a cathe­dral, one folded atop the other. But al­ways a few hours af­ter the sun has fallen there is


the in­ter­mit­tent echo of small-arms fire, the howl­ing of dogs.” The com­plex, which now also housed a U.S. mil­i­tary base, had a chapel, a cou­ple of cafe­te­rias, an en­ter­tain­ment shed. When Cas­teel got to his sleep­ing quar­ters, ev­ery­thing was cov­ered in ash. Out­side, he saw a plume of smoke from a gi­ant trash pile. The pit burned 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Some­times the smoke blew right through Cas­teel’s sleep­ing quar­ters.

Cas­teel was told that the mil­i­tary’s top pri­or­ity, above even the search for Osama bin Laden, was to hunt down Abu Musab al-Zar­qawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and nick­named the “Sheik of the Slaugh­ter­ers.” Cas­teel’s job would be to in­ter­ro­gate pris­on­ers to learn more about Zar­qawi’s chief lieu­tenant, a man named Omar Hus­sein Ha­did, whose army of in­sur­gents had killed 95 Amer­i­cans with rocket-pro­pelled grenades and crude bombs dur­ing the Bat­tle of Fal­lu­jah.

For the first week Cas­teel sat in on in­ter­ro­ga­tions. There were six booths on each side of a long hall­way; down the cen­ter was a two-way mir­ror that didn’t al­ways work well, and when it didn’t, the pris­on­ers watched you watch them. The rooms held lit­tle be­yond plas­tic chairs, cheap ta­bles, maybe zip ties on the chair legs. Some­times a steel hook was at­tached to the floor. Ev­ery now and then pris­on­ers were led to a more com­fort­able room, to con­fuse them, make them re­lax. The goal was to make them slip up. Some­times Cas­teel saw men kept naked. Some­times they were hand­cuffed to chairs.

Dur­ing les­sons, Cas­teel’s su­per­vi­sors ex­plained how to use fab­ri­cated sto­ries and charges of ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity to shame the pris­on­ers and ma­nip­u­late them. The com­man­ders were clear about who they were dealing with, Cas­teel re­mem­bered.

“These men,” they said, “are the agents of Satan, gen­tle­men.”

when we were both gradI ME T C A ST E E L I N 2 0 0 9, uate stu­dents in the writ­ing pro­gram at the Univer­sity of Iowa. We took a class to­gether on the art of mem­oir, and on the side, Cas­teel told me, he took cour­ses in phi­los­o­phy and the­ol­ogy. I was sur­prised when I learned he had been an in­ter­roga­tor at Abu Ghraib prison. He wasn’t like any sol­dier I had ever met. He loved to sing so­los from Les Misérables and gave fre­quent ser­mons at lo­cal churches. I of­ten saw him in a cor­duroy blazer, books piled un­der one arm.

A few years later, I con­tacted Cas­teel’s mother, Kristi, be­cause I wished I had got­ten to know him bet­ter. She in­vited me to her home in Cedar Rapids and gave me ac­cess to a Drop­box ac­count con­tain­ing Joshua’s many writ­ings and files. The fold­ers had ti­tles like “Hei­deg­ger and the Mys­tery of Pain,” “Flesh and Fini­tude,” “Hei­deg­ger and Sartre on God and Bod­ies,” “Tech­nolo­gies of Hu­man­ness” and “The Rhetoric of Pain.” Kristi said, “Joshua had a com­plex­ity about his life.”

There were fold­ers for aca­demic papers, di­ary en­tries, plays—Cas­teel got a dual master’s de­gree in play­writ­ing and non­fic­tion writ­ing—and many jot­ted-off mus­ings. A small pub­lisher, Es­say Press, had put out a short book by Cas­teel in 2008 ti­tled Let­ters from Abu Ghraib, com­posed of se­lected emails he wrote to friends and fam­ily dur­ing his six-month de­ploy­ment. And there were a lot of un­fin­ished projects, in­clud­ing a mem­oir called No Graven Im­ages.

Peek­ing into Cas­teel’s files felt a lit­tle like hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with him, even if it was one-sided. But there was so much I still wished to know. Cas­teel of­ten made dif­fi­cult and even con­tra­dic­tory choices, which to many peo­ple who knew him seemed in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. He was con­stantly try­ing to make sense of how his Chris­tian­ity fit with the war and his time in Iraq. For him, ques­tion­ing this para­dox at the heart of his life was anal­o­gous to fig­ur­ing out the mys­tery of Christ. “If Je­sus is any­thing,” Cas­teel wrote in the in­tro­duc­tion to his un­fin­ished mem­oir, “he is in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. This is my story of wrestling with that in­com­pre­hen­si­bil­ity.”

into a fam­ily of evan­ge­lists CAS­TEEL WAS BORN and raised in Cedar Rapids. His fa­ther was an or­dained min­is­ter with River of Life Min­istries, and both of his par­ents worked as Chris­tian mar­riage ther­a­pists. Joshua was the youngest child of three, and the only boy. For years Cas­teel soaked up the ec­stasy of Pen­te­costal­ism, spoke in tongues, at­tended mir­a­cles. On Sun­days, he lis­tened to ser­mons, Scrip­tures, hymns, and learned about the fight be­tween good and evil.

