Letters from Abu Ghraib

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Letters from Abu Ghraib by Joshua Casteel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this 2008 Essay Press release, fellow Iraq veteran Joshua Casteel recounts his 2004 deployment as an Army interrogator via a series of email exchanges with friends and family. A very quick read, Letters from Abu Ghraib include vivid and compelling tales of everyday life and not-so-everyday musings. Casteel is clearly contemplating the role of Christians amidst war and violence with every fiber of his being. We listen in as he responds to both concern and criticism from people he cares about, all the while trying to maintain moral coherency within circumstances that he shows us are anything but morally coherent. It is not until near the end of this short book that we learn of his eventual decision to apply for discharge from the US Army as a conscientious objector.

I picked this book up as part of a survey of memoirs by Iraq veterans, hoping to gain some insight into how other combat veterans were digesting an experience (unbeknownst to them) we share. Joshua’s account is the first that I have found to have interpreted his experience primarily theologically, instead of merely politically. He reflects on Hauerwas and Bonhoeffer, and a number of theological concepts appear throughout (that, had it not been for a year of seminary, I otherwise would not have recognized).

The most concrete difference is the structure – no other book I have discovered literally takes us into their world, sharing with us the very intimate and unguarded correspondence they shared with friends and family during their combat tour. We see Joshua in all his humanity, for good and bad. He wrestles viscerally with his role as an interrogator at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison at the same moments in time that I too found myself fighting in Iraq including the 2004 election cycle that saw Bush gain reelection. I found myself noting my whereabouts correlating to many of the individual emails. A number of them are artfully composed, and I found myself caught up in imagery made up by my own time in-country. Furthermore, memory seems to be one of the touchstones that can set off his most creative meanderings, most notable of which are his entries for July 21st, 2004 and October 15th, 2004 (pp. 32 & 97, respectively). These two entries seemed inspired by the death of one of Joshua’s heroes, Jacques Derrida, a notable French philosopher.

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