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Unfriendly fire

National | MILITARY: He survived hostilities in Iran, Colombia, and Somalia, but can Gen. Boykin get out of the culture war alive?

Issue: "California's wall of fire," Nov. 8, 2003

Lt. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin is one of America's super heroes. Fresh out of college, he started out as a U.S. Army officer in 1971, was a Delta Force operations officer in the 1980 attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran, became commander of Delta Force (1992-1995) and led the Delta team that went after narcotics czar Pablo Escobar in Colombia in 1992, commanded the ill-fated 1993 raid in Mogadishu, Somalia, to quell violence there, and went on to become commanding general of the Army's Special Forces units at Ft. Bragg, N.C. His body bears scars from gunshot and mortar wounds suffered along the way; a mortar blast in Somalia almost blew off an arm. But he kept coming back. A committed warrior in the defense of his country, he is one of the most decorated soldiers on active duty.

He also is a committed Christian, one who prayed with his men before every mission.

Therein lies the rub. Committed Christians talk about their faith, and Gen. Boykin has been doing that as an invited guest at various churches and conferences for years. But in this era of political correctness, what evangelicals in prominent positions say in public is under ever-increasing scrutiny.

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Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had brought Gen. Boykin into the Pentagon in June as deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence to coordinate the efforts of various intelligence agencies and special operations forces to hunt down "high value terrorist targets" like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The general's job is in jeopardy now.

The assault began on Oct. 15 by NBC News and on Oct. 16 by the Los Angeles Times. Behind both attacks was William Arkin, a writer, columnist, news commentator, and ardent opponent of the Bush administration. He spent four years in the Army in the 1970s, then went on to work for left-leaning think tanks and Greenpeace. He provided NBC with tapes and at least partial transcripts of some of Gen. Boykin's recent church talks, and he provided similar material for a Times reporter, along with an op-ed piece he wrote himself about the general.

Mr. Arkin contends that some of the general's church remarks cast the war against terrorism as a religious war against Islam. He called on the Bush administration and Pentagon to dismiss Gen. Boykin from his post on grounds he damaged U.S. national security policy. Other media and Muslim organizations piled on. Mr. Rumsfeld said the Pentagon is investigating the remarks, and President Bush distanced himself from Gen. Boykin's "views," although some in Congress came to his side.

Gen. Boykin, a Pentecostal, said the critics quoted some of his taped remarks at church services out of context and twisted others.

Nevertheless, he apologized to any who might have been offended by his remarks, he denied any bias against Muslims or Islam, and he contended Islamist terrorists are not true followers of Islam.

Among the disputed comments:

At a church service last year, Gen. Boykin declared "Bin Laden is not the enemy.... The enemy is a spiritual enemy. He's called the principality of darkness, and the enemy is a guy called Satan.... The battle won't be won with guns. It will be won on our knees."

"They're after us because we're a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian."

"[President Bush] is in the White House because God put him there for such a time as this."

Such comments are easily understood by Christians and make them wonder what all the fuss is about, but not so post-Christian secularists with an ax to grind.

The general's most problematic words the critics hurled back at him came during a testimony at a Christian gathering. In recounting the Somalia battle, he said he had captured a major Somali warlord because "I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and that his was an idol." Gen. Boykin later said he meant the warlord's god was money gained through corruption. However, a tape reveals he had said those words in response to the warlord's claim that he would never be caught because Allah would protect him.

Mr. Arkin told radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt he received his tip on Gen. Boykin's faith talks from a Pentagon source he would not identify, suggesting the general has an enemy inside the Pentagon. Mr. Hewitt questioned: "If, as most of [the] critics have argued, the danger presented by the general's private talks about his faith is their effect on the Islamic world, then why did Arkin rush to publicize these private little-noticed talks that he believes will hurt the U.S. abroad?"

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