This tribute by Tom Cornell of the Catholic Peace Fellowship was first published in America Magazine and is republished here with permission of both the author and editor.
Joshua Casteel died, August 25, in New York City, after a long, brave and painful battle with cancer, another victim of the war in Iraq, at age 32.
If ever there was an “all-American boy!” A photo of Josh as president of the Young Republicans in his high school is charmingly naïve. Tall, strong and handsome, blue-eyed and blond-haired, of Norwegian stock, he must have looked quite at home as a cadet at West Point Military Academy. But he couldn’t take the mindless chauvinism there, he told me. No critical thinking! “I could take orders, but I can’t give them in an outfit like that,” he said. He thought it only right to fulfill the commitment he made when he signed his enlistment contract, so he asked not for release but for reassignment as a common soldier. He was sent to language school, in California, where he learned Arabic well enough to be assigned to Abu Graib Prison in Baghdad as an interrogator. He arrived there just after the prisoner abuse scandal broke in 2004. He had over one hundred interrogation sessions with prisoners, 90% of whom, he determined, were guilty of nothing but being Arab. General Janis Karpinski, in charge of the prison at that time, disagreed, maybe 80%. One was 14 years old, another nine!
Joshua was brought up in a fervently Evangelical family. But Josh’s Christian faith began to falter. Cardinal Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity not only revived but strengthened his faith. He was received into full communion with the Catholic Church. An admitted jihadi prisoner challenged Josh’s commitment to the New Testament ethic of nonviolence. The jihadi had the better of the argument, Joshua decided. He came to the conclusion that he was in fact a conscientious objector to war and to military service. He applied for early discharge as a conscientious objector. His commanding officer recognized the validity of his claim. Joshua was released with an honorable discharge and returned home to study and to write plays and stories based upon his experience.
Archbishop Joseph Fiorenza, retired, of Galveston-Houston, arranged for Michael Griffin, theology professor at Holy Cross College in South Bend and editor of the Catholic Peace Fellowship The Sign of Peace and me to present Joshua to Pope Benedict in Rome, March 2007 at an outdoor Mass. The Holy Father was obviously impressed with Josh’s story. As he was led away, Mike Griffin told the Holy Father the purpose of our trip to Rome, to spur development of ministry to conscientious objectors, support and encouragement. “You mean men like him?” said the Pope, pointing to Joshua. “Yes, Holy Father, men like him!”
Having earned an MFA at the University of Iowa, Joshua started advanced studies at the University of Chicago when he suddenly took sick. It was lung cancer, 4th stage, metastasized. The disease progressed rapidly. He was soon in excruciating pain and dependent upon strong opioids. Treatment seemed at times hopeful. He was admitted to an experimental therapy program at a secret location in Lower Manhattan. He responded very well. Then a sudden downturn, due to pancreatitis. In little more than a week, attended by his mother, Joshua slipped away.
A victim of the war? Yes, probably, but there is no proof. Joshua believed that his cancer was caused by living at Abu Graib near an open burn-pit operated by the US military. All manner of refuse including plastics was dumped into open-air pits to be incinerated. The fumes are toxic.
Let Joshua have the last word. He spoke to Aaron Glantz in a radio interview on Pacifica Radio KPFA, San Francisco, on our trip to Rome: “We were seeking pastoral guidance from the Holy See as to how to best address the issue in America, which at the core is an issue of spiritual formation and catechesis, that people don’t know the history of Catholic conscientious objectors…. And this is where the issue of nationalism is front and center….In this country, Catholic Christians often don’t act as if their Catholic identity is their primary identity – that somehow it’s ok to closet your Christianity when the State tells you to. That’s not the history that Christianity hails from; it’s simply not the case.”
Pray for us, Josh, that God will grant us even a small share of your faith and courage, and consolation to your bereft mother and sisters.