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The Strange Case of Chaplain Yee

James Yee’s spiritual journey over the next decade, which eventually brought him to Cuba as the fourth Muslim chaplain assigned in less than a year to Camp Delta’s detainees, seems to have begun almost casually. At first, his conversion “did not feel particularly momentous,” he tells us in his memoir For God and Country. In his description, it sounds more like a consumer than a theological choice: accepting the “simplicity” of Islam’s belief in one God didn’t require trading in Jesus for Muhammad, as he saw it, but putting them more or less on a par as prophets. Although he had been raised as a Lutheran to believe in the Trinity, he had never considered religion to be a major factor in his life and didn’t see why it had to become one as a consequence of his conversion. Islam, at this stage, was a more comfortable creed, not a way of life.

To his apparent surprise, its claim on his attention gradually deepened, particularly when he was assigned to Saudi Arabia, after the first Gulf War, as an air defense artillery officer in a Patriot missile crew. Setting an example of religious tolerance that, needless to say, went unreciprocated, the American command allowed its troops to frequent a Saudi “cultural center” at King Abdul Aziz air base where non-Muslims were quietly proselytized—Yee claims that large numbers of Americans converted during the Gulf War—and Muslim servicemen could sign up for bus excursions to Mecca. Yee, who professes to have felt entirely at home in the relatively homogeneous New Jersey suburb where he’d grown up as a member of an ethnic minority, found a kind of liberation in the “diversity” of Islam. This was real multiculturalism, all those Asians, Africans, Iranians, and Turks mixed in with Arabs and praying on a footing of equality; this was indeed “momentous.” Mecca, as he experienced it on this first of three trips (the first a mere visit, the second two a proper Hajj), was what his father had always taught him America was supposed to be. “The diversity of Islam,” he writes, “was incredible…. I’d never seen anything as truly diverse as this.”

So moved was he that within two years he’d resigned from the army with the aim of pursuing Islamic studies to qualify as an imam and immersing himself in Arabic; within three years, this Chinese-American West Point graduate from New Jersey was enrolled in Abu Noor University in Damascus where he stayed four years, returning home with a Palestinian wife who kept herself covered and spoke only limited English. Captain Yee’s story is remarkable even before he was recruited back into the army as a Muslim chaplain, even before he was sent to Guantánamo. His story up to this point, before it turns really dark, has strong interest as a narrative of one American’s quest in the mall of religions, faiths, and cults that this country becomes for so many of its denizens. One would like to see what a novelist with a taste for American tales of improbable self-invention and cultural mutation, T.C. Boyle, perhaps, would do with it. To tell the rest of Captain Yee’s story would require Joseph Conrad.

Its subsequent episodes display the US military’s profound confusion about Islam: its self-congratulation and religiosity, which lead it to boast that it provides Korans, chaplain services, and an opportunity to pray in the direction of Mecca to those it detains indefinitely as “terrorists”; while its overriding devotion to its mission leads it to interfere with the religious practice of those same detainees in order to pressure them psychologically, squeeze them for intelligence they may or may not have held back, and, generally, show them who’s in charge. It’s asking a lot of the individual military policeman, not to mention the individual major general, to draw a fine line between the war on terror and a war on Islam, when Islam and their own misery are all that unite the inmates in the wire-mesh cages of a high-security prison. In this case, the major general was General Geoffrey Miller, who had been dispatched by Donald Rumsfeld to Camp Delta—and later Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq—with the specific charge of improving the “harvest” of what’s known as “actionable intelligence.”

Into this storm of cultural confusion and ruthless resolve walked the naive James Yee in November 2002, rendered even more so by his head-turning success in his first posting as a chaplain at Fort Lewis, Washington, where he’d won the warm approbation of his commanders who thus reinforced the conviction he’d formed in Mecca that there could be no conflict between service to Allah and service to America. In Yee’s eclectic theology, American values like religious freedom “are inherent in Islam and were a large part of what had led me to embrace this religion.” In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the newly minted chaplain had initiated at Fort Lewis a series of “sensitivity training” sessions on Islam for officers and enlisted men, in which he earnestly argued that terrorist attacks on innocents were inimical to the teachings of the Koran. “This work was fulfilling,” he declares in For God and Country, written “with” (or perhaps by) a journalist, Aimee Molloy. “It was why I had become a chaplain.” Soon he was being sent to other military installations to make the same presentation and army publicists were arranging for him to be interviewed on National Public Radio and MSNBC. “I had become the US military’s poster child of a good Muslim,” he says.

