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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


For God And Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire by James Yee, Aimee Molloy (PublicAffairs) is a memoir by James Yee, who served as a United States Army Muslim chaplain at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility during the post-9/11 time of war. The book is coauthored by Aimee Molloy. The first chapter of the book recounts Yee's arrest by a U.S. government agent. Yee then goes back in time and proceeds to tell the story of his entire eventful life, including his childhood in New Jersey as a third-generation Chinese-American, education at West Point, conversion to Islam as a 23-year old, service in the Army as an air defense artillery officer, deployment to Saudi Arabia, Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, marriage, Islamic studies in Syria, and Army service as a pioneering Muslim chaplain.

What do you believe in? James Yee believed in God and America and one of those got him thrown in jail.

In 2001, Captain James "Yusuf" Yee was commissioned as one of the first Muslim chaplains in the United States Army. After the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001, he became a frequent government spokesman, helping to educate soldiers about Islam and build understanding throughout the military. Subsequently, Chaplain Yee was selected to serve as the Muslim Chaplain at Guantanamo Bay, where nearly 700 detainees captured in the war on terror were being held as "unlawful combatants."

In September 2003, after serving at Guantanamo for ten months in a role that gave him unrestricted access to the detainees--and after receiving numerous awards for his service there--Chaplain Yee was secretly arrested on his way to meet his wife and daughter for a routine two-week leave. He was locked away in a navy prison, subject to much of the same treatment that had been imposed on the Guantanamo detainees. Wrongfully accused of spying, and aiding the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Yee spent 76 excruciating days in solitary confinement and was threatened with the death penalty.

After the U.S. government determined it had made a grave mistake in its original allegations, it vindictively charged him with adultery and computer pornography. In the end all criminal charges were dropped and Chaplain Yee's record wiped clean. But his reputation was tarnished, and what has been a promising military career was left in ruins.

Depicting a journey of faith and service, Chaplain Yee's For God and Country is the story of a pioneering officer in the U.S. Army, who became a victim of the post-September 11 paranoia that gripped a starkly fearful nation. And it poses a fundamental question: If our country cannot be loyal to even the most patriotic Americans, can it remain loyal to itself?
Much of the book details his service as chaplain at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; his time as a prisoner after his own arrest; and his legal fight to clear his name. Yee was accused of many offenses, including espionage, sedition, and aiding the enemy; he faced a possible death penalty. This is an absolutely gripping narrative; it's one of those books that I found almost impossible to put down. Particularly interesting are the many details about the operation of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Yee creates a vivid picture of the lives of the prisoners, and gives insight into his role as a chaplain who ministered to both the prisoners and to Muslim facility staff. Yee makes many disturbing claims about the operation of the prison; he shares allegations that the Islamic religion was purposely mocked and degraded in order to psychologically rattle the prisoners, and he alleges that prison guards attempted to bully him and hinder his ability to perform his duties. He writes that the prison was the site of "an endless cycle of tension and violence."

Yee also writes in detail about the humiliation he experienced while imprisoned by the U.S. government. His voice is angry and outraged, and he is pointedly critical of specific individuals. Despite his anger, the narrative voice is controlled and the book is overall very clearly written and well organized. Yee raises some very compelling ethical and practical issues. The book is also a remarkable story of faith--how he found Islam and how Islam sustained him through a nightmarish ordeal. As the memoir of an American convert to Islam, the book reminded me of the enduring classic "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," which would make a great companion text.

The one problem I had with the book is that Yee seems to evade fully addressing the adultery and pornography charges leveled against him by the military. In the book's epilogue, he acknowledges that some will probably still have questions about those charges, but he bluntly adds, "I have said all that I am going to say on this matter." He further seems to trivialize the charges, dismissing them as "frivolous accusations about my personal life." But I think that he fails to really address the significance of how such accusations, especially if true, could compromise one's role as a soldier and clergyman. That criticism aside, this powerful narrative is, in my opinion, one of the most remarkable human documents of the "war on terror."

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