I learned this week of the death, back on August 25, of Joshua Casteel. Chances are that you've never heard of Joshua Casteel, but he left his mark on the world in a way that deserves to be pondered, discussed, and perhaps even emulated. If nothing else, the trajectory of his life and the "crystallization of conscience" that he experienced merit thoughtful consideration, especially in an age when it seems that, as Yeats put it, "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."
Casteel grew up in an evangelical Christian home in Iowa, steeped in patriotism and conservative views. At 17, he joined the Army Reserves, then went to the University of Iowa on an ROTC scholarship. On entering active duty, he was assigned to language school where he studied Arabic. In 2004, just weeks after the torture scandal became public knowledge, Casteel was assigned to Abu Ghraib as part of the Army's 202nd Military Intelligence Battalion. He was a translator and an interrogator in one of the world's most notorious prisons.
The "crystallization of conscience"--the moment when Casteel decided to apply for conscientious objector status--came in response to the comments of a Muslim prisoner (and self-proclaimed jihadist) he was interrogating: "[He said] I wasn’t fulfilling the call to turn the other cheek, to love one’s enemies. When posed with that kind of challenge, I had nothing I could say to him. I absolutely agreed with him. My position as a U.S. Army interrogator contradicted my calling simply as a Christian."
Casteel was honorably discharged as a conscientious objector in May 2005. He joined Iraq Veterans Against the War, published a book entitled Letters from Abu Ghraib, earned an MFA in writing at the University of Iowa, and wrote two plays about his experiences in Iraq. In 2010, be began studies at the University of Chicago's Divinity School. Soon after, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, which claimed his life on August 25, 2012.
Soldiers of Conscience, a documentary produced in 2007 and broadcast on PBS the following year, featured Casteel's story. An excerpt appears in the clip below.