He was a kid driven by ques­tions of mean­ing and sig­nif­i­cance. He lived with what peo­ple now like to call “in­ten­tion­al­ity.” He told his mother he wanted to give him­self up to a higher cause—either his coun­try, or God, or both. He even told his mother that his call­ing might in­clude the ul­ti­mate sac­ri­fice. He cov­ered his bed­room walls with cutouts from Army brochures and Ma­rine re­cruiters, the Amer­i­can flag and the U.S. Con­sti­tu­tion, and a large wooden cross.

He at­tended his first pres­i­den­tial cau­cus events at age 7, and in high school be­came pres­i­dent of the lo­cal chap­ter of the Young Re­pub­li­cans. In his par­ents’ garage he would hold press con­fer­ences in a White House built from card­board, wear­ing a suit and clip-on tie, his hair parted like Ron­ald Rea­gan’s. He got his first gun at 11, dur­ing the Gulf War—a 22-cal­iber ri­fle with a long-range scope. Rush Lim­baugh was a con­stant pres­ence. So was Billy Gra­ham and Ralph Reed, then head of the Chris­tian Coali­tion. “On the one hand,” Cas­teel wrote in his mem­oir, “the po­lit­i­cal ban­ter of our ‘fun­da­men­tal­ist’ Chris­tian house­hold hov­ered around fa­mil­iar con­ser­va­tive themes: fam­ily val­ues, small gov­ern­ment, pri­vate en­ter­prise (Dad was an en­tre­pre­neur). But also al­ways present was what Thomas Fried­man refers to as the in­vis­i­ble fist be­hind the in­vis­i­ble hand in the econ­omy: strong na­tional de­fense.”

Cas­teel was con­sumed by feel­ings of loy­alty to Amer­ica and be­lieved in Amer­ica as a “Shin­ing City on a Hill.” His fa­ther had been a cap­tain in the Army, and his grand­fa­ther had fought in World War II, Ko­rea and Viet­nam. At his grand­fa­ther’s fu­neral, Joshua placed an old West Point badge in his cas­ket.

One sum­mer, at Bi­ble camp, when Cas­teel was 14 years old, a man named Steve, a self-de­clared prophet, had a rev­e­la­tion that Cas­teel was des­tined to be a pow­er­ful and his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant man. When Steve was kicked out of the min­istry for false prophecy, Cas­teel asked the camp pas­tor whether the prophecy was still worth any­thing. “It doesn’t mean it wasn’t true,” the pas­tor said. “God can speak through a false prophet.”

her son as a KRISTI CAS­TEEL DE­SCRIBES happy and af­fec­tion­ate child, obe­di­ent as they come. The two forged a close and trust­ing re­la­tion­ship right from the be­gin­ning. One day when Cas­teel was 3 years old she found him sob­bing un­con­trol­lably. He brought her out­side. “It’s re­ally bad,” he said. “A lit­tle worm is dead.” The worm had dried out in the sun. Cas­teel dug a tiny grave and buried it. “Je­sus loves the lit­tle wormies,” he told his mother. “All the lit­tle wormies of the world.” As a teenager he made small but sym­bolic acts in the name of God. He torched his col­lec­tion of un­holy CDs. He anointed the high school door­ways and base­ball dugouts with oil from the Chris­tian book­store. He blew a sho­far from cen­ter­field.

His mother said he could some­times get lonely, stay­ing home on week­ends rather than par­ty­ing or so­cial­iz­ing with other teenagers. He didn’t drink or do drugs. Some of his friends took to call­ing him “Mama’s Boy.” Other class­mates thought he was gay be­cause many of his friends were girls, be­cause he acted in school plays and mu­si­cals, be­cause he had a hor­mone im­bal­ance called gy­neco­mas­tia that gave him breasts. For years, un­til he had surgery, he was teased in the locker room, and re­fused to take off his shirt to swim or change back­stage dur­ing school plays.

