A Moral Center In a Decayed Ethical Universe

Former Abu Ghraib interrogator turned playwright Joshua Casteel, left, interviews an unidentified prisoner, played by David Blum, during a dress rehearsal of his production, "Returns," in 2007. (AP Photo/The Daily Iowan, Ben Roberts)

Joshua Casteel had to decide between attending seminary and deploying to Iraq as an army interrogator. He chose Iraq, where he hoped to bring morality and humanity to interrogations. But army interrogators already had their own version of “moral order”:

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.”

Casteel kept his own moral compass in the interrogation room, where it turned out that treating people like people was more effective than treating people like animals to be broken.

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 ruthless 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.”

Casteel eventually left the military as a conscientious objector after one particularly transformative encounter with a detainee. On his return to the U.S., he struggled both with the aftermath of his experience and with his health — his time monitoring burning waste pits in Iraq left him with Iraq/Afghanistan War-Lung Injury, and the ensuing cancer killed him. For Smithsonian and Epic magazines, Jennifer Percy tells the story of his life, work, and death.

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