Members Only | October 18, 2021 | Reading Time: 9 minutes
His life made the world worse
Colin Powell, 1937-2021.
Colin Powell has died of COVID-19. One of the most unjustly lauded individuals in early twenty-first century America, an honest portrayal of Powell’s legacy turns out starkly negative. From his cover up of the My Lai Massacre to his lies about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, Powell holds a great deal of responsibility for many of America’s worst crimes in the last 60 years.
Born in 1937 in Harlem, Powell’s parents were immigrants from Jamaica. He started working as a young boy in Jewish-owned stores around his house and learned Yiddish well enough to speak it for the rest of his life, sometimes speaking to Israeli reporters in the language.
Powell worked hard and went to City College to study geology. He wasn’t much of a student at that point. He graduated but certainly with no honors or any particular direction. This made him perfect for the Army. Powell joined the ROTC at City College. He liked it a lot more than college so he made it a career. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to Georgia, where he faced discrimination in a state still committed to Jim Crow. He rose fairly quickly in the military brass. He first went to Vietnam in 1962 for a tour and was wounded after stepping on a punji stake. He returned to Vietnam in 1968 as assistant chief of staff of operations for the 23rd Infantry Division. By this time, he was already a major.
He never could be honest in his role covering up My Lai, arguably the worst war crime in American history. This is central to Powell’s legacy and we must remember it today.
What first made Powell newsworthy was his whitewashing of My Lai. It’s hard to overestimate the horror of this. So many people in the US Army did so many things so horribly wrong both on that day when William Calley and his troops massacred 500 or so Vietnamese civilians who were not even fighting back, and then in the aftermath of it during the gigantic cover up. Given that, it’s easy to excuse many of the people involved, saying that they did what anyone else would do, unfortunate as it may be. But this of course is a lie to make ourselves feel better about the whole thing.
That day, on the ground, there were soldiers who refused to participate and actively intervened to save Vietnamese lives. There were people up the chain of command who finally took these murders seriously and acted upon them. Colin Powell was … not one of those brave soldiers. He was a coward and an apologist for mass murder.
He actually wrote in the report on the massacre: “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.” This was … not true. He never really did fess up to his role in covering up for My Lai. As late as the 2000s, he said that My Lai was bad but was also exceptional and shunted any blame for it away from himself. He just never could be honest in his role covering up arguably the worst war crime in American history. This is central to Powell’s legacy and we must remember it today.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his role in covering up My Lai, Powell still rose right up the ranks of the military. He had a White House Fellowship in the Nixon administration in 1972 and 1973. During the early Reagan years, he was a senior military assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. By 1986, he was high enough to command V Corps out of Frankfurt, Germany. In 1987, he became Reagan’s National Security Advisor, where he stayed for the rest of the administration. In 1989, George HW Bush named him Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. By the time of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, Powell was one of the most powerful military officers in the post-Vietnam period. Powell’s great skill was politics and he rode it all the way to the top.
Of course, part of the significance of Powell is that he was the first Black person to be in any of these positions. That is important. It’s also worth noting, though, that part of his work in rising this high was being useful to the command in underplaying racial tensions in the military. While Powell was in South Korea, there was a race riot on a base. This was not so uncommon in the late 1960s. Powell’s job was to prosecute the Black soldiers in this and end Black militancy in the military. I’m not saying the US military can operate with any kind of racial militancy in its ranks, though it seems to be a lot more comfortable with the white extremism in it today that it was of Black radicalism a half-century ago. But of course they made the Black guy take charge of it and of course he was happy to do so, advancing his career in the process.
Anyway, the HW Bush years were quite active for American warfare. Powell was in charge when the US invaded Panama after its useful dictator Manuel Noriega became less useful. And as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he played an outsized role in crafting the invasion of Iraq in 1991. At some point, I guess around the late 1940s, every time some foreign policy person created a slight policy change, it became known as the X Doctrine. That included Powell. The so-called Powell Doctrine created a list of questions that he felt should be answered before the US engaged in a military strike against another country. Alas, if only the nation ever took these questions seriously. Such questions include whether it was a vital national security interest, is there an exit strategy, do Americans support this, and have all nonviolent options been pursued. Hmmm …
Now to be fair, when we were talking about Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, these questions were probably answered fairly in the affirmative. I don’t know what else was going to get Saddam out of Kuwait and really that was an unjust invasion and conquering of a nation that really was unacceptable, even without the oil question. I am not one of those leftists reflexively criticizing every American military action and I’m not convinced of other alternatives that would have ended this without war.
What I am saying, though, is that Powell himself would not do a good job of following his own doctrine and that the US would just wildly ignore all of this the second time it went into Iraq, which also, of course, involved Powell. The success of the Gulf War made Powell an American hero. This was despite the abandonment of the Iraqis the US urged to rise up and which Saddam then slaughtered with the Americans standing by. But for Americans, and especially for the military and the conservative establishment, the Gulf War supposedly ended the Vietnam Syndrome, when Americans didn’t support its wars and demanded accountability in human rights. This supposedly would usher in a new age of American patriotism. Powell would be front and center in this as the reasonable and statesmanlike general who provided calm leadership in a crisis. That he was Black also made him an important civil rights figure. Moreover, he was a stark contrast to the more militaristic and controversial Norman Schwarzkopf. Powell became a celebrity as well as a general.