He and his mother talked about ev­ery­thing—faith, friend­ships, girls, dreams, dis­ap­point­ments, fears, phi­los­o­phy, the­ol­ogy, art, lit­er­a­ture, mu­sic. “We were very much alike in many ways, and just nat­u­rally con­nected on a deep level,” Kristi told me. Joshua was never as close to his fa­ther, Everett, who didn’t share his son’s tem­per­a­ment or in­ter­ests. (In 2010, Everett Cas­teel died from com­pli­ca­tions re­lated to a brain tu­mor.) With his mother, Joshua was al­ways sweet. He gave her a tiny crys­tal swan, a ragged cot­ton bunny (she col­lected bun­nies), a pink chif­fon blouse, a large print of an an­gel that he thought looked like her, and a framed poem he wrote about her and the mean­ing of her name. Cas­teel was al­ways pray­ing to Mary, the mother of God. For Kristi, it made sense. “We iden­ti­fied with Mary and Je­sus—it just seemed to nat­u­rally evolve,” she says. “Peo­ple men­tioned his like­ness to Christ again and again.”

Kristi had al­ways wor­ried that God would take her son. She had gone into his bed­room at night when he was a few weeks old and heard God talk­ing: Give him back to me. You need to let him go. She tried to make sense of it. She later thought of the story of Isaac, when Abra­ham raised a knife above his son’s head to prove his faith in God.

“When­ever that fear en­tered my mind,” she told me, “I re­minded my­self that all of our chil­dren are on loan to us, and I shouldn’t live in fear of some­thing I couldn’t know would hap­pen.”

Steve’s prophecy, and a month CAS­TEEL NEVER FOR­GOT af­ter he turned 17 he en­listed as an Army re­servist in Iowa City un­der the de­layed en­try pro­gram, in part to help his chances of get­ting ac­cepted to West Point. That sum­mer, be- tween ju­nior and se­nior year of high school, Cas­teel joined hun­dreds of other re­cruits for hair­cuts, im­mu­niza­tions and bar­rack as­sign­ments at ba­sic com­bat train­ing at Fort Leonard Wood, Mis­souri. At bayonet prac­tice, he learned to im­pale a body with a foot­long knife af­fixed to an au­to­matic as­sault ri­fle. The soldiers thrust bayonets into dum­mies and re­peated a chant: “Kill, kill, kill with­out mercy, Sergeant! Blood, blood, bright red blood, Sergeant! Blood makes the green grass grow!” Cas­teel stum­bled and found that he couldn’t re­peat the words.

Dur­ing his se­nior year he ap­plied to West Point, Wheaton Col­lege and Notre Dame. Cas­teel prayed to God for a sign, be­cause he was hav­ing doubts. He found he was more drawn to a life in academia, maybe even the priest­hood, than one in the mil­i­tary. But the re­jec­tion let­ter from Notre Dame ar­rived the day af­ter his prayer, and this was fol­lowed by an ac­cep­tance let­ter from West Point. He ma­tric­u­lated in June 1998.


In his civil­ian duf­fle he packed a copy of Joseph Con­rad’s Heart of Dark­ness. “Is this where you feel God has led you?” his fa­ther asked. Cas­teel said it was. But he quickly found that he was mis­er­able at the mil­i­tary academy. The aca­demic en­vi­ron­ment was highly re­stric­tive. The cadets lacked creativ­ity and pan­dered to ex­pec­ta­tions. He didn’t feel the ca­ma­raderie. Some­times he’d drink a cou­ple of can­teens of wa­ter at night so he’d have an ex­cuse to read Edgar Al­lan Poe in the bath­room. Poe had at­tended West Point. He lasted seven months. Cas­teel lasted three. The night be­fore he quit he was so ner­vous he pol­ished a hole clean through his gar­ri­son cap. He left on a lonely Satur­day in Septem­ber, not know­ing whether he was walk­ing away from God’s plan for his life, or walk­ing into it.

Cas­teel re­turned home, where he en­rolled at the Univer­sity of Iowa, and he spent the sec­ond se­mes­ter of his se­nior year abroad, at Ox­ford Univer­sity, in a pro­gram de­voted to Me­dieval and Re­nais­sance stud­ies. This is where he met Tim­o­thy Roth, Ja­cob Florer and Joseph Clair, who would be­come life­long friends. Roth re­mem­bers that the first time he saw him, Cas­teel was lis­ten­ing to Jay-Z, drink­ing SoCo and read­ing Hei­deg­ger. He wore a black turtle­neck and a beret. They busked on the bal­cony with their gui­tars and took re­quests from passers-by. Roth started play­ing “I Be­lieve I Can Fly” by R. Kelly and sang the first few words, but Cas­teel took over and he sang the whole song. “He wasn’t a ma­cho dude,” Roth told me. “He was sin­cere, open, hon­est, vul­ner­a­ble. No need to put on a front.”

But the at­tacks of Septem­ber 11, 2001, four months be­fore he left for Ox­ford, hung over Cas­teel’s time abroad, and as the U.S. gov­ern­ment be­gan to talk about war Cas­teel’s de­meanor changed. He started lift­ing weights, get­ting huge. He talked to friends about quit­ting school and join­ing a war that was at first of­fi­cially named Op­er­a­tion In­fi­nite Jus­tice.

