The Boykin Affair

  • Could the Boykin problem really have been a surprise? The remarks that landed Lieut. General William "Jerry" Boykin in so much trouble last week —his attaching a Christian mission to the war on terrorism—were part of a message he has been delivering in his dress uniform for more than a year. And one signal that these views could trip him up as the man charged with pursuing Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein came only six months ago. As Pentagon leaders were busy directing U.S. tanks into downtown Baghdad last April, Boykin planned to play host to a gathering of largely Southern Baptist pastors at North Carolina's Fort Bragg, where he was running the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. "You will go with General Boykin and Green Beret instructors to places where no civilians and few soldiers ever go," the Rev. Bobby Welch told pastors in a letter inviting them to attend the two-day Super FAITH Force Multiplier session. "We must find a group of men who are warriors of FAITH, pastors who have the guts to lead this nation to Christ and revival!" Welch, a friend of Boykin's, told the invitees they would see Boykin's headquarters, a demonstration of "today's war-fighting weapons" and how "Special Forces attack the enemy inside buildings (live fire/real bullets)" as well as hear a speech and get "informal time" with Boykin. But Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a private Washington-based group, got wind of the gathering and complained to the Army. "This sends exactly the wrong signal at the wrong time," the group wrote in a letter to the Army. The service agreed and drastically scaled back the group's visit.

    Boykin's proselytizing took a more martial bent after 9/11. For instance, in June, just before he assumed his Pentagon post as the nation's top uniformed intelligence officer, he told a church gathering in Sandy, Ore., that foes like bin Laden and Hussein "will only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus." But he had been sharing his faith generally with evangelical church groups and at prayer breakfasts for more than three years, according to William Arkin, an independent military scholar who released tapes of Boykin's religious remarks.

    To understand why Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld was so reluctant to condemn him, it helps to know that Boykin is exactly his kind of soldier, a special-operations officer willing to step on a fellow officer's toes if it helps accomplish the mission. Rumsfeld has relied heavily on such commandos in the war on terrorism, giving them critical missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Promoting such officers—viewed skeptically by more traditional Army officers—is one way Rumsfeld is pushing the Army to become more agile and lethal in the war against terrorism.

    Boykin's storied 32-year career includes 13 years with the secret Delta Force, including two as its commander. His private life, like that of most Delta Force vets, is largely hidden, although acquaintances say he likes to hunt and collect rocks. "He's a study in contrasts," says Robert Scales, a retired Army major general. "He commanded Delta and is one of the toughest guys around—but he's also one of the nicest, gentlest people I know."

    As a captain in 1980, Boykin vainly tried to help rescue the 53 U.S. hostages held by Iran, a secret mission that ended in flames at Desert One, killing eight U.S. servicemen. Three years later, as a major, he helped invade Grenada. In 1992, as a colonel, he led the manhunt in Colombia for drug lord Pablo Escobar. The next year he advised Attorney General Janet Reno on what kind of gas to use to end the Federal Government's standoff with a religious group in Waco, Texas. But the experience that perhaps marked him most came six months later, in October 1993, in downtown Mogadishu. He and his troops were there when 18 soldiers died in an effort to snatch a Somali warlord—a tough day immortalized in Mark Bowden's book Black Hawk Down. Boykin told a Florida audience last year that he collapsed in his bunk that day, angry that God had let him down. "There is no God," Boykin sobbed in the wake of their deaths. "If there was a God, he would have been here to protect my soldiers." But in the same address, Boykin says he heard God answer him, "If there is no God, there is no hope." Now that he faces another trial, Boykin may hope for a high-level intervention again.

    — With reporting by John F. Dickerson and Douglas Waller/ Washington