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irregular times logoAmerican Torture, Religion and the Crusade of General William G. Boykin

The discovery of widespread torture under the authority of the Bush Administration has shaken the foundation of the American identity. The truth hurts, but it doesn't hurt us as much as it hurts the people suffering in our custody. For that reason, we here at Irregular Times are beginning a short series of articles exploring the broad social context that has encouraged the common practice of torture by the American military. In these articles, we identify the many links between the extreme behavior of American soldiers overseas and the decisions of civilian leadership within American borders.

We start our exploration of the cultural shadows that support American torture by examining the role of American religious fundamentalism. This role is exemplified by the activities of one man, General William G. Boykin, and his special relationship with George W. Bush.

We have written about General Boykin before. In fact, it would be shocking if we had not made note of him before now, given Boykin's long history of extreme disregard for the core democratic values of American society. General Boykin has become infamous for making public appearances, in full military uniform, during which he declares that America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are part of a Christian Holy Crusade against Islam, a religion that Boykin suggests is aligned with Satan.

After it became known that General Boykin was making such declarations, George W. Bush stood behind him, defending Boykin's place at the center of what Bush himself has called "a Crusade". Bush and Boykin's description of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as part of a "Crusade" is telling to those who are familiar with medieval history - the Crusades were wars waged on behalf of Christianity against Islam. It is significant that Bush's "War on Terror" is only against Islamic terrorist groups. Christian terrorists have been spared Bush's wrath.

Boykin and Bush's comparison of their own war to the Crusades of the Dark Ages is revealing in that the Christian Crusaders became feared and hated for their use of murder and torture to intimidate their enemies. The Crusaders' brutality was irrational, inflicted upon any vulnerable populations they happened upon, whether or not those populations were in any way opposed to the Crusaders' mission.

The senseless torture of the Crusaders finds a mirror in the sadism of American soldiers against seem to have been intent upon causing suffering for the sake of suffering, without care for the outcome of their actions. We note the experience of a former Iraqi dissident who had been tortured by Saddam Hussein's government and then fled into prison. Upon returning to Iraq after the American invasion, he was taken hostage by American troops, his life's savings stolen, and thrown into a prison where the Americans tortured him even though he was a supporter of the American occupation of Iraq.

General Boykin's connection to the torture in Iraq goes far beyond the merely theoretical level. According to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, General Boykin himself was involved in the design of the military policies that allowed for the use of torture against Muslim prisoners. Through General Boykin, the fundamentalist belief in a Christian holy war against Islam is linked with the use of humiliation and pain to break prisoners.

To some, it will seem strange that the same man who claims to be waging war in order to defeat Satan would promote such despicable acts as the torture of his captured enemies. After all, Christianity is supposed to be a religion of compassion. It is important to remember, however, that the kind of Christianity that General Boykin and George W. Bush share, although they attend different churches, is a strictly conservative evangelical fundamentalism that is more connected to Old Testament tales of punishment and bloody wars of retribution than New Testament reforms such as the idea that one ought to love one's enemy and "turn the other cheek" when one is the victim of violence.

The faith Boykin and Bush is one that is based upon a vision of a world populated by good guys and bad guys. This vision is revealed in Bush's insistence that "You either with us or your against us," and Boykin's belief (uncontradicted by Bush), that America's military enemies are satanic. Bush calls the religion of his opponents as a "cult of evil".

Just as strongly, Bush and Boykin believe that they are absolutely good. Bush has suggested that he believes he was appointed by God to become the President of the United States, and Boykin has agreed with this statement. Boykin also believes that God made him a top general in the United States military in order to enable him to wage a holy war against Islam, stating, "We in the Army of God, in the House of God, the Kingdom of God have been raised for such a time as this."

In the understanding of religious conservatives like George W. Bush and William G. Boykin, a strict belief in right and wrong is supposed to prevent people from doing evil deeds. Ironically, it is this categorical division in their minds between good and evil that has enabled them to plan and commit acts of vicious brutality. Bush approved a plan to use torture in secret operations around the world. Boykin appears to have been one of the architects behind the plan that led to the systematic use of torture in Iraq.

Neither Boykin nor Bush can admit that they have done wrong by encouraging this torture to take place. Bush says that Donald Rumsfeld, who approved a specific plan to use sexual humiliation and painful torture against Iraqi prisoners, is doing a "superb job". It appears that, in their war against evil, Boykin and Bush have decided that torture is a good thing, at least when they use it.

These two holy warriors seem so trapped in their rigid beliefs in a godly war of good guys against bad guys that they have come to regard define good and evil in a morally relativistic manner. It appears that, for Bush and Boykin, evil is defined as what their enemies do.

Taking this fundamentalist approach to morality a step further, Boykin and Bush clearly believe that the definition of moral goodness is the struggle against evil wherever it exists. In their minds, because they are waging a war against people they believe to be evil, their cause is by definition good, and is supported by God himself.

Onward Christian soldiers.

Now, here's where that categorical morality gets really twisted: Bush and Boykin seem to believe that because their cause is a good one, whatever they do to support that cause is good. Thus, for them, killing civilians is not a wicked thing. It is a sign of moral resolve. Starting a war against a non-threatening opponent is not cruel for them. It is strength in the face of evil.

Bush and Boykin can perceive American torture as a good thing because they are incapable of believing that anything they do could be wicked. After all, they believe, God is on their side. God is good, or so they teach us in Sunday school.

I'm not arguing that George Bush and General William Boykin have encouraged American soldiers to torture their prisoners because they are Christian fundamentalists. The chain of causation is much more complicated than that. However, the Christian fundamentalism of Bush and Boykin, and others at the top of the American military command, is clearly a contributing factor. Their childish division of the world into God's people and Satan's people has enabled them to support the most devilish behavior imaginable, all in the name of righteousness.

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