Cas­teel grad­u­ated from the Univer­sity of Iowa in May 2002, and that Septem­ber he en­tered the ba­sic in­ter­roga­tor course at Fort Huachuca, in Ari­zona, home to the Army’s mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence cen­ter. Soon af­ter, he en­rolled in the im­mer­sive lan­guage course at the De­fense Lan­guage In­sti­tute For­eign Lan­guage Cen­ter, in Mon­terey, Cal­i­for­nia, to study Ara­bic. His zeal for serv­ing his coun­try was matched, even fu­eled, by his faith. While in Mon­terey, he be­friended an Epis­co­pal priest at a nearby church named Fa­ther Wil­liam Mar­tin, and again thought about be­com­ing a priest, maybe even an Army chap­lain.

Then Cas­teel trav­eled to Seat­tle to at­tend a lec­ture by a paci­fist the­olo­gian from Duke Univer­sity named Stan­ley Hauer­was, who be­lieved that Chris­tians ought to re­main non­vi­o­lent even in times of war. The lec­ture haunted him. Af­ter the talk, Cas­teel walked up to Hauer­was and asked what a Chris­tian al­ready en­listed in the mil­i­tary should do. Hauer­was replied that he should leave the mil­i­tary right away—get as far away from it as pos­si­ble.

Cas­teel ap­plied to divin­ity school, and mean­while he ob­ses­sively read the lit­er­a­ture on “just

war” the­ory, paci­fism, ethics and in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions, the pol­i­tics of non­vi­o­lence, the writ­ings of Pope John Paul II, of Mar­tin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and the paci­fist monk Thomas Mer­ton, as well as the his­tory of the Men­non­ite tra­di­tion and of paci­fism in the Ro­man Catholic and Angli­can tra­di­tions. Then, in May 2004, he was ac­cepted to sem­i­nary at the Grad­u­ate The­o­log­i­cal Union in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia. Two weeks later, his de­ploy­ment let­ter to Iraq turned up in his mail­box.

In the end he un­der­stood what he had to do. He would bring mo­ral order to the in­ter­ro­ga­tion room. He wanted to “be on the first plane,” he wrote in an email, to “en­sure that noth­ing of the sort hap­pens un­der my watch.”

AT ABU GHRAIB, Cas­teel woke at 5, ex­er­cised, prayed, slipped on 70 pounds of body ar­mor and walked through 120-de­gree heat to work. Morn­ings were for prepa­ra­tion, af­ter­noons for in­ter­ro­ga­tions. Some morn­ings he re­searched in­sur­gent groups, their cell struc­tures and fight­ing tac­tics, or scanned satel­lite im­ages of Amer­i­can and mu­ja­hedin traf­fic-con­trol points. Al­most ev­ery day he read in­ven­to­ries and per­son­al­ity bi­ogra­phies of ter­ror­ists. For some in­ter­ro­ga­tions, he re­ceived a pile of back­ground in­for­ma­tion on the man he was sched­uled to in­ter­ro­gate. Other times he walked into the in­ter­ro­ga­tion room know­ing noth­ing at all. He pre­pared to en­counter a range of pris­on­ers, from blood­thirsty ado­les­cents and Al Qaeda fa­nat­ics to good peo­ple in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mostly he in­ter­ro­gated good, nor­mal peo­ple— Iraqi school­boys, taxi driv­ers and imams.

Be­tween in­ter­ro­ga­tions he read com­men­taries on the New Tes­ta­ment and Western phi­los­o­phy and brushed up on his bi­b­li­cal Greek and Ara­maic to reread key scrip­tural pas­sages about the ethics of sol­dier­ing and vi­o­lence. Peo­ple learned pretty quickly that he’d been ac­cepted to sem­i­nary school be­fore his de­ploy­ment to Iraq. Every­body called him “Priest.” Some fel­low soldiers took to con­fess­ing their sins to him in the Abu Ghraib bath­room stalls.

Cas­teel soon re­al­ized the in­ter­ro­ga­tion room wasn’t all that dif­fer­ent from a church con­fes­sional, and he imag­ined him­self a priest and the pris­oner a con­fes­sor. I won’t co­erce, he de­cided, but will guide the Iraqi to­ward self-dis­clo­sure. “To that end, em­pa­thy and un­der­stand­ing go a long way,” he wrote to his par­ents. Ev­ery­one wants to be un­der­stood, no one wants to carry around their shame and their se­crets all alone. Be­ing em­pa­thetic, he went on, “forces a per­son to ques­tion the le­git­i­macy of their train­ing and in­doc­tri­na­tion. In many ways, I have no other re­course but to iden­tify with these peo­ple.”

