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Joshua Casteel
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JOSHUA CASTEEL For a soldier turned playwright, theatre has helped make sense of his experience in Iraq.

Becoming a soldier was Joshua Casteel’s lifelong dream. What he experienced in 2004 as a military interrogator at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq spurred an awakening.

For five months, Casteel conducted nearly 140 interrogations on more than 40 people, just months after the prison was thrust in the spotlight over prisoner abuse. Casteel was plenty conflicted about working there in the wake of the abuse scandal; things worsened with each new prisoner.

Soon Casteel asked for and received conscientious objector status, and landed at The University of Iowa, where in 2002 he had earned a bachelor’s degree in literature, science, and the arts. Casteel enrolled in the Iowa Playwrights Workshop, and penned Returns, a play about his experience as an interrogator.

“I can count on one hand the number of people who were guilty of anything worse than being an Arab,” Casteel says. “These were young fathers, local laborers, veterans of previous wars, imams. I had to interrogate a 14-year-old boy who was terrified because he was missing his school exams.

“In no unreal terms, we were trying to get blood from a turnip.”

Casteel’s tipping point came during the questioning of a 22-year-old, self-proclaimed jihadist. “At some point in our conversation, we started talking about religion and ethics,” he says. “I said it was my duty, not a desire to kill, that brought me to Iraq.

“He said that I follow Christ but do not do as Christ,” continues Casteel, who was raised in a pro-military, evangelical Christian household. “I realized that I had broken objectivity, that I didn’t want to talk to him about the tactical issues that I needed to inquire about as an interrogator.”

The interrogation ended; Casteel’s career as an interrogator followed suit. Once back at Iowa, his writing began in earnest.

Returns was produced during the University Mainstage Gallery series in 2007, and was one of nine winners at the National MFA Playwrights Festival that same year.

“I’ve created an artifact about the experience; it’s something that I can engage with,” Casteel says. “Getting to work with actors, put words in their mouths, that has allowed me to see things through a whole new lens. That has taken the mystery out of some of my experiences.”

Interrogation was frustrating work for Casteel, who wanted nothing more than to follow in his family’s footsteps in military service. His grandfather had served in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War; his father and an aunt also served in the military.

Casteel enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves at age 17, and later enrolled in the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. But things soured. The rigidity and conformity of West Point was a turnoff; he left after just three months.

The University of Iowa helped Casteel land on his feet, but his ROTC experience was similar to West Point. With the military a lesser priority, Casteel enrolled at a university in Colorado for a year before returning to Iowa to earn his interdisciplinary degree.

While at Iowa, 9/11 happened.

So although Casteel’s ties to the military had waned, and he felt the war on terror was little more than “a war on a metaphor,” he felt he must honor his commitments, leading to his interrogation work.

Casteel wrote for two years to produce Returns, and it was painful. His recollections and method acting for the play undid any psychological repair he received. Accolades didn’t resonate with Casteel as clearly as the scorn he received from people—some as close as his own extended family, though not the ones with military experience—who consider him a traitor.

Casteel found catharsis in activism. Since returning from Iraq, he has become an outspoken critic of the war on terror, and appeared in Soldiers of Conscience, a documentary that examines the struggles of Casteel and three other conscientious objectors and the struggles of soldiers who remain in the military.

Casteel, currently enrolled in the UI Nonfiction Writing Program, is working on a play about Jackson Pollock’s Mural for the UI Museum of Art. The famous artwork is slated to go on tour in 2011; Casteel hopes the play will travel with the piece.

“Having Mural here is a great success story, given the deaccession seen at major art museums across the country,” Casteel says.

Story by Christopher Clair; Photo by Tim Schoon.

October 19, 2009