Update: A memorial service for Joshua Casteel will be held at 5 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 9 on the third floor of Swift Hall.
Joshua Casteel, a graduate student at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, died Aug. 25 in New York City after battling lung cancer. He was 32.
In addition to his academic work at the Divinity School, Casteel was an active member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He lectured widely about his time as an interrogator at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison and his decision to become a conscientious objector.
"There is simply no one like Joshua Casteel and the Divinity School community is keenly grieved at his loss,” said Margaret M. Mitchell, the Shailer Mathews Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature, and dean of the Divinity School. “This remarkable man, with such a remarkable history, who was our student, colleague, passionate interlocutor and friend, has left his mark here and will be continually remembered with fondness and admiration."
A native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Casteel joined the Army Reserves at age 17 and attended the University of Iowa on an ROTC Scholarship. He served with the Army’s 202nd Military Intelligence Battalion as an Arabic translator and interrogator.
At Abu Ghraib, Casteel’s pacifist views solidified, a transformation he described in the documentary “Soldiers of Conscience.”
During an interrogation, a 22-year-old self-proclaimed jihadist suggested that Casteel was not following his own Christian faith. “[He said] I wasn’t fulfilling the call to turn the other cheek, to love one’s enemies,” Casteel said. “When posed with that kind of challenge, I had nothing I could say to him. I absolutely agreed with him. My position as a U.S. Army interrogator contradicted my calling simply as a Christian.”
Casteel applied for conscientious objector status and was honorably discharged from the Army in May 2005.
After returning to civilian life, Casteel studied at the Iowa Playwright’s Workshop, where he received his MFA. He is the author of two plays about his experiences in Iraq, Returns and The Interrogation Room, as well as Letters from Abu Ghraib (Essay Press, 2008), a collection of e-mails he wrote while serving in Iraq.
He enrolled at the Divinity School in 2010, where his scholarly interests included theology, philosophy, and religion and literature. Although his illness prevented Casteel from completing his MA, he “achieved distinctive clarity in a very short span,” according to his advisor, Richard Rosengarten, Associate Professor in the Divinity School.
“Few have written with such a combination of dignity, strength, and vulnerability about the experience of waging war in Iraq. We're diminished in our loss, but ennobled and very grateful in memory of him,” Rosengarten added.
Casteel greeted his diagnosis with strength and grace, according to his roommate Aaron Hollander, a PhD student in the Divinity School. “He didn’t sit around asking why. He didn’t treat it as an unfair reality,” Hollander said. “He decided he would rise above the illness and treat it as a chance to connect with people.”
Despite his difficult treatment, Casteel even continued to teach a graduate writing workshop at Columbia College during his illness.
His friends from UChicago remember Casteel for his passionate intellectualism both in and out of the classroom. He could often be found sitting outside Swift Hall with a stack of books, ready to engage in “rich, deep” conversations with whoever came by, according to his friend Michael Le Chevallier, a PhD student in the Divinity School.
“Josh came most to life when he was vigorously debating ideas,” Le Chevallier said.
Yet his friends also recall Casteel’s lighthearted side and winking sense of humor. Casteel, who rooted for Notre Dame, was equally comfortable discussing college football and 19th-century Russian philosophy, often simultaneously. A man of many talents, he made “the best guacamole I’d ever had, and was always willing to share,” Hollander remembered.
During his time at UChicago, Casteel developed a keen interest in personalism, a theological worldview that places particular significance on subjectivity and relationships.
“Josh didn’t merely understand personalism, he lived his philosophy,” Hollander said. “You can see that in the overflowing of love towards him from all over the country and all over the world. He was a force in people’s lives, and they came out of the woodwork to support him.”
Casteel is survived by his mother, Kristi, and his sisters Naomi and Rebekah.