From Abu Ghraib to Anti-War: An Interrogator’s Story

By James Stairs

Sitting outside a busy pub in central Dublin, Joshua Casteel looks like any other 26-year-old you might meet. The unruly haircut, the random patches of facial hair and the laid back smile blend him effortlessly into the evening bustle. The only indication that his story might differ from most is the desert-camouflage army jacket, United States flag patched to its shoulder, bundled under the table and the black and white Iraq Veterans Against the War t-shirt he wears.

The truth is, Casteel’s story does differ. It’s a story that winds its way from the churches of the U.S. Midwest to the interrogation rooms of Iraq, from the confusion of a crisis of conscience to the courage to stand by a choice he knew many would not understand. It unfolds amidst the hot rhetoric of anti-war rallies, the dispassionate, distanced analysis of academia and that often-lonely place inhabited by those who exist both in the world of the warrior and that of the thinker.

The pub is around the corner from a dispersing public meeting discussing the ethics of torture in war. As the people move towards us, Casteel, the gathering’s keynote speaker, knows what is coming. He knows they will see him. He knows they will stop. He knows they have questions. He knows that because he has taken his story public, he has a duty to give his time.

Several people stop to shake his hand and the questions begin. A few of them are thoughtful and respectful, most aren’t even questions, more fringe conspiracy theories, copped from chatrooms and desperate for validation. Casteel smiles, exudes Midwest charm and politely answers any and all queries thrown his way. “What was it like there?” the lucid ones ask. “Did it happen like they said?”

You know what they really want to ask: “Were you a part of it?” and “Did you see it happen?”

“It” is the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, where Casteel worked as an interrogator between June 2004 and January 2005.

“It” is also the torture of captured prisoners of war that came to light in 2003 and served to galvanize opposition to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq.

When reporter Seymour Hersch’s article in the New Yorker exposed the abuse at the prison, Casteel was in special training with the U.S. Army, intensively studying both Arabic and the techniques used to extract information from prisoners caught up in the world’s most hostile environment.

The New Yorker piece threw now-familiar images into everyone’s heads. A hooded prisoner standing on a block, covered in a black sheet, electrodes attached to his outstretched hands. A terrified man, naked and just out of reach of a snarling dog. Lyndie England pointing to the genitals of a line of detained men, cigarette dangling, cracked grin.

As the images spread, Abu Ghraib became a symbol that enraged and emboldened public opposition to the war and ignited a major public relations disaster for those charged with selling the campaign. Public promises were made. Things would change, they said.

Months later Casteel would be on the ground in Iraq, part of the crew brought in to clean up the image of the prison, assigned to a team responsible for interrogating “foreign fighters and terrorists.”

By the time he arrived, the open abuse on-site had stopped. “The world was watching us,” he explained. “We were told to stick to procedure and to be on our best behaviour.”

Despite the directive he soon realized that the torture of detainees hadn’t stopped at all. It had simply been moved off the premises. He saw the effects of torture on the people arriving at his interrogation room. Stories flew about of how and where it continued to happen. The action took place out of sight- makeshift off-site interrogation rooms and by extracting as much information as possible while taking the long route during prisoner transfers.

At the prison, the new way of doing things was an open secret and it didn’t sit well with him. He knew it was happening but, because he never actually saw it happen, he couldn’t do anything to change it. His unrest grew and he eventually decided that he had to leave the military, unwilling to be complicit and increasingly unwilling to stay silent about what he had seen and heard.

Today, Casteel is a vocal opponent of the campaign, active on the board of directors of Iraq Veterans Against the War, driven by a dual conviction that torture is wrong and that the military culture of the United States, while broken, is not beyond repair.

Casteel enlisted at seventeen. Born into an evangelical Christian military family in Iowa City, Iowa, the army was always on his radar. When he was eligible, he enrolled at the West Point military academy in Annapolis, Maryland, his future never a question,

Arriving at West Point he was surprised that he almost immediately began doubting his decision. The strict rules and lack of free time conflicted with his growing interests in a liberal education. He wanted to study literature, philosophy and theatre but there isn’t much time for that when you’re training to become a soldier.

As time passed, his unease grew. “It got to a point where I was saying to myself ‘if you don’t get out, you’re going to do something foolish,’” he said. He still believed that military service was a worthwhile endeavour but was no longer sure that it was his path to take.

He came to a best-of-both-worlds solution; he left West Point but stayed on his ROTC army scholarship, enrolling at the University of Iowa, continuing his military education concurrent with his pursuit of a liberal arts degree. He knew there would be consequences. At year’s end West Point awarded him a medal for proficiency but he was the only member of his class not to be promoted.

“My unit commander told me that he thought that I was a very capable soldier but that he thought that I lacked dedication to the concept of officer training,” he laughed.

Another officer suggested that he consider dropping out of the army altogether because his heart didn’t appear to be into being a soldier. Determined to see it though, Casteel tried again to combine his competing ambitions.