It turned out he couldn’t help but feel bad for the pris­on­ers. It didn’t mat­ter if the pris­oner was a wrongly ac­cused farmer or a ji­hadist bent on Cas­teel’s de­struc­tion. His or­ders com­manded that he ap­proach pris­on­ers as as­sets to ma­nip­u­late, but when Cas­teel walked into the in­ter­ro­ga­tion room and saw the pris­oner, he thought, This is a man in need of re­demp­tion. “From my very first in­ter­ro­ga­tion,” he wrote later, “I have sim­ply lacked the abil­ity to look at the per­son I in­ter­ro­gate in a way that does not de­mand I also think about what is best for him.” Soon Cas­teel was at­tend­ing con­fes­sion with an Army chap­lain af­ter each in­ter­ro­ga­tion, be­cause “of an over­whelm­ing bur­den to atone for what I con­sid­ered the sin of re­duc­ing in­di­vid­u­als to strate­gic ‘ob­jects of ex­ploita­tion.’” Once, he 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.


At the same time, Cas­teel was ex­tract­ing more in­for­ma­tion from the pris­on­ers than other in­ter­roga­tors. Dur­ing in­ter­ro­ga­tions, Cas­teel smiled a lot and tapped his foot or smoked a cig­a­rette to give the pris­oner time to think, or some­times be­cause he didn’t quite know what to do next. He tried to show re­spect. He lis­tened more than he spoke. He paid at­ten­tion to a pris­oner’s words, tone of voice, body lan­guage. “Some good news came in to­day,” he wrote to his par­ents af­ter a month in Iraq. “I was just no­ti­fied that the re­sults of my past three in­ter­ro­ga­tions re­ceived spe­cial recog­ni­tion from ‘higher up.’ I guess my cig­a­rettes and smiles with the ruth- less man I spoke briefly of ear­lier did some­thing prof­itable for the com­man­ders in the field. That was a big boost of con­fi­dence, be­ing as the best thing I did was sim­ply re­spect him.”

But as time went on, he got dis­il­lu­sioned. The Amer­i­cans, he learned, raided vil­lages and ar­rested all the males over the age of 14, who were then sent en masse to Abu Ghraib. And af­ter each in­ter­ro­ga­tion, Cas­teel typed up a re­port, and some­times those re­ports led to a per­son’s im­pris­on­ment or death. They might re­veal in­for­ma­tion about a par­tic­u­lar vil­lage or a fam­ily, and soon enough the Amer­i­cans would raid or drop bombs on the tar­get, and kill in-

no­cents in the process. “The weight of the job some­times is more painfully present to me than other times,” he wrote home. “While I un­der­stand quite clearly the role of judg­ment and wield­ing au­thor­ity for the pun­ish­ment/ pre­ven­tion of crime in so­ci­ety, this is a duty I as­sume with no joy. I do so be­cause it is what has been asked of me. . . . But how I would much rather speak of Grace with those across my ta­ble, and tell them of the al­ter­na­tive to their cho­sen path.”

In Au­gust 2004, Cas­teel was pro­moted to the rank of sergeant—a goal he’d set from the very be­gin­ning. “I wanted the leader’s post of a work­ing man,” he wrote home, “to earn my stripes and my re­spect from a job well done, earned by ex­er­tion, not by my col­lege suc­cess.” It no longer felt like some­thing to cel­e­brate. The past weeks had seen him get an­grier and an­grier—at the ex­e­cu­tion of the war, the fail­ure of the Amer­i­cans to find weapons of mass de­struc­tion or es­tab­lish a link be­tween Iraq and the at­tacks of Septem­ber 11, at the help­less­ness and mis­ery of the vast ma­jor­ity of Iraqis, pawns in a larger strug­gle be­tween vi­o­lent ex­trem­ists on one side and an in­vad­ing for­eign army that, even grant­ing their good in­ten­tions, rou­tinely killed Iraqi civil­ians. And he was in­censed by the way Amer­i­can politi­cians used Chris­tian lan­guage to jus­tify the war.

At lunch Cas­teel ate with lo­cal Iraqi work­ers in­stead of Amer­i­cans, and grew tired of the way the Amer­i­cans mocked the coun­try. He ate enor­mous amounts of food to re­lieve stress, or some­times he didn’t eat at all. He lost and gained weight, smoked cig­a­rettes, drank ex­ces­sive amounts of cof­fee. He stayed up late read­ing be­cause he didn’t want the next day to come. He read so much that even dur­ing mor­tar at­tacks he shopped for new books on Ama­zon. An­other book by Stan­ley Hauer­was, Wittgen­stein, Der­rida, Aquinas, Kant. An­other trea­tise on Chris­tian paci­fism and the king­dom of God. He was look­ing for an­swers, or an ex­cuse to get out of the war, or an ex­cuse to stay in it.

“Ev­ery day I won­der if I have reached my limit,” he wrote to his fam­ily. “Ev­ery day I won­der if I have come to my break­ing point.”

