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.
The main setting for his mission now is churches, like the Fayetteville megachurch where he preached twice on an August Sunday morning, in front of an enormous American flag backdrop. Both there and at the museum, people were snapping up copies of Never Surrender.
Yet, Boykin repeatedly told his audiences, to best understand his convictions, they needed to look at several other volumes besides his, of which he named five.
Taking him at his word, I obtained them all.
One books is called Armageddon, Oil & Terror, by end-times author John Walvoord. It lays out a familiar scenario, based on a reading of chapters 38-39 in the biblical book of Ezekiel. The text is seen as describing our times, and pointing to a climax in a massively bloody but doomed attack on Israel by an alliance of Russia with Islamic nations.
Another is Epicenter, by best-selling novelist Joel Rosenberg. Rosenberg could be called the thinking man’s Tim LaHaye: he has published several apocalyptic thrillers that mirror recent historical events much more closely than Lahaye’s “Left Behind” series. But Epicenter is a nonfiction work that undertakes to analyze Middle Eastern tensions and predict their outcome, again using Ezekiel, plus Daniel and revelation.
The next two are ostensibly non-religious. In America Alone, conservative columnist Mark Steyn rails against what he sees as the weakness of Western, and especially social democratic European culture in the face of Islamic immigration and high birth rates.
Most of Europe, Steyn contends, is deep into a “demographic death spiral,” performing an act of “auto-genocide.” These portend “the end of the world as we know it,” there and elsewhere, and its replacement by a slow-mo plunge into “societal collapse, fascist revivalism, and then the long Eurabian night.”
Steyn is a churchgoer, but unlike the previous three authors he does not predict the Second Coming of Christ to set everything right at the climactic moment.
Likewise, Paul Sperry is not counting on divine intervention to stop the evil tide he detects in his book Infiltration. What kind of infiltration is he talking about? This:
“Forget everything you have been told about these ‘moderate’ and ‘mainstream’ [American Muslim] leaders . . . .In reality, the Muslim establishment that publicly decries the radical fringe . . .is actually a part of it. The only difference is they use words and money instead of bombs. . . .”
Finally, Boykin spoke of Steve Coughlin, a Washington- based Defense Department analyst who he regarded as the best student of Islam inside the Beltway. But Coughlin’s insider status at the Pentagon was recently challenged, according to Boykin, because his view of Islam was not “politically correct” enough.
Coughlin hasn’t published a book. But his briefings of the top brass are based on a master’s thesis for the National Defense Intelligence College, titled “To Our Great Detriment: Ignoring What Extremists Say about Jihad.”
This thesis, which is available online, reports on Coughlin’s study of the Quran and Islamic law. These persuade him that the jihadis correctly claim that their violent drive for world domination is an essential meaning of core Islamic doctrine. Thus, Coughlin insists, arguments that Islam is really a moderate, non-violent faith, which the jihadists distort and twist to evil purposes, are mistaken, deliberately deceptive, or both, and certainly dangerous.
Added together, these six works make a heady brew. Boykin writes that in the 2003 controversy over his speeches in churches, he was wrongly called “an intolerant religious bigot,” who wanted to “resurrect the crusades.” He indignantly rejected this view, repeating to his Fayetteville audiences that his target is jihadist extremism, which he said represents only one to three per cent of the Muslim population.
Yet that math is not reflected in his religious rhetoric, or that of his other sources: Sperry, for one, insists that so-called “moderate” Muslims are no more than a mask for extremists. Steyn hears in Islamic immigration and fecundity the death knell for the entire “Free World”; Walvoord and Rosenberg foresee a looming apocalyptic war involving Islamic nations (plus Russia) versus Israel. They also insist that this conflict is predestined by biblical prophecy; and Coughlin identifies holy war for domination as being of the essence of Islamic law and doctrine, not some bizarre deviation.
No wonder Boykin sums it all up as posing a greater danger to the Judeo-Christian “Free World” than even the Nazis or the Cold War nuclear standoff with the USSR.
The depth of this perceived danger was underlined by one other warning Boykin repeated several times: that this existentially-menacing situation is one that our political leaders, even those now at the highest levels, will not dare speak of truthfully, because of “political correctness.” Indeed, his implication seemed to be that they are either dupes or fifth columnists, in on the plot.
Yet if the adequate response to such an apocalyptic threat is not a “Crusade,” then what other term would be adequate? My Thesaurus does not mention many options: “Rally.” “Campaign.” “Movement.” “War.” Or – well, I suppose I should have guessed it: “Jihad.”
One other response is that of the worried skeptic. It notes that careful scholars like University of Wisconsin professor Paul Boyer, in his book When Time shall Be No More, (Harvard University Press, 1994) have shown how biblical passages like Ezekiel 38 have been re-interpreted over many centuries as the basis of a long series of failed predictions of an imminent climax of history, with a varied cast of characters filling in for Gog and Magog.
Applying such prophecies against Islam goes back at least to 1190 AD and the Third Crusade. Its leader Richard the Lion-Hearted was assured by the monk-seer Joachim of Fiore that Saladin, the Muslim ruler of Jerusalem, was the Anti-Christ, and that Richard would defeat him. (He didn’t.)
While this long history of unsuccessful “prophecy” may make some of us dubious, it has done little to dampen the popularity of such speculation.
Certainly many here in Fayetteville were listening to Boykin’s clarion call. And the end-times books he cited are big sellers.
The Dark Side’s conclusion is more understated, as befits the New Yorker’s style. Jane Mayer notes that by early 2008, growing numbers of former administration insiders had abandoned the government with the conviction that in waging war against terrorism, America had lost its way. Many had fought valiantly to right what they saw as a dangerously wrong turn.”
But thus far, these principled conservatives have lost every major fight inside the White House.
Thus in these two books, both of which are important to understanding our current plight, we have starkly divergent and competing visions of both our recent past, and likely future: Never Surrender, and prepare for Armageddon; versus a careful delineation of our national slide into The Dark Side, with the way out as yet unclear.
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*The Dark Side, Jane Mayer. Doubleday, 395 pages.
Never Surrender, General (retired) William G. “Jerry” Boykin. Faith Works, 360 pages.