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Stateside With Rosalea: IV With Joshua Casteel

Stateside With Rosalea: IV With Joshua Casteel

By Rosalea Barker

Rosalea spoke with conscientious objector Joshua Casteel during a lunch break at the On the Frontlines conference at UC Berkeley last weekend. Now an MFA candidate at the University of Notre Dame, Casteel is an eight-year veteran of the Armed Forces who served in Iraq as an interrogator at Abu Ghraib prison after the recent abuses. She asked him about the mundane aspects of his job.


Q: You were in the Army deployed in Iraq, as a translator?

A: My primary job was an interrogator, and I was also trained as an Arabic linguist.

Q: You were trained as an Arabic linguist after you joined the Army? Like, you went to Monterey to the school there?

A: Yes, I went to the Defense Language Institute.

Q: Uh-huh. I'm curious how that served you. Do you feel that you were trained to the point that your language skills were an asset and not a hindrance? You know, giving you a false sense that you were understanding something that you didn't understand?

A: Well, we used translators constantly. Native linguists. Even those of us who went to training. Because we didn't have the mastery of dialect that was necessary in order to really do the job. It gave us a sense of kind of control, or a sense of security that we could usually understand what they were saying, the more that we were in the country and sort of picking up the idioms. But being able to communicate to them in an efficient way was very difficult. So we always used translators.

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Q: Alright. And you thought that that worked well? I'm just trying to get a sense of whether you--

A: No.

Q: No?

A: No. Translation was a huge problem, constantly. Some of it had--I mean, we were able to get the words mapped from language to language, that kind of thing, usually. But there'd be plenty of other instances where the cultural underpinning to an expression or something, just wouldn't translate. Even those of us who went through a year and a half of training and getting a bit of an understanding of Arab culture, as an interrogator in Iraq, you're in such an immersed--an area of such deep suspicion and doubt and fear, that when you hear things, you hear things from the Arabs that you're interrogating as possible threats, as modes of evasion: "They're trying to lie to you. You can't trust them." This is what's constantly going through your mind.

And coming from a more Western framework, constantly interrogators were saying things like, "Why don't these people understand law? Why don't they understand logic?" And there's a very different understanding of values and social importance and what's wrong. Like, is breaking the law wrong or is shaming your family and friends wrong? And which is more wrong? That kind of a thing. Those kind of things were highly unknown to the Americans that were in theatre.

Or issues like the difference between terrorism, political insurgency, and the tribal system.

Q: Can you clarify those for me?

A: Sure. All of those things get communicated to the press as "the insurgency." Or as "terrorism." They get mushed together. And generals would come in and say that we had the sanction to "kill or capture all anti-democratic forces." Which is a huge, nebulous, amorphous category.

Q; Right.

A: I had interactions with Sunni leaders who would tell their people that, in the absence of a security force that they trusted, to rely upon the tribal system for their protection. Which was not political insurgency. Which was not terrorism. But it did involve arms. So an 18-year-old Marine at an American checkpoint sees a man wearing a headwrap and he's got a gun in his hand, and he thinks to himself, "That's a terrorist." When it's probably simply a person from the Jamali tribe guarding a back alleyway because he doesn't trust the police.

Q: Okay, because law and order has broken down to the point that it has--? I'm making stuff up here. Help me here-- You know: the reason there's a Jamali tribesman there is....?

A: There's constantly been a Sunni problem in Iraq. The Shia have these huge iconic figures, like Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who has immense moral authority in the country, but the Sunnis are much more divided. And the American government has never trusted the Sunni leadership, because they were the ones who were in control under Saddam, even though they are the minority. For some reason, there has been a constant suspicion put in the direction of Sunni leadership, and so the Sunni leaders I talked to never really felt they had much of a stake in the future of Iraq for themselves or for their own interests.

And for those of the Sunni leaders who didn't want to toe the American line--toe the line of what the political horizon was going to be according to the interim government, the new constitution, those kind of things--for those people who didn't agree with that, but weren't necessarily, you know, raving jihadist lunatics or something like that, that kind of dissent was seen as being anti-democratic.

Q: Okay. So then it falls into the purview of "you've got a right to--"

A: To kill or capture.

Q: Right. So there was no gray areas? In other words, there was not shading of--

A: I'm sure that there are people in the U.S. government who are aware of some of these complexities and are trying to work things in a more equitable and judicial fashion, but on the ground, it's not there. The foot soldiers who are the forefront of American foreign policy are uneducated, basically--they're 18-year-old Marines and the 20-year-old kids that I went to language school with, who would cry themselves to sleep at night because they couldn't comprehend the magnitude of their job as interrogators.

Q: You were at Abu Ghraib, I believe. What mix of troops was at Abu Ghraib?

A: It was joint endeavour. I didn't see many Navy personnel there, but it was Army , Air Force, Marines. Predominantly Army.

Q: Okay. And you interrogated people there?

A: Yeah

Q: You want to talk about that at all?

A: Sure. I mean, a quick snapshot of what the process was like is that I can count on the one hand the number of people who I thought were really doing terrible heinous things. Killing people regularly, that kind of thing. The bulk of my interrogation involved local laborers, schoolboys, young fathers, imams, veterans of previous Iraqi wars. We were interrogating what we referred to as Average Ahmed.

