Now that he’s published a book about his Guantanamo ordeal, it’s time to revisit the story of former Army chaplain James Yee. (I published a column about Yee in 2004 but much has happened since then and Yee’s compelling narrative fills in many of the blanks.)
His book For God And Country is one decent person’s account of his inhumane treatment by US military authorities. In short, the story happened like this: Yee was the only Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo’s prison base, and he incurred his commanders’ wrath when he told his superiors that Muslim prisoners were being abused and having their rights violated.
Prior to his arrest on bogus charges of sedition, mutiny and espionage, Yee, ironically, had received glowing commendations in reviews from his superiors. Nonetheless, armed with an arrest warrant from Guantanamo’s second-in-command–but as we later found out, hardly a shred of evidence–the military put Yee in solitary confinement for 76 days. It dragged his name through the mud as officials leaked information to the media charging that Yee was a member of a Guantanamo spy ring that sympathized with Al Qaeda.
The charges were totally without merit and the case against Yee quickly crumbled, but the military’s next step was vindictive in the extreme: It decided to continue the smear job by charging Yee with unrelated crimes like the commission of adultery. These charges were also eventually dropped, and Yee, in the end, received an honorable discharge.
His book tells the story of one man’s struggle against this outrageous smear campaign, but it also offers a useful window onto the pattern of prisoner abuses at Guantanamo and around the world under US military authorities. Yee’s account makes clear that prisoner abuses are woven into the culture of Camp Delta on Guantanamo. He’s persuasive on this count: The chain of command was indeed responsible. Guantanamo’s zealous commander Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller at one point told Yee that he hated “those Muslims” who had attacked America and killed his friends on September 11. Generally, according to Yee, Miller cultivated a blatently anti-Muslim atmosphere at the base.
Yee describes how translators and detainees told him that military interrogators ordered Muslim prisoners to get into a circle and declare that, “Satan is [my] God, not Allah!” Military authorities kicked the prisoners’ Korans, ripped the Muslim holy book, beat prisoners, and mocked them as they prayed.
The anti-Islam atmosphere went far beyond commanders like Gen. Miller though. In other disturbing incidents around the country, chaplains told at least one Mormon Marine that his faith was “wicked” and evangelical Christian military chaplains have tried to proselytize to non-believers at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. (The efforts at conversion were “systemic and pervasive,” a whistleblower told the New York Times.) And you probably remember hearing about Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” Boykin, who after September 11 assured his Christian audiences that Allah was an “idol”–that “my God was bigger” than a Muslim Somali warlord’s God–and that “God put[George Bush]” in the White House so Bush could lead America in the so-called war on terror.
Yee’s book reveals as well that the prisoner abuse scandals are not at all explained by the Bush Administration’s argument that a few bad apples were to blame. Rather, there’s an anything-goes culture that has allowed the scandals to happen. As The Nation recently editorialized, the US government has been complicit in “war crimes,” and the White House reeks of “moral degradation.”
The situation is so out-of-control that the Republican-led Senate recently pushed and won passage of an amendment by a vote of 90 to 9 prohibiting “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” of prisoners, a measure that the White House has threatened to veto. (As the bill heads to conference, beware of efforts to water down the amendment to comply with White House demands.)
As a country, we need to take Yee’s book to heart and begin to hold our political and military leaders accountable for their role in the prisoner abuses. Former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman argued this past summer in The Nation that accountability is long overdue. We’ve had “no investigative commission” like the September 11 commission to reveal the extent of the prisoner abuse scandals. The public should demand, she argued, that the government release all directives issued by Bush and other senior officials explaining who knew what about the torture of prisoners and what steps leaders took to end the abuses. We need, Holtzman said, a “full inquiry.”
In Yee’s case, the military should do the same. Here was a US Army Captain who had become, as Yee writes, “the US military’s poster child of a good Muslim.” He made public appearances on behalf of the armed forces after graduating from West Point. Bright, patriotic, devout and articulate, Yee was a military asset and true American patriot who stood up for his beliefs and for the nation’s commitment to religious tolerance and regard for human rights.
So now, the damage has been done to Yee’s life and to America’s reputation around the world. And until an “inquiry” begins, the breach cannot be repaired.