‘They say that salvation is living in eternity. I heard though that eternity might also be like living fully present. Fighting for that present is the battle of the return. Sometimes you go forward, and sometimes behind.’

(Joshua Casteel, Returns, 2007)


On the evening of June 18th 2006, a fair-haired man in his mid-twenties, boyish and bespectacled, stood up on stage at the Royal Court Theatre in London, in front of an audience including the playwrights Harold Pinter,  Vaclav Havel, and Tom Stoppard and the actors Sinead Cusack and Jeremy Irons, and read the following words:

Now, of course, questions must be asked.  We’re going to have to talk about a great many things.  I want you to know that I’m here for the long haul.  I’m not backing down.  I’ll keep on asking until there’s simply nothing left to ask.  So, where to begin?  Begin again, shall we?  Why don’t you tell me what it was you were doing before we arrested you?  No?  Don’t like that idea?  Don’t want to tell me that?  If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve nothing to fear.  Nothing to hide.  But, you do have something to fear, don’t you?  Dont you?

DON’T YOU!!!  You think this is going to be a procedure!  You think this won’t matter!  You think so many things from that seat, from that chair!  Have you ever thought THIS, though?  Have you ever thought that you are utterly inconsequential?  Utterly beside the point?  Of no concern?  Have you ever thought THAT from that seat, from that chair? Well, then let me assist you in comprehending that reality.


“Exploit the greatest amount of intelligence in the least amount of time.”  That is the textbook definition of interrogation.  “Exploit the greatest amount of intelligence in the least amount of time.”  That’s a clever word – exploit.  I’m not supposed to tell you these kinds of things.  Not supposed to tell you you’re being interrogated, for that matter, let alone the government’s definition for what it is!  I never cared much for that “least amount of time” bullshit.  Never really paid it mind.  You have to be an artist in this profession.  Exterior constraints create exterior results.  Quality not quantity, though!  Not like when the generals would give us quotas to meet weekly.  “10 reports per week!” they’d bellow. So you can stand before the House Appropriations Committee with “statistics” to get more gadgets we don’t need?  Hey, fuck you!  Get your own damn reports, and keep the fucking jumbo screens.  We have a job to do!  We’re after things that matter, not your damned statistics!  Where are the explosives?  Who are the key figures of Islamic Jihad and Al Qaida?  Doctrines don’t get results.  You have to be pliable, shifty, go where the spirit leads.


You know, though – I can’t believe I’m telling you this – but the human source, the source that took the photos and told us all about you, your brothers’ little ring, and Mr. Talibani.  I found out yesterday that we don’t even know if he’s alive any longer.  No, honestly, in another one of those general’s briefings, I asked: “Hey, Genral so-and-so, what’s being done about tracking our human sources, so that we can test their reliability and ask further questions during the interrogation process?”  You won’t believe it – well, maybe you will, oh well – but anyway, he told me about some electronic database I guess he and the entire Pentagon thinks exists, and that I have access to.  So, I go to my OIC and ask him if the general understood my question and Chief tells me that the Pentagon somehow believes I have access to all this information stored up in some database that, honest to God, simply doesn’t exist.  It doesn’t exist, Major!  Chief said he’s looked into it so many times only to hear generals talk about something that maybe the Mad Hatter uses down in Alice’s Wonderland, that he just gave up trying.  So, yeah, for all I know, the dude we paid to collect info on you and your brothers coulda taken his cash and ran for the Syrian border.  Or, maybe, like you said a few months ago, he came back to your house – which now doesn’t have any male breadwinners – and decided to blackmail your family, offering your early release in exchange for more cash. 


You know I never even asked you how you were.  After yesterday’s attack and all.  Less than a football field away from where I slept.  I was shaving at the time, then gunfire erupts from all the guard towers exactly adjacent to where I was standing.  I run back to my room and hear bullets streak down a corridor – or, outside, but within our compound even.  Then, the fourth of July explodes just outside the prison walls on a dirt service road.  Somebody’d driven a truck around the perimeter fence, loaded it full of explosives trying to ram a hole in the wall.  ’Bout same time as the mortars dropped.  Probably not far from your tent.  Well, the Marines took him out with machine guns and automatic grenade launchers in what was barely even minutes.  Probably’d been a well-orchestrated plan of attack, months in the making.  The call to prayer had even seemed a little late that morning.  Well, I’m probably making that part up, but it did seem out of place, a signal perhaps.  But, the Marines… Interlocking fire and automatically launched grenades at a cyclic rate of 375 rounds – grenades – per minute.  Kaput.  Khalus.  I finished shaving, and came to work.  Interrogated Khalil, actually.  Don’t remember what we talked about.  We sit so close.  Me and the Major.  Me and the Major.  And we’ll just go round and round.  Round and round.  Smoke and joke and play and pray.  Tell ourselves we’ll win the day.  Don’t you love, Major, the songs we can sing?  How we can make ourselves believe in rabbit holes and wonderlands and all sorts of great, big ideas that never make us change?