, Cas­teel was sched­uled to in­ter­roON OC­TO­BER 18, 2004 gate a pris­oner from Saudi Ara­bia who was un­usual be­cause he was a self-pro­fessed ji­hadist. By now Cas­teel had been in Abu Ghraib five months, and had con­ducted more than 100 in­ter­ro­ga­tions. This one would change the course of his life.

What we know of the in­ter­ro­ga­tion is drawn from Cas­teel’s emails, speeches, jour­nals and other writ­ings. He de­scribed the ex­pe­ri­ence with the pris­oner as al­most mys­ti­cal, an apoth­e­o­sis. “I was dumb­struck,” he wrote in a let­ter home to his mother. “I left prais­ing Christ, and thank­ing God for this en­emy.”

Cas­teel be­gan the in­ter­ro­ga­tion with cus­tom­ary ques­tions: Where are the ac­cess points into Iraq from Syria and Saudi Ara­bia? When did you ar­rive here? What are your in­ten­tions here in Iraq? Then Cas­teel asked the ji­hadist why he’d come to Iraq to kill. The ji­hadist looked at Cas­teel but didn’t an­swer. In­stead, he asked the same of him. “Why did you come to Iraq to kill?”

It was a fair ques­tion. It was the ques­tion that had haunted him ever since he had ar­rived, and though he didn’t ad­mit it, Cas­teel was far more afraid of killing than of be­ing killed. Cas­teel’s left hand was in his pocket, grip­ping the cru­ci­fix on his rosary. The pris­oner counted prayer beads in his right hand.

“If there were a knife on the ta­ble,” Cas­teel asked, “would you pick it up and kill me?”

“I will have to think about it,” the pris­oner said.

“What is there to think about?”

“Maybe I will pick it up and I will kill you. Maybe I will wait.” Against pro­to­col, Cas­teel be­gan to speak to the pris­oner about the teach­ings of Christ. He told him that the vi­o­lence con­doned by Is­lam was not the only path in life: Christ had taught an­other way. The ji­hadist re­sponded that vengeance was his right, since the Amer­i­cans were an in­vad­ing army on Arab lands. “You claim to be a Chris­tian,” he said, “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?”

Cas­teel had spent his whole life preach­ing the word of Christ, and now his words were be­ing re­turned to him by a ji­hadist in a gen­tle, evan­gel­i­cal tone. Ev­ery chal­lenge to the pris­oner came back as a chal­lenge to him­self. It was clear the ji­hadist had peace be­cause of his be­lief in Is­lam. He told Cas­teel that if he was put in prison and never re­leased, he would be okay with that, be­cause he was act­ing justly, in ac­cor­dance with his faith. Did Cas­teel have that same kind of peace? “What is ter­ri­fy­ing is that this ji­hadist gen­uinely wanted my con­ver­sion,” Cas­teel wrote after­ward. “And I felt him ac­tu­ally care for me, de­sire for my good.”

Cas­teel’s job as an in­ter­roga­tor faded to the pe­riph­ery. Fi­nally, he suc­cumbed. “You’re right,” he said to the ji­hadist’s gen­tle ad­mon­ish­ments.

To his par­ents after­ward, Cas­teel wrote, “I con­fessed to him my sins, and asked him to look at his own. I’m cer­tain that this


in­ter­ro­ga­tion was not ‘doc­tri­nal’ by Army stan­dards. Par­don my blunt­ness, but to hell with the Army and their ‘doc­trines.’ To­day was a mo­ment when life mat­tered!” Af­ter the in­ter­ro­ga­tion, he wrote, “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.’”

of the in­ter­ro­ga­tion room CAS­TEEL WALKED OUT and told his su­pe­ri­ors that if they wanted to con­tinue in­ter­ro­gat­ing this man, it would have to be done by some­one else.

He went on sched­uled leave to Qatar, where he shot off emails to fam­ily and friends. “So, I just ex- pe­ri­enced why it is I am here in Iraq,” he be­gan one email. “Other than all the strug­gles I’ve been wrestling with . . . I just ‘met’ my rea­son—a young for­eign ji­hadist who said he might kill me if he had the chance (that is, as long as I am a U.S. sol­dier in Mus­lim lands). The Gospel came out of his mouth un­wit­tingly, while try­ing to con­vert me to Is­lam. It was beau­ti­ful.”

It was soon clear to Cas­teel what he had to do. He would ap­ply for an honor­able dis­charge as a con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor, which meant he’d have to prove not that he sim­ply op­posed the war in Iraq, but that he had a “firm, fixed, and sin­cere ob­jec­tion to par­tic­i­pa­tion in war in any form or the bear­ing of arms, by

rea­son of re­li­gious train­ing and be­lief.” Not every­body was sup­port­ive. He had al­ready been ex­chang­ing long, an­guished emails full of com­pet­ing in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Scrip­ture with his fa­ther, who as a de­voted Chris­tian con­ser­va­tive couldn’t un­der­stand his son’s right­eous turn against the war.