He transferred to a small college in Colorado. There, he formed a close bond with a professor who also began to urge Casteel to leave the army, convinced that he could better serve outside the military.

“Hearing the same message two years in a row, made me think that they might be right,” he said.

Casteel withdrew from his scholarship and returned to the University of Iowa, arranging a semester abroad at Oxford University.

At Oxford, the friends he made opened his eyes to a new way of thinking. He found the writings of the pacifist theologian Stanley Hauerwas and devoured the material. The ideas he encountered at Oxford would shape the decisions that would mark his future.

Hauerwas argues that the role of the faithful is to empathize and suffer with the afflicted, not to try and control them in the name of conquest. The ideas resonated and he began to explore ways to build a life around them but global events intervened and changed the script.

Watching the World Trade Centre attacks in 2001 and standing by as the American response unfolded, Casteel felt compelled to rejoin the army. Despite his burgeoning pacifism, he had the training and duty to contribute. He couldn’t just stand by and do nothing.

“I was thinking about it a lot during that time. I was living a cushy little life, going to college and drinking lattes,” he said. “All the while, I had friends getting sent overseas.”

He reasoned that he would likely be compelled to serve anyways because of his status on the army’s inactive list, so he re-enlisted.

Back in the army, he decided to become a linguist and study Arabic. “The only job that guaranteed me language training was as an interrogator. I didn’t like that idea so much, I’d seen movies like Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now... you know, visions of the swinging lamp,” he laughed.

“My thinking at the time was that it’s better to have someone on the ground who could at least offer some objectivity to what was going on.”

He attended interrogation training in 2002 and spent a year-and-half studying Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monterrey, California.

“Interrogator school was very encouraging for me at the beginning because of how much they stressed the Geneva Conventions,” he says. “The easiest way to fail a training exercise was to break the Conventions’ rules.”

But as he went through training, a darker side to the exercise began to emerge. “I began to experience the rage that is associated with being an agent of justice,” he admitted. “In an interrogation, if the file you have says the person is a killer, there’s no disputing it. The file is never wrong.”

Interrogation instruction lasted for 16 weeks and Casteel said he began to notice himself changing. In exercises he became more aggressive. “The rage I felt was new to me,” he said. “While the law can keep you from performing certain actions, it doesn’t keep you from hating.”

During his training, Iraq was invaded and Casteel watched the fall of Baghdad with one of his language instructors who happened to be Iraqi and who had family in the capital.

“My consciousness was going back and forth,” he said. “I was thinking ‘this is madness, so many of my friends are pacifists and I’m getting ready to bomb people.’ On the other hand, I was thinking that I may as well go all the way, maybe do some good.”

Despite his resolve, he had a last-minute crisis of conscience about interrogation and applied to become an army chaplain. He was accepted to the U.S. Army Seminary but fate intervened and he was deployed to Iraq before he could enroll.

In June 2004, Casteel landed in Iraq and was assigned to the Abu Ghraib interrogation unit. He soon discovered that the reality of life in a war zone was very different from discussing ideas in a classroom. There was far less talk about the Geneva Conventions in the field than there was in Monterrey.

He was immediately thrown into the mix. Soldiers on patrol, he explained, would go into the field and round up suspects to be questioned. When a person was identified and detained, anyone even associated with the suspect was taken for interrogation.

The protocols were straightforward; make the arrest, perform a body search to make sure the person is not armed, confiscate anything that could provide intelligence and then “rush them to the rear,” or separate them from the soldiers who detained them.

These rules were designed, Casteel explained, to make sure that the process remained as efficient and effective as was possible, despite the high pressure environment.

Casteel would soon learn that, in the midst of war, rules can become fluid. He noticed that the protocols weren’t always followed. He also noticed that, as procedure broke down, signs of prisoner abuse increased. He wasn’t seeing torture but he knew, without a doubt, that it was happening.

“The biggest problem with torture in Iraq,” he explained, “ is what happens in the first 72 hours after a person is arrested. The detainees were not being rushed to the rear. The reality is that the arresting soldiers are often upset at the circumstances of the capture and can act on their heightened emotions. They also don’t have access to the intelligence files that we have so they don’t know how many people are actually innocent of any wrongdoing.

“To them, it’s just an Arab wearing a head-wrap and holding a gun and that person is obviously a terrorist. There are terrible things happening in Iraq because basic information isn’t getting into the right hands,” he added.

At the prison, Casteel was involved in over a hundred interrogations. He insists he never saw someone being tortured first-hand. He did, however, see people who had been abused prior to coming to the prison. He is sure that he wasn’t the only one who saw what he did and that, while he was assigned to the facility, there was never an official investigation when detainees said they had been abused. The entire system, he argued, dissuaded even acknowledging that torture was possible.

“I didn’t even know the proper procedure for investigating torture,” he said. “The assumption was that everyone would claim that they were tortured to evade questioning. We didn’t take the claims seriously at first—it wasn’t until I started to realize that 95% of the people I was talking to were innocent that I started to question the people coming in with bruises.”

