FOR GOD AND COUNTRY
Faith and Patriotism Under Fire
By James Yee. PublicAffairs. 240 pp. $24
James Yee, who retired from the U.S. Army as a captain last January, should have been a candidate to accompany the State Department's Karen Hughes on her recent Middle East trip to burnish America's image. But while Yee is a highly presentable West Point graduate, he certainly will not be asked to represent the Bush administration anytime soon, and there's little chance Yee would want to make the trip anyhow. He served for 10 months as a Muslim chaplain at the U.S. military's Guantanamo Bay prison, and his experiences there alienated him, to say the least, from the U.S. war on terrorism.
After complaining through official channels about what he viewed as the jailers' mishandling of the Koran and their harsh treatment of detainees, Yee himself was investigated, thrown into solitary confinement and threatened with the death penalty in 2003 for mutiny, sedition, espionage and aiding the enemy. Later, he was charged with lesser but still largely trumped-up offenses; even these allegations were dropped, and he ultimately left the military he loved.
His new book about this experience should be required reading for all U.S. officials waging war on Islamist terrorists. For God and Country is an indictment of the sloppy assumptions and religious and cultural blindness that he charges U.S. officials frequently reveal in their struggle with the jihadists.
Yee's book is also packed with revelations. He sheds new light on the allegations about "Koran abuse" at Guantanamo that led to deadly rioting in Pakistan last May. Yee writes that it was commonplace for testosterone-charged MPs to goad detainees by poking or kicking the Muslim holy book, and he even names a Connecticut Army Reserve unit that he says took particular relish in doing so. Hundreds of detainees ended up demanding that their Korans be removed from their cells to reduce the chances of desecration, but officials declared the books must remain; inmates who refused to grasp the Korans when they were returned through slots in cell doors were physically attacked, he writes.
Yee tried to get Guantanamo officials to change their handling of both Korans and detainees, which, he writes, led to the investigations of him. Soon he was in solitary confinement in a Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., contending with a raft of accusations, such as the charge that he committed a security breach when he arranged to have a Koran tape played for a brain-impaired detainee in the hospital after the man tried to commit suicide. It was all nonsense. A man who could have been an important asset for the U.S. government was accused of being a security risk, and, when that failed, of storing pornographic images on a government computer and committing adultery with a female Navy lieutenant. All the charges were ultimately dropped.
Yee's book would have been stronger if, instead of suggesting that the Guantanamo prisoners are all innocent victims, he had grappled with the fact that many of the inmates are indeed dangerous; one of them, Mohamed Qahtani, tried and failed to enter this country to become the 20th Sept. 11 hijacker, U.S. officials say. Yee's story matters because it's a question of national security, at this time of all-too-real terrorist threats, that our government distinguish genuine enemies from friends. *
John Mintz, a former reporter for The Washington Post who covered Guantanamo Bay, among other terrorism-related topics, is now a private investigator with the James Mintz Group.