Cas­teel’s friend Miguel Bowser, a Navy petty of­fi­cer he’d met at the lan­guage in­sti­tute in Mon­terey, told me that he thought Cas­teel’s “CO non­sense,” as he put it, “was a cop-out at first.” He wrote to Cas­teel, “If you’re go­ing to be a CO take off your uni­form, run off into the desert, into Bagh­dad, and join the church there and live your life.” Fa­ther Mar­tin re­sponded even more harshly. “Joshua, please re­frain from send­ing me any more ex­am­ples of the Nar­cis­sis­tic Per­son­al­ity. The de­gree of your present self-ab­sorp­tion is in­dica­tive of a spir­i­tual sick­ness that is­sues forth into the be­trayal of many. And be­sides, I am presently try­ing to help soldiers and sailors whose obe­di­ence and hu­mil­ity re­veal much more of Je­sus to me than your psy­chic jour­ney through cloud - cookooland.”

Christ had been mis­un­der­stood, too. When Cas­teel re­turned to Abu Ghraib, he told his com­man­der he could no longer serve in the Army. He be­lieved his job as a sol­dier and in­ter­roga­tor con­tra­dicted his obli­ga­tions as a Chris­tian. It had been two weeks since his en­counter with the ji­hadist.

To Cas­teel’s shock, his com­man­der was en­cour­ag­ing. “He to­tally sup­ports me,” Cas­teel wrote to his friend Ja­cob Florer in manic ex­cite­ment. “He told me he thought I was one of the best in­ter­roga­tors un­der his com­mand, that he very much ap­pre­ci­ated the way I have han­dled my du­ties in light of my eth­i­cal dilem­mas, that he has been noth­ing but im­pressed with my no­bil­ity, lead­er­ship and ma­tu­rity (good thing he doesn’t read my tem­pes­tu­ous emails!), and that I am the in­ter­roga­tor with the great­est knowl­edge of Arabs, the great­est sen­si­tiv­ity and creativ­ity, out­right. Need­less to say, I was pretty dumb­struck.”

Dur­ing a hear­ing con­nected to his ap­pli­ca­tion, Cas­teel said, “To take an­other’s life is the quin­tes­sen­tial state­ment of di­vine judg­ment, and faith­less­ness to­ward the pos­si­bil­ity of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and re­demp­tion. . . . I wish to end the delu­sion that good is gained by evil means, or that even main­tain­ing my own eco­nomic and phys­i­cal se­cu­rity is some­thing to be de­fended by means of vi­o­lence. I be­lieve that idea to be a lie.”

While Cas­teel waited for ap­proval, the Army gave him some­thing to do out­side of the in­ter­ro­ga­tion room. He was given trash duty, which meant he helped to pour jet fuel onto the waste in a dif­fer­ent pit from the one burn­ing day and night near his sleep­ing quar­ters. The mil­i­tary burned paint and plas­tic and bat­ter­ies and ord­nance. It burned Sty­ro­foam, petroleum, soda cans, med­i­cal waste, hu­man limbs. For weeks, Cas­teel worked right on the edge of the pit, mak­ing sure the fire didn’t spread.

in Jan­uary 2005. In May HE RE­TURNED TO IOWA he was hon­or­ably dis­charged as a con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor, one of the few ser­vice mem­bers to ap­ply for and re­ceive ap­proval in the early years of the Iraq War. It was per­haps the only de­ci­sion he made with ab­so­lute clar­ity in Iraq.

Cas­teel de­scribed com­ing home as “like step­ping into the twi­light zone.” His sec­ond day back, his sis­ter Re­bekah brought him to a mall in Cedar Rapids to buy him a leather jacket, a late Christ­mas present. He slipped the jacket over his arms and looked in the mir­ror. “Two days ear­lier I’d been in Kuwait, tot­ing

an M-16; three weeks be­fore that, in Iraq, strapped in body ar­mor and aim­ing that same M-16 at lit­tle boys,” he wrote to a friend. “I don’t know how to go from flak vests and as­sault ri­fles to fash­ion cy­cle jack­ets.” He suf­fered from de­pres­sion and post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der. Strangely, he missed the clar­ity of war. Ev­ery­thing over there came down to life and death. Many nights he drank.

“He had a lot of tur­moil go­ing on at the time,” says Roth. “He needed re­demp­tion, to turn over a new leaf.” That win­ter, Cas­teel and Florer, who had trav­eled to Iraq with a Chris­tian peace or­ga­ni­za­tion known as the In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre for Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, met up with Roth and Clair to tour the Pa­cific North­west and give speeches about their ex­pe­ri­ences in Iraq. On the cold Ore­gon coast, Cas­teel stripped naked to bap­tize him­self in the ocean. “He was just that kind of pas­sion­ate, un­pre­dictable per­son,” Roth says. “He felt much bet­ter af­ter that cathar­sis, and it seemed to sharpen his re­solve.”

