- The Washington Times - Monday, October 20, 2003

Army Lt. Gen. William “Jerry” G. Boykin has made several speeches - some in uniform - at evangelical Christian churches in which he casts the war on terrorism in terms that sound downright apocalyptic. Islamic extremists hate the United States, “because we’re a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian,” Gen. Boykin said, while appearing in dress uniform before a religious group in Oregon in June. “And the enemy is a guy named Satan.”

Oh, yes. That guy again. Some of us remember when Iran’s late Ayatollah Khomeini called America “the Great Satan.” We thought he was being extreme.

Our “spiritual enemy will only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus,” Gen. Boykin also said, which surely must come as sobering news to our Jewish and Muslim troops, among others.

In a Daytona, Fla., church in January, Gen. Boykin said of an Islamic militant that his Delta Force commanders chased in Somalia: “I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.”

That, too, will come as news to Muslims, whose Holy Book says Allah is just another name for the God of Jews and Christians.

Gen. Boykin has fired other inflammatory attacks at Muslims in church speeches that first were reported by NBC News and the Los Angeles Times, but you get the idea.

The general’s comments certainly sound heartfelt. But, with all due respect, he needs to cool his rhetoric, at least in public — and especially in uniform.

As a top Pentagon official, his outspokenness in this instance is about as helpful to the war on terrorism as beleaguered Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman was to his team’s pennant hopes.

Mr. Bartman, you may recall, was the poor sap whose interference with a foul ball made him an instant scapegoat (unfairly, in the view of this Cubs fan) for our beloved team’s late-inning collapse in the National League pennant race.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has charged Gen. Boykin with reinvigorating the Pentagon’s plans for tracking down bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Mullah Omar and other world terrorist leaders.

His church speeches risk causing more damage to America’s cause than all of the good will that his commander in chief, President Bush, has been trying mightily to build.

The Bush administration, to its credit, has emphasized repeatedly that the “war on terrorism” is not a war against Islam but a war against people “who have tried to hijack a religion.”

In fairness, Gen. Boykin similarly has distinguished between the Muslim majority and the radicals who are not representative of the Islamic faith, according to the Los Angeles Times. But, as the general also should know, it is not his qualifying statements but his inflammatory statements that will be covered most widely and heard by the largest audience, here and abroad.

Predictably, some of Gen. Boykin’s defenders say he is speaking for himself and charge his “free speech” rights are under assault by the liberal media and other PC thought police. Forget it. Take it from me, a Vietnam War critic who was drafted anyway: There is no absolute right to free speech for members of the military.

Up until now, the Pentagon has banned political activism by uniformed personnel but shied away from religious expression. Unfortunately, the world has changed. Today’s geopolitical realities merge religion with politics in ways America has not previously experienced or expected. We had better get used to it.

You don’t have to be biased against anyone to realize how damaging Gen. Boykin’s statements can be to the public diplomacy side of America’s war against terrorism. It’s hard to win the hearts and minds of people after they have heard you trash their religion.

It is not always easy for people in our young, fast-paced and forward-looking culture to understand how we are perceived by others who measure time in centuries, not weeks. But that’s whom Osama is talking to when he refers to the U.S. and Europe as “crusaders.”

Regardless of one’s faith, it is aggravating to have foreigners march across your soil and try to run things, no matter how noble their intentions. The more we speak like crusaders or behave like imperialists, the more resonance the words of Osama and other “evildoers,” as Mr. Bush calls them, will have.

Diplomacy is best left to the diplomats. I am certain Gen. Boykin and other generals probably do not want State Department bureaucrats to start ordering troops around. The generals should similarly avoid declaring their own holy wars.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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