The author (and reader) of this powerful piece of writing – an extract from a longer play , ‘Returns’, which I am now adapting into an opera – was Joshua Casteel, a veteran of the Iraq War and graduate of the MFA Playwriting programme at University of Iowa. The events that had led Joshua to the stage of the Royal Court that evening were extraordinary.

Joshua grew up in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a city in some respects emblematic of the American Midwest.  The area was once a vast expanse of rolling prairie. Even now, it’s a deeply evocative, resonant landscape: drive 90 miles out of the city and you can encounter hundreds of Native American burial mounds, in the form of birds, bears and other animals, rearing out of the land. Grant Wood, painter of American Gothic, that iconic image of Midwestern American life  – an austere couple stare forbiddingly at the viewer, framed by a white, wooden house and a pitchfork – lived in Cedar Rapids.

Like many other Iowan teenagers, Joshua enlisted in the Army Reserves at age 17.  A talented linguist, Joshua subsequently joined the 202nd Military Intelligence Battalion of the U.S. Army as an Arabic translator and interrogator; he was eventually posted to Baghdad’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison.  Whilst at Abu Ghraib, an encounter with a 22-year old Iraqi detainee precipitated a transformation of Casteel’s perspective on the war and an abrupt shifting of his moral compass. Casteel described this encounter in the following words:

[He said] I wasn’t fulfilling the call to turn the other cheek, to love one’s enemies. 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.

Joshua was subsequently honourably discharged from the army as a conscientious objector.  His newfound commitment to pacifism subsequently found articulate expression in a series of plays and non-fiction texts written whilst studying at the University of Iowa.  At Iowa, one of the most prestigious schools of creative writing in the United States, Joshua received tuition from the theatre director David Gothard and the playwright Naomi Wallace, who helped Joshua to develop his humanitarian creative vision.

I met Gothard in 2012 through a mutual acquaintance, the composer Gavin Bryars, and we quickly  became friends. David and I first met not long after Casteel’s untimely death, age 32, from cancer. It has been suggested that Joshua’s illness may have been the result of exposure to the by-products of Saddam’s chemical weapons programme in Iraq; as such, he, along with hundreds of other young servicemen and women, may be counted as casualties of the war after-the-fact, a topic that has recently been explored by the investigative journalist Joseph Hickman. David sent me the script for ‘Returns’, with the suggestion that the text might form the basis for a powerful opera. I was gripped by the play’s energy, its centrifugal force.

Casteel wrote ‘Returns’ whilst suffering from post-traumatic stress; one of the symptoms of this condition is the fragmenting of memory and personality. The central character, James – whose voice you heard at the start of this article – interacts with an Iraqi detainee, Ahmed, a childhood friend and fellow soldier, Mark, and a senior officer, Sergeant Patrick. The play revolves around his attempts to answer the impossible question asked of all returning soldiers: ‘what was it like?’ As the play continues, it becomes increasingly clear that the other characters are all aspects of James’ own fragmented conscious; the action unfolds in a range of bizarre tableaux – interrogations, drinking competitions, and mock-religious rites – through which James attempts to piece together his sense of himself and of his past.  The play is haunted by the figure of a little boy, Dhahur; James is not sure whether he played a part in the boy’s death, and constantly counts the shells in his gun to establish whether or not he fired the lethal round.

But the material of the play – and of Joshua’s life and legacy – was too emotionally raw for me to handle with confidence at that time.  After two years I suggested to Gothard that I might try to write the operatic version of ‘Returns’ that he’d imagined. A series of interviews and discussions followed – with Naomi Wallace, Joshua’s mother, Kristi, and with Marina Mahler, arts patron and grand-daughter of Gustav, who had been an enthusiastic supporter of Casteel’s work – to establish the parameters for the work.