He was so prized during this period that no one in the military seems to have raised questions about his long stay in Damascus, a line on his résumé that might have rung some bells during a security vetting, if there had been such a thing for chaplains assigned to Guantánamo. It seems there wasn’t, at least in the case of the one Muslim chaplain with a West Point diploma. If his Syrian connection was ever noted, it would have been only later when a cloud of suspicion had already settled over the heads of all the Muslim servicemen with access to this remote and heavily guarded prison. Then the fairly striking (but easily explained) fact that he had tried placing phone calls from Guantánamo to Damascus—where his wife and daughter had gone for the duration of his stay in Cuba, in order to be with her family—may well have been added to the dossier being assembled for General Miller that depicted James Yee, grotesquely and implausibly, as an al-Qaeda ringleader.

Before the case against Chaplain Yee collapsed, Senators Charles Schumer of New York and Jon Kyl of Arizona, the columnist John Leo, as well as an array of conservative and Christian bloggers would seize on his arrest as evidence that radical Islamicists had taken control of the recruitment of Muslim chaplains into our armed forces. They offered no evidence bearing on his recruitment back into the army, however; by his own telling, Yee was first approached by a Muslim African-American, an ex-marine, at a Ramadan banquet at that hotbed of Islamic ferment, that notorious madrasa, the Pentagon.

Yee had scant opportunity to offer a public rebuttal of the charges he faced, or the portrayal of him as a traitor by anonymous government leakers, or the further allegations the charges and leaks inspired. First he was held in solitary confinement; then, on his release, placed under a gag order. “Speech that undermines the effectiveness of loyalty, discipline or unit morale is not constitutionally protected,” he was warned. The gag order stayed in force until his separation from the military—on a hard-won honorable discharge—early this year. His book thus tells a story that reporters who followed his case never got to hear from the accused.

Actually, it appears, all Captain Yee had to do to attract suspicion was to intercede repeatedly at Camp Delta on behalf of the prisoners, as their chaplain, when he saw their guards being unnecessarily—and, he came to feel, deliberately—provocative: in handling Korans during cell searches, for instance, or taking detainees out of their cells in shackles for interrogation just as the hour arrived for prayer. He had also begun to meet regularly with the forty or so Muslim servicemen on the base, for he was their chaplain, too. Since the mess halls didn’t provide halal food, some of them found it convenient to gather in the captain’s quarters for meals. Among these American-born or naturalized Muslims were some who brought back stories of prisoner abuse from the interrogation rooms, where they were assigned as interpreters but which were off-limits to the chaplain, who soon began keeping a “personal journal of the atrocities that I was hearing about in the interrogation rooms and on the blocks.” Some of this abuse the interpreters not unreasonably took to be abuse of Muslims as Muslims—for instance, wrapping prisoners in an Israeli flag, or playing a compact disc of verses from the Koran to set the scene for an interrogation session, only to drown it out with screeching rock music. The prisoners were also left chained in a fetal position for hours.

In their second year of confinement, a significant proportion of the prisoners began to exhibit symptoms of depression. Some went mute; others seemed to be regressing to patterns of childish behavior, singing to themselves in thin high-pitched voices. About a third, Yee says, were on antidepressants; at any given time, roughly twenty were kept in a psychiatric ward.

In the claustrophobic circumstances of the American military enclave, Captain Yee’s evening gatherings and services could be construed as alien, suspicious, not with the program, even mutinous. We now know that the captain’s quarters were searched. We don’t know if they were ever bugged, a possibility that Yee doesn’t raise in these pages. But it stands to reason that they may have been, in which case the investigators—inexperienced reservists who thought they were uncovering a plot—may have heard resentful talk that they took to be conspiratorial. Such suspicions were apparently fanned by interpreters from non-Muslim backgrounds (who mostly learned Arabic in the military, where they would have achieved a level of proficiency that didn’t begin to match that of native speakers). The idea that Camp Delta had been infiltrated by al-Qaeda was far-fetched from the start, but the prison was on a war footing since the day it was set up, patrolled as if attack from the sea by the nonexistent al-Qaeda navy were a real possibility; infiltration from within was not the least-plausible threat imagined by the command in training exercises designed to keep the prison’s guards on constant alert.

Eventually Yee became such an object of suspicion that military policemen took to calling out “Chaplain on the block!” to warn guards inside that an intrusion was about to occur in the person of a US Army captain, or bar him till they were good and ready to let him in, even though his orders gave him complete access to the prison and he outranked the enlisted men who stood in his way. But this didn’t happen until many months had passed. And, as a result, Yee is now able to give us the most coherent and detailed account that we’ve had of conditions inside the Guantánamo cages; he can also provide the context and narrative for bits of information about abuses of prisoners that had emerged earlier in a fragmentary way as a result of discovery motions brought by civil liberties lawyers. For instance, he makes it clear that an epidemic of suicide attempts in the summer of 2003 was an organized protest, not a collective nervous breakdown. He was often present when the prisoners erupted in fury, banging on the cages, shouting, and spitting at the guards.

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