Q: Average Ahmed?

A: Like Joe Schmo. And those were the people who allegedly were the face of the insurgency, and these were just everyday normal people.

Q: How did they come to be there? They were picked up from when people went out on sweeps?

A: Yeah. And the typical practice was "casting a wide net" so four people would be targeted in a village and 83 out of the 85 males of that village would become incarcerated, and we'd be interrogating all those people. And Abu Ghraib was supposed to have been the very final stage. Like, they should have gone through levels of screening before they ever got to us, and we were still interrogating just average people off the street.

Q: Was there a kind of a waiting--by the numbers that you're saying, it seems to me that people would have been incarcerated for some time before they ever--their turn came around to be--

A: Interrogated. Yeah. Yeah.

Q: How long do you think it would take?

A: Sometimes it was fast. Sometimes they were what's called a High Value Target, HVT, and we would talk to them quicker. Sometimes it was a less high priority.

Q: You took days? Hours? Weeks? What's "quick"?

A: Definitely not less than days, because there was a 72-hour period before they ever got to us.

Q: And who looked after them before they got to you?

A: People that were far away from the cameras that were pointed at Abu Ghraib. Combat units. Infantry. Marines. Special Forces.

Q: Okay. Actually there at the prison?

A: No. Those were people out of the prison, who were doing the acquisition of people, of individuals.

Q: Okay. So, for example, let's say somebody's stationed up in Haditha or somewhere like that, right? I just mention that because of a young man, a young Marine that I know, he was killed there and he happened to post a number of photos on the Internet. They were there at the dam, they were based at a dam. They did go out on--

A: Patrols. [Rosalea: To see such a patrol, go to rtsp://mgs.mgbg.com/wsls/video/Hadithah.rm]

Q: Yeah. And, I guess, would capture people. What would happen to the people? Are you saying that those people would then, subsequently, they would be held there and then they would be moved to Abu Ghraib to be interrogated? Or just interrogated.

A: Typically, yeah.

Q: Really?

A: Doctrine dictates that people who are acquired at the battlefield are supposed to be what's called "sped to the rear."

Q: People who are what on the battlefield?

A: Acquired. In the battlefield. People that are detained or incarcerated or about to be incarcerated, they're supposed to be sped to the rear quickly, and usually that wasn't happening, and they would end up having quite a bit of time with the combat units that acquired them. People that probably just saw how their buddies just get killed on the street, who had a whole lot of anger and animosity against these people that they think are in charge of--who are responsible for killing their buddy. Which leads for a lot of bad things to happen.

Q: And also they're still--the people who are incarcerated are still within their local area, so, like--what I'm trying to connect here, or find out here, is there a connection between--when you see that there's roadside bombs going off in the Western part of Iraq, is it partly because local people are locally incarcerated and that kind of wound is very fresh, and the Americans who have done that are very close?

A: I don't have any eye-witness accounts of these kinds of things. But this is the general understanding of the procedure. Because I spent all my time at the prison itself. We'd get the files that were created by the units that did the detaining. So it would be usually always days before they made it to prison, but sometimes--

Q: Okay. How were they transported? By helicopter?

A: Various means. Helicopters. Humvees. Buses.

Q: Right. So it would be days before they got there?

A: Yeah, and sometimes people would wait months in prison before they were ever interrogated. Even sometimes people that were thought to be High Value Targets. And they would just sit in prison, sometimes for months, before I ever talked to them.

Q: Did you live in the prison?

A: Yeah. We lived in the prison cells.

Q: You did? How many of you?

A: Troopwise? I don't know the troop size. Last number I heard is that when we were there, there were around 8,000 prisoners. Tons of people. And they were constantly coming in.

Q: Too many?

A: Way too many. Breeding terrorism. And the more that that happened, the more that they thought that this was intentional on the part of the U.S. government. That we were *trying* to persecute them. And then the vast majority of people--who had done nothing wrong--who perhaps got into an altercation after a cousin got killed in a bombing or something like that--they get brought in and have all sorts of angst and animosity, and then end up sitting in jail with people who perhaps are connected to terrorist organizations, and get fed an ideology. They have all this experience saying "These people want us dead. They think that we're nothing." And it's just a breeding ground for fundamentalism.

Q: How do they get back? The people that you talked to that weren't High Value Targets and didn't prove to be of any use, or, you know, they turned out to be your average person, how did they go back to their homes?

A: After a long process that I was never able to oversee myself. We would write memos recommending release, but we did not have the power--the interrogators--to do the release. Only the commanding general had that final say. It was a long process to get through and sometimes we would rewrite those memos three and four times. It was not a quick expedite. It was not an easy process to get released from prison.

Q: And then physically? Did they have to find their own way back after having been--

A: I don't know, I don't know. I'm pretty sure that they--if they were released and thought to be not a threat to coalition forces--which was the issue: Are they a threat to coalition forces? Not: Are they guilty of acts of terrorism? Are they a threat to coalition forces? Which allows for a lot of vagary and ambiguity.

Sometimes they would be given like a menial amount of money and then just let off at the prison, let off at the front gates, where they would be taken in a bus to some place and let off in a city square or something.

I've actually got to get back to the event.

Q: Okay. Thank you so much for your time.

A: It was a pleasure. Take care.


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