The task was daunting: the project had the support of many people who’d known and loved Joshua and his writing deeply,  an intimacy I could only share through his writings.  I was aware of the strange and haunting fact that Joshua and I were almost exact contemporaries, born within three days of each other at the end of 1979. In the introduction to his seminal work for string quartet, ‘Different Trains’, Steve Reich discusses the idea that at the same time as he, the child of a New York Jewish family, was travelling across America by train to see his estranged father, other Jewish children were travelling by rail to face extermination in Auschwitz, Belsen and Treblinka. In a similar way, Joshua and I had taken parallel but divergent paths, his passing through the wastelands of war-torn Iraq and the horrors of Abu Ghraib, to the playwriting workshops of Iowa and the stage of the Royal Court.

I became aware, too, that if the play was a tragedy, it was uniquely a tragedy of my generation.  I was a young adult and a recent graduate in 2003, and, with millions of other participated in the Stop The War March that year. The head-rush of popular protest swiftly turned to the now-familiar hangover of political disenfranchisement when Tony Blair took Britain into the war against the wishes of a substantial percentage of the population, a decision which has recently been called into question by the Chilcot enquiry.  More importantly, the advent of the war placed thousands of men and women of my age into the frontline with – as Chilcot as shown – limited resources and instruction, and with scant regard on the part of their superiors for their physical and psychological wellbeing. There are many forms of casualty in war: those who are not broken in body on the field of conflict may be broken in spirit and mind on their return from battle, a fact that Joshua’s documents eloquently.

The play’s idiom and structure was also both a boon and a challenge for the composer. Joshua’s prose is intrinsically musical: densely rhythmic, with a powerful sense of dramatic counterpoint and tempo.  Yet the work has no linear narrative – its story proceeds through accumulation, rather than direction – and the play is cast as a single 75-minute act, with no obvious scene changes or breaks in the action. Tentatively, I started sketching music more percussive, flinty and rhythmic than any I’d written before, but shot through with scraps of plainsong, jazz and folksong, in response to the complex imaginative universe of the text.

A trip to the Banff Centre in the Canadian Rockies in March 2015, at the start of the composition process, helped to sharpen my musical thinking. Here I studied Persian classical music with the composer Kiya Tabassian and Hindustani music with the sarangi virtuoso Dhruba Ghosh. Both of these musical traditions rely on the idea of the ‘time-cycle’: a unit of musical time that returns over and over again in subtly varied forms. As I began the process of sketching the work in a studiolooking out over the Rockies, leafing through an archive documenting various aspect of Joshua’s life – a photo of the young soldier in uniform, nervously staring at the camera, lying across Joshua’s application letter to the Rolex Mentoring fund in which he articulates his passionate love of the work of Wole Soyinka – this idea of variation-within-repetition began, for me, to resonate strongly with the psychological ‘returns’ of Joshua’s text.  In addition,  working with Tabassian and Ghosh, I became more confident about the use of idioms and instrumentation from different musical cultures without appropriation, and began, for instance, to work the sound of the oud, the voice of the desert landscape, into my piece.

As I write, the opera is nearing completion.  A 20-minute extract from the work was presented at Rough for Opera 13 at the Cockpit Theatre last November with Danish baritone Teit Kanstrup in the lead role. I’m departing shortly for the Mahler-LeWitt Studio in Spoleto to complete the work, as the first-ever Composer-in-Residence their.  The prospect of working in an apartment owned by the Mahler family is a little daunting – more daunting, perhaps is the challenge of mounting a successful fundraising campaign to bring the work to life on the stage. I hope, for the sake of Joshua’s extraordinary play and amazing humanitarian legacy, that this will be a possibility: I’d be grateful for any messages of support or ideas for fundraising that readers of this blog may want to offer. Operatic composition is a wonderfully rich and gratifying experience, but a challenging one: like Prospero, the composer of opera seeks to conjure up a whole world of ‘sounds and sweet airs’, a task that requires perseverance, support, and no small amount of good fortune.


James Cave will be Composer-in-Residence at the Mahler-LeWitt Studio in Spoleto, Italy from August 15th to September 4th 2016.  (For more information, visit For more information about the ‘Returns’ project, please email James at

For more information about Joshua Casteel’s life and work, visit






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