Powell’s lying to the United Nations over so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq gave huge amounts of cover to the unjust and frankly idiotic invasion of Iraq in 2003. This is the singular event for which we should remember Powell
Powell and the Clinton administration did not get along at all. Powell really disliked the liberal internationalism of Clinton advisors and saw himself as more a realist in the Kissinger school. Great. The long influence of Kissinger, a man who evidently will never die, continues today. Powell and Secretary of Defense Les Aspin really hated each other. Powell felt that Aspin was indifferent to the job and Clinton indifferent to foreign policy (perhaps true). So Powell stepped down in September 1993. After the American military disaster in Somalia, Powell made it pretty well known that he had suggested better military preparations over there and was ignored by Aspin. Of course, Powell also strongly disagreed with Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, not because it opened the door to prosecutions of gays in the military, but because it allowed gays to be in the military at all, which he definitely did not support at the time.
Where this left Powell was a Hero to the Centrist Blob. These people loved Powell. And they wanted him to be president unlike that southern hick womanizing pot-smoking Bill Clinton. That Powell was the kind of conservative but respectable Republican Daddy the media loved only made him more popular with them. He had mostly stayed apolitical during his time as a general, but now away from the military, he could provide his significant support to Republican candidates. There was a major push to get him to run against Clinton in 1996, providing the military leadership that the Blob so loves. He refused, preferring not to run for office himself. Had he run, it’s hardly unreasonable to think he would have done better against Clinton than Bob Dole did and perhaps he would have won. It’s difficult to overstate Powell’s popularity at this time. Some Republicans wanted him to run in 2000, but he again refused and threw his support to George W. Bush.
After the Supreme Court installed George W. Bush as president, he surrounded himself with neoconservatives. Colin Powell was not a neoconservative. But he was a respected voice. Bush also wanted to make claims that he cared about Black people and so searched for Black voices he could bring into his administration. Powell was a team player too. So Bush hired him as Secretary of State. This was far from a controversial decision. He received no meaningful opposition in the Senate or with the general public, who still loved him from the first invasion of Iraq. The Senate unanimously confirmed him.
As Secretary of State, Powell was surprisingly indifferent to traditional notions of diplomacy. He was the least-traveled Secretary of State in recent history, rarely leaving the country unless he had to and having few meetings with global leaders. However, on September 11, 2001, he was in Peru at an OAS meeting. He quickly became the administration’s point man on coordinating what Bush would soon call the Global War on Terror on the international stage. Of course, he wasn’t very convincing. Most of the world was highly unconvinced of anything that Bush and his people had to say about any of this outside of Afghanistan. But Powell used all his public credibility to push Bush’s idea to expand the GWOT into Iraq, despite the fact that not only did Saddam Hussein have nothing to do with 9/11, but he also wasn’t even a supporter of radical Islamic terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda. As many, many people pointed out, if the administration had really cared about that, they might have noted that 20 of the 21 9/11 bombers came from Saudi Arabia. But the Saudi leaders were old oil friends of the Bushes. So there you go. Other targets would have to suffice.
Powell’s lying to the United Nations over so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq gave huge amounts of cover to the unjust and frankly idiotic invasion of Iraq in 2003. This is the singular event for which we should remember Powell. One does not have to apologize for or cover up the awfulness of Saddam Hussein to note that this war was absolutely wrong, especially in the context of the war on terrorism (whatever that actually meant). Iraq was a terrible state, but it was most certainly not an Islamic fundamentalist state along the lines of the Taliban-led Afghanistan or even Iran. Saddam Hussein was a secular nationalist leader along the lines of Yassar Arafat. And Iraq most certainly had nothing to do with 9/11. Powell used all of his credibility to browbeat the global community into believing that Hussein had WMDs and thus the US would be justified in invading the nation. He was only partially successful, as many traditional American allies stayed out of it.
Did Powell really believe that Iraq was enriching uranium and planning for terrorist attacks against the US? I actually don’t care.
Because Powell had so much respect on the international scene, his testimony was the most important moment in convincing enough of the United Nations and enough of the American public to sanction what would become a terrible and disastrous war.
Either he was outright lying or he was a fool who saw what he wanted to see. Whatever the answer, he materially contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, the destabilization of an entire region, and the death of over 4,000 Americans and many thousands more wounded and suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder.
This is the legacy of Colin Powell. He may share that responsibility with many other terrible people, but he earned more than his share that day in front of the UN. Powell later tried to shift blame, saying he only had four days to review the data before he gave that UN report. But that’s his responsibility. By 2005, he realized he was wrong. Bush had forced him out as secretary of state in late 2004 since he wasn’t a team player on the war anymore. So he could say he was wrong. But again, I don’t care. You don’t get to take that back, especially given the number of deaths he caused.
Sure, Powell did turn on the Bush administration. In retirement, he endorsed Barack Obama and Joe Biden, giving them important room to attract the kind of voters who still look up to Powell for some strange reason. This is fine, it’s important to repent for your sins and try to do better. Does this make up for his actions in the Bush administration?
No, absolutely not.
This isn’t to diminish Powell doing the right thing as he aged. It’s important. Were there a few centrists who were uncomfortable about supporting Democratic presidents who felt better about that because of Powell’s endorsement. Yeah, probably there were. So that’s fine. But we also need to keep it in the context that it doesn’t make up for Iraq.
Simply put, Powell’s legacy is covering up My Lai and lying about Iraq. Despite the Blob’s love for the man, something he was happy to take advantage of while also serving on many high-paid corporate boards and engaging in the enriching lobbying of the Washington elite, his life made the world worse.
Erik Loomis is the Editorial Board's obituarist. An associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, he's the author most recently of A History of America in Ten Strikes (New Press). He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money. Find him @ErikLoomis.