Quaker Theology #15

Reviews -- continued

The Dark Side, Jane Mayer. Doubleday, 395 pages.

Never Surrender, General (retired) William G. "Jerry" Boykin. Faith Works, 360 pages.

Reviewed by Chuck Fager

Since I live and work next door to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, I looked forward to these two books. From very different angles, they shine sharp spotlights on Fort Bragg and its important role in our current war. Beyond that, they illuminate much of our common landscape in the United States today, and the role of religion in it. The scene they highlight is disturbing indeed.

The first is The Dark Side, by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer. It brings together several years of pioneering reporting on the creation of the US police state and torture system after 9-11.

Much of Mayer’s narrative focuses not on North Carolina but on Washington, and in particular the machinations within the White House. One of the early outcomes of these maneuvers was the launching of what I have called the "Torture Industrial Complex." It occurred on September 16, 2002, at Ft. Bragg, hosted by the Special Operations Command. Interrogators from Guantanamo were brought to Bragg for briefings by Special Forces trainers on their SERE program–Survival-Evasion-Resistance & Escape.

In the SERE training, soldiers are subjected to supervised abusive treatment, including water-boarding, to simulate conditions they might encounter if captured. The techniques had their origins in events of the Korean War, when some US prisoners in North Korea were tortured into making false public statements about taking part in alleged US war crimes. SERE’s torture techniques are reportedly applied to coerce trainees into likewise signing false confessions. It appears that almost all trainees break down and sign.

Mayer’s book describes how the techniques demonstrated at the Ft. Bragg sessions then "migrated" to US military and CIA prisons at Guantanamo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. ("Migrated" was the term used by an internal Army investigation of the spread of abuse; "exported" seems more accurate to me, but let that go.) There they became the basis for a routine of secret interrogation-by-torture, which came to public notice first at Abu Ghraib, but has since been documented as ongoing elsewhere.

This torture regime has been condemned around the world, including in a rare public report by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Further, as Mayer shows in extensive detail, it has produced many false and recanted confessions, but little in the way of documented useful intelligence. Moreover, hundreds of people held and abused at Guantanamo for years, and thousands more at other prisons, have been ultimately released without being charged; that is, they were innocent.

Nevertheless, Mayer reports that this torture program still has the support of the White House, and it continues. This is consistent with my observations in this area, where two CIA-linked charter flight companies are expanding their facilities for clandestine flights. More than five years after the invasion of Iraq, the "torture taxi" business appears to be booming.

The other book, Never Surrender, is by a Special Forces insider and former commander, retired General William G. "Jerry" Boykin. In 2003 Boykin came to public notice in the US because of a series of speeches he gave at large churches, in uniform. In these, he framed the US war against Al Queda and terror as an apocalyptic religious struggle, with the US representing God against Satan. He also declared that the current US president had been installed by direct action of God.

Boykin was criticized and investigated for these statements, but was cleared of any wrongdoing and finished his career as a top pentagon planner of secret anti-terror missions. But despite the shock of the mainstream media reporters who heard them, the underlying theology of these sermons was nothing new.

Rather, they express one current reiteration of Dispensational End-Times thought, filtered through the lenses of the religious right. Boykin was raised in this thought world, and found church homes that reaffirmed it while in the military. In his account of the 2003 controversy, he says he was stunned to discover that anyone would consider such views controversial or out of the ordinary.

But this tale makes up only the bookends of Never Surrender. In between, after describing his youth in small-town North Carolina tobacco country, Boykin devotes most of it to re-telling with relish a number of war stories from his days as a member and leader of the super-secret Delta Force unit within the Special Forces, also based at Fort Bragg. These tales are exciting enough, and include among others the failed Iranian hostage rescue mission in 1979, the Grenada and Panama invasions, the hunt for Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, and the costly "Black Hawk Down" fighting in Mogadishu Somalia.

Boykin, who was wounded twice in combat, has certainly earned his spurs as a warrior. However, as he admits, his tales are limited to incidents which have already come to public notice. Most of his Delta missions are still shrouded in secrecy. This includes work with the Israelis, which is mentioned, perhaps accidentally, in a photo in the book. When a newspaper interviewer pointed out the photo, Boykin acknowledged working in Israel, but declined to say anything more about the mission.

One question which arises from reading these two books in tandem is, how much did Boykin know about the fateful "migration" of SERE torture techniques from North Carolina across the world? At the time of the 2002 interrogation conference, he was commander of the Special Warfare School at Ft. Bragg; training was his main job. And a second question follows the first: whatever his role then, what does Boykin think of the program now, six years on? How would he judge Mayer’s extensive evidence that cruelty in interrogations produces many confessions, most of them false and worthless?

Boykin retired in 2007, and has revisited Fayetteville several times in the summer of 2008, promoting his book. While he did not address these questions directly, many of his comments suggest that he supports what the administration calls "enhanced interrogations" to the hilt, and would see any slackening as a defeat.

Indeed, during these visits, Boykin frequently repeated his contentions about the eschatological character of the struggle against "radical Islam," which he sees as "the gravest threat in our history," more dire than the Cold war with the Soviet Union, either World War, the Civil or Revolutionary wars.

This threat is so ultimate, he believes, because it specifically embodies the presence and work of Satan. To stop this satanic drive, he is convinced that the US has been "ordained by God" to be a "light in a world of darkness." Further, he told his church audiences that this conflict will "soon" culminate in the cataclysmic fulfillment of biblical prophecies, including the Rapture, with Israel at the center.

This is the strategic worldview which Boykin brought to the highest levels of the Pentagon in the last years of his career. And it’s a worldview evidently shared by many other "operators," as these secret warriors are called. At least it was among the many who gave Boykin an enthusiastic reception at Fayetteville’s Airborne & Special Operations Museum.

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