Cas­teel be­came in­volved with the non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions Iraq Vet­er­ans Against the War and the Catholic Peace Fel­low­ship, which sup­ports ac­tive mil­i­tary mem­bers and vet­er­ans who are strug­gling, as the group puts it, with “the con­tra­dic­tion be­tween their per­sonal par­tic­i­pa­tion in war and their con­sciences.” In 2006, Cas­teel en­rolled in the writ­ing pro­gram at the Univer­sity of Iowa, where he wrote sev­eral plays about the dilem­mas of soldiers at Abu Ghraib. In Re­turns, the pro­tag­o­nist is an in­ter­roga­tor named James who, Cas­teel wrote in the play’s in­tro­duc­tion, “suf­fers from post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der and is haunted by the faces of the men he in­ter­ro­gated. A man of faith, James is nick­named Priest by his Army bud­dies, which he re­sents for the ho­li­ness it im­plies, and wishes he still pos­sessed.”

The play pre­miered in 2007 in Iowa City, with Cas­teel in the lead role. Roth at­tended the open­ing, and he says he didn’t know just how tor­mented Cas­teel was un­til he saw the play. “It fea­tured so much scream­ing that if you were in the front you’d be wear­ing his spit,” he told me. “But it all came down to the last phrase, where it was just him un­der a spot­light, turn­ing the typ­i­cal post-tour-of-duty ques­tion back on the au­di­ence: ‘What was it like?’ That sent chills down my spine. It was like ask­ing the au­di­ence, What was this play full of scream­ing and cry­ing like for you? It was con­fronta­tional. Of course, it was also a cri­tique of the ab­sur­dity of ask­ing a war vet such a ca­sual ques­tion. It was then that I knew I didn’t ever want to ask him that ques­tion be­cause it could never be an­swered. That well was just too deep and dark.”

had started to cough up a thick IN IRAQ, CA STEEL black mu­cus. Lots of other soldiers were do­ing it too. “It’s no big deal,” they said, just “Iraqi crud.” Be­sides, Cas­teel had suf­fered from al­ler­gies since he was a child, and Abu Ghraib was full of dust and sand and smoke. Now back in the States, Cas­teel was of­ten con­gested and cough­ing. Doc­tors at the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs hos­pi­tal told him he had asthma. He walked out with a pre­scrip­tion for Al­buterol, a com­mon asthma med­i­ca­tion. When he re­turned, they pre­scribed more in­halers.

Over the next few years, Cas­teel wrote 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 to of­fi­cials about the church’s role in ad­vo­cat­ing non­vi­o­lence, and a pho­to­graph of Cas­teel shak­ing hands with

‘Dust Cov­ers Ev­ery­thing’ Joshua Cas­teel de­ployed to Abu Ghraib six weeks af­ter the tor­ture and abuse of pris­on­ers was madepub­lic. “A wave of feel­ings has rushed through me,” he wrote to a friend af­ter the in­fa­mous pho­to­graphs were first aired on CBS. “Mostly con­tempt, be­wil­der­ment. The pho­tos are hor­rific, and that’snot what I was trained to do.”Pre­vi­ous spread: Cas­teel’s hand­drawn cap with cross, Amer­i­can flag and Je­sus fish. “He was never afraid to ex­press his faith,” his mother says.

Cas­teel’s Bi­ble and rosary from Iraq. He wrote that he of­ten sat in Abu Ghraib’s chapel with his Bi­ble “pressed to my fore­head” even af­ter fin­ish­ing his prayers.

Cas­teel at ages 12 and 24. He was raised to equate love of God with love of coun­try, a “pa­tri­otic, Evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian, high-school vale­dic­to­rian,” he once wrote.

Kristi Cas­teel and her dog, An­gel, in front of boxes of Joshua’s per­sonal ef­fects at the Mary­land home of her daugh­ter, Re­bekah Latchis.

Cas­teel’s mil­i­tary-is­sue trunk with items in­clud­ing his air-soft ri­fle, pocket New Tes­ta­ment, West Point pen­nant, and white Army dress cap.

Left: Cas­teel in the role of in­ter­roga­tor dur­ing a dress re­hearsal for his play Re­turns, at the Univer­sity of Iowa, in 2007. Be­low: Cas­teel in his sig­na­ture cor­duroy blazer later that year.

Cas­teel’s uni­form “rep­re­sents for me his long road from West Point to con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor in order to gain his life mes­sage, one of love, jus­tice and faith,”Kristi says.

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