The Common Good
January 2014

The Beginning of the End of War

by Mary Margaret Alvarado | January 2014

Joshua Casteel was an interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison and later staffed open-air burn pits in Iraq. The experience changed his life—even as it cut it short.

LATELY I’VE been reading my dead friend’s files. That’s how I know that he often typed in Cambria. That’s how I know that he drafted beginning-to-end, reworking early paragraphs before he set down the next—which is why so much of his writing just stops. That’s how I know that as a child he held press conferences in a White House made of cardboard boxes, wearing a clip-on tie, and that the night before he began school at West Point (a school he’d soon leave), he and his father smoked cigars on a hill overlooking the Hudson River, though his father did not like cigars. That’s how I know how much he thought about pain, which to Heidegger is “the rift,” a “separating that gathers,” and to Wittgenstein is “a having, not a knowing,” and to Elaine Scarry is an “objectless experience” that “destroys language.”

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This thinking was for classes at the University of Iowa and the University of Chicago, and this thinking was for other people, namely prisoners and fellow soldiers in the War on Terror, which was also the Global War on Terrorism, and was the Iraq War and is still the War in Northwest Pakistan and the War in Afghanistan, a subset of which is “Operation Enduring Freedom,” and is also and continues to be World War III or World War IV, depending on how you count, and was once The War Against Al-Qaeda and is now the Overseas Contingency Operation, which has been tidily renamed CVE (Countering Violent Extremism).

Joshua Casteel was sent to the Long War after first enlisting in the Army Reserves as a high school junior in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Seven years later he was stationed at Abu Ghraib prison as an interrogator and linguist. This is where he became convicted that he could no longer be an “American war fighter,” which he saw as treason against his “real kingdom and home.”

In Letters from Abu Ghraib, a book of correspondence from this time, Joshua wrote to his parents:

So, I just experienced why it is I am here in Iraq. Other than all the struggle I’ve been wrestling with ... I just “met” my reason—a foreign jihadist who would 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, though, while trying to convert me to Islam. It was beautiful. I was dumbstruck. I left praising Christ and thanking God for this enemy. I confessed to this jihadist my sins and asked him to look at his own. I’m pretty 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 where life mattered!

Here was reconciliation: the beginning of the end of war. And here was the “crystallization of conscience” that later helped Joshua become a conscientious objector to war. He went on leave to Qatar for a few days. When he returned to Abu Ghraib, he went to his supervisor and told him that he no longer wished to interrogate the Saudi Arabian prisoner. The next day he told his company commander that he no longer wished to be a soldier.

Joshua was transferred to noncombatant duty and staffed open-air burn pits. In these giant holes burned all manner of trash, day and night. In a weakly worded 2010 memo, the Department of Defense advised against the use of burn pits—though they are still being used. Under the definition for “covered waste” was listed: “hazardous waste ... medical waste ... tires, treated wood, batteries, compressed gas cylinders unless empty with valves removed, fuel containers unless completely evacuated of contents, aerosol cans, polychlorinated biphenyls, petroleum, oils, and lubricants products (other than waste fuel for initial combustion), asbestos, mercury, [and] foam tent material.” This is what should not be burned, which is what was burned. Add weapons to the list. Add paint. Add human body parts. The dust particles from the smoke were small and sharp, with traces of titanium from electronics or IEDs. Joshua worked without a mask above this fire. For six months, he slept 100 yards away.

When he came home and went running along the Iowa River, and later by Lake Michigan, he did not know what was waiting in his cells. This crucible is sometimes called “Iraq-Afghanistan War lung injury,” as though by giving it an unmemorable name it might just be forgotten. Joshua’s doctors called it lung cancer, Stage IV.

When he was diagnosed in November 2011, they were alarmed by how young he was, how strong and athletic, and the fact that he rarely smoked. Joshua was 31. He’d just accepted a job at Columbia College in Chicago. He had plans to start a magazine and a film company; to become a Jesuit and/or woo back his ex-girlfriend; to stage a new production of his play Returns; to play soccer with his nephew; to finish his Ph.D.; to go to Two Harbors, Minn., for Memorial Day.

He was 6-foot-1, 230 pounds. By the time Joshua died in New York on Aug. 25, 2012, he weighed 140 pounds.

For all the ways that he had startled us in life—and he did—it was even stranger to see how Joshua died. He kept being a friend. He kept teaching. Joshua’s spine was crumbling and covered in tumors. Nothing worked and everything hurt. Still he tended to us, the many people he loved. In our last visit, he cracked a joke about a ’90s boy band, put his hand on my full-term pregnant belly, and smiled.

He was not angry. He was grateful. Joshua said he preferred the person he’d become, having witnessed such love. Crucially, there was this: He felt “a certain sense of relief” that he “got to share in the sufferings of the Iraqis.” We burned those toxins in their fields, he said, but who was talking about that? Joshua would. He would go into remission, receive healing, and do this work. That was his hope. And that was the hope of his two sisters and mother.

The June before he died, Joshua and his mother flew from Cedar Rapids to New York for treatment; they stayed in a place called Hope Lodge. There were glimpses of reprieve. For a while he was able to manage the stairs to the subway. One Thursday that August he was discharged from the hospital, and his sister Rebekah drove them to Central Park. Joshua saw people out for the evening, doing what people do, and that made him glad.

When he was readmitted, just three days later, the emergency room nurse told him he looked like her college boyfriend. “I could tell that Josh felt normal for that one moment,” Rebekah recalls. But mostly those days were an agony. His arms were in such pain that his mother and sisters would take turns holding them up above his head for hours. Joshua’s legs were so swollen that he could barely move them. He could not sleep. He could not think. When a nurse changed his sheets the week that he died, the movement was so excruciating that his eyes rolled back in his head. This is the rift. This is what destroys language.

At Joshua’s funeral, one of his best friends spoke of how Joshua lived and died in a state of perfect trust and perfect abandonment. People began to say his name like this: Joshua Casteel, peacemaker. Joshua Casteel, ¡Presente! Joshua Casteel, pray for us. We all knew we had known a most uncommon man.

In his paper on pain, Joshua wrote that “Heidegger describes the blooming of the tree as the calling of ‘the tree’s towering.’” That description applies as well to Joshua. 

Mia Alvarado, author of Hey Folly (Dos Madres Press), is editing a collection of Joshua Casteel’s writing, with the working title All Violence is Suicide.

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