The majority of people that were brought in, he said, were taxi drivers, families of suspects, former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party and veterans of previous Iraq wars.

In the aftermath of the Abu Ghraib scandal, he explained, mobile units and temporary interrogation facilities manned by special forces and private military contractors became more used so that if an incident arose, it would be harder to track.

“The torture was continuing,” he said. “People talked openly about induced hypothermia, stress positions and hotboxes [subjecting prisoners to extreme heat and humidity.]

But none of the talk was ever on the record.

“There are two types of culture in the military,” he explained. “There is a policy culture and a combat culture.”

Many of the policy people in the military genuinely care about ideals, he continued. The combat people deal with the realities on the ground and are often forced to change the script to get results and stay safe.

“The policy culture hold that torture generally gets bad intelligence. They understand that if torture is used there is a likelihood that Americans themselves will get tortured if they are captured.

The combat culture works under extreme conditions, gets shot at, gets wounded and killed. It’s harder for them to think rationally,” he argued.

At the prison, Casteel found himself torn between the two halves of military culture. He began to obsess over what he should do. Eventually he came to the conclusion that it didn’t matter which camp he was a part of because one truth remained constant: “If you’re being tortured, you’ll say anything to make the pain stop.”

He found himself uneasy with his role in the process and waged an internal struggle, trying to figure out what to do about it until one particular interrogation, as if by design, shocked him into action and precipitated a radical change.

Casteel was assigned to interrogate a young Saudi fighter. The man had come to Iraq to fight Jihad. Casteel asked him why he had come to Iraq to kill people, the prisoner asked Casteel why he had done the same. The two discussed religion and ethics. The prisoner tried to convert him to Islam, Casteel came from an evangelical background, he understood where the prisoner was coming from. The prisoner asked him why he didn’t “turn the other cheek,” why he didn’t “love thy enemy.” Casteel had no answer.

The exchange left him shaken. He left the room and immediately informed his superiors that he had lost objectivity, that he empathized with the prisoner and that he couldn’t interrogate him further.

The incident, he said, was a watershed moment. He could no longer be complicit in a process that he knew was wrong. He decided to write a letter, declaring himself to be a conscientious objector. He wrote on lunch breaks during his eight month field deployment. It was accepted.

Weeks later he left Iraq on a scheduled break, knowing that he wouldn’t return as he would be granted an honourable discharge within the month. Casteel came home with mixed emotions. Glad to be alive, not sure what he had done. His heart loyal to the soldiers who still served, his brain urging him to fight what he saw as injustice.

The transition to a non-military life was far from a smooth process. He found his bitterness growing by the day. “All soldiers go through civilian disdain when they come home.” he said, “’You don’t know what we’ve been through. You don’t know how we’ve put our lives on the line for a bullshit cause.’”

His parents were at the airport to meet him. “I had a hard time smiling, they were happy to see me but all I could think was ‘what have I done for the last eight months of my life?’ I’ve made the world a more dangerous place, I’ve terrorized innocent poor people and folks at home want to call me a hero and pin awards on my chest.”

He was awarded a medal for his service. He gave it to a friend who hadn’t received one. That night he got drunk with some fellow returnees and they pinned their medals onto a cardboard cut-out of George W. Bush.

Settling back into normal life, Casteel felt the need to enact radical change. He left evangelism and converted to Catholicism. He enrolled in the Iowa Playwright’s Workshop and started a Master’s of Fine Arts focused on playwriting and non-fiction at the University of Iowa. He also began to put his ideas into words. He is currently writing an autobiography and several works of fiction.

He has also joined the lecture circuit, telling anyone who will listen about the realities of life as a soldier and the problem of the use of torture in conflict. He works actively with several veteran’s groups.

One group in particular spoke to him and the t-shirt he sports at the Dublin pub reflects his allegiance: Iraq Veterans Against the War is made up of retired and active duty soldiers. It was founded in 2004 and has chapters in 32 states, in Canada and around the world. The group calls for a withdrawal from Iraq, for reparations to be paid to the Iraqi people and for better treatment for returning soldiers.

Casteel currently chairs the group’s religious dialogue committee, trying to bridge the gap between people of faith and the anti-war movement. He knows that some, both in the military and outside it, will never appreciate nor accept his message.

He’s prepared to live with that, he explained, as long as he holds the belief that solutions to problems come from those who stand for an ideal and refuse to back down, no matter the consequence.



Postscript: I met Joshua Casteel in Dublin several years ago. We only spent a short time together but we really got along and I always remembered both his courage and his story. I looked him up this morning with the intent of emailing him to see if he ever saw this piece. I was sad to learn that he had passed away from lung cancer a few years ago at the age of 32 and that he had linked his illness to toxicity exposure during his time in Iraq. The news shook me as I believe strongly that health damage resulting from the toxic remnants of war is one of the world’s great under-reported tragedies.

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