9/11 FOR GOD AND COUNTRY: FAITH AND PATRIOTISM UNDER FIRE By JAMES YEE WITH AIMEE MOLLOY [Public Affairs Books, 240pp., 2005]
THE ACCOMPLISHMENT of For God and Country, doubtless, is the downsizing and so humanizing of a tragic theme: By recording the painful ordeal of a patriotic Muslim American, Yee offers us insight into the deep tragedy that is the so-called War on Terrorism. Combine the eagerness of ignorance and the relentlessness of suspicion, and one sees why, for all that was promised, the American response to 9/11 cannot effectively articulate its goals, let alone the democratic means to achieving them. Yee himself is an example of this failure.
Born to a hardworking family of patriotic Chinese Americans, Yee’s journey to the military might seem more inevitable than his interest in Islam. Converting from Lutheranism in 1 99 1 , Yee at first didn’t consider his shift in faith to be particularly “momentous.” But after graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1990, Yee’s tours of duty took him to Saudi Arabia and deepened his attachment to Islam. In November 2002, the well-regarded Yee was appointed Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay.
Yee soon found his role in this “most hostile environment,” serving as a liaison between “enemy combatants” and the United States military, stoking anxieties and fueling bigotries. His attempts to have the detainees treated fairly along with his astonishment at the harsh treatment daily meted to men who were not charged with any crimes alienated Yee from the military he wished to serve. Landing in Jacksonville, Fla., on Sept. 10, 2003, on a visit home, Yee was arrested and charged with “mutiny and sedition, aiding the enemy, spying and espionage.” Each charge is punishable by death.
The case against Yee was based on duplicitous cruelty or overzealous idiocy. It soon fell apart, but not before Yee was pinned down as an Al-Qaida ringleader in Guantanamo. Before trial, he endured 10 weeks of solitary confinement in a cell of Guantanamo dimensions: eight feet by six feet. He was subsequently cleared of the charges. Rather than apologize, however, the military threw in new if comparatively less serious charges. “Mishandling classified information.” “Adultery.” “Pornography on a government computer.”
But Yee understood why the military could not free him without first ruining his reputation. He had witnessed many cases of abuse at Guantanamo, including scandals that eventually tumbled out: depression and suicide attempts, Qur’an abuse, detained “enemy combatants” left to rot in cells until they began to demand interrogations. Yee’s intimate knowledge of the scale of these abuses made him a threat. The military’s strategy was to malign the messenger than deal responsibly with the message.
All the charges were eventually dropped and Yee was honorably discharged. For God and Country records the specifics of his battle for justice and dignity, including the disturbing details of life at Guantanamo. Yee’s is an infuriating story, a troubling lesson and a much-needed documentation that cannot be but strongly promoted. But for all the promise offered by his unimpeachable perspective, his book comes up short. The story deserves high drama and addictive narration but the writing fails to convey the gravity due it. Although Yee’s outrage, depression and disbelief tantalizingly poke through at times, the narrative remains lukewarm and unpolished.
The book also does not follow its own concerns to their conclusions. Of course Yee was wrongly accused, but the same system that abused him eventually, if hesitatingly, exonerated him. What do these patterns of injustice, racism and hypocrisy imply for the religiously inclined? Can one, in an age of amoral governments, weapons and misleading media, combine faith with military service? Nor are these concerns meant to be restricted to Muslims in America. The recent record of Muslim militaries offers nothing to prefer.
Perhaps this is an unfair criticism; For God and Country has its agenda and accomplishes it well. But it leaves the reader dissatisfied, troubled by the actions of the world’s most powerful government. Because so few American leaders have the ability to understand the reasons behind the 9/ 1 1 attacks, they have left their militaries and intelligence services blind. The country is looking for enemies but in all the wrong places. What was supposed to be a chance to champion American tolerance and fairness became, instead, no more than a vindictive, ill-informed witch hunt, the only achievement of which has been to undermine, alienate and estrange.