“But we already had two firsts. Colin Powell was one of them, and Condoleezza Rice, his successor as secretary of state. How did that redound to the benefit of black people for the United States to have a black—put a black face on imperialism, on aggressive war, on violations of international law? How does that make black people look better in the world? Is that the kind of burden that black people want to carry around?”—Glen Ford
The late Colin Powell certainly had a storied career. It wound through various Republican presidential administrations from Ronald Reagan, to George H.W. Bush to George W. Bush. He served as National Security Adviser, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State. He said this about his life and work, ““All I want to do is judge myself as a successful soldier who served his best.”
His desire to justify himself shouldn’t oblige anyone else to go along. This question must be answered in assessing Powell’s career. What makes a soldier successful? This point is especially important when talking about a man who took part in every foreign policy action from Vietnam, to Iran Contra, to Panama, to Iraq, to Haiti . Simply put, a good soldier follows orders, makes operations run smoothly, and makes his bosses look good. Powell did all of those things and that is why his legacy is so dubious.
When Major Colin Powell was stationed in Vietnam in 1968 he and his superiors received a letter written by a soldier whose tour of duty was ending. Tom Glen stated that U.S. soldiers were carrying out atrocities against civilians. Major Powell was tasked with investigating, which should have included an interview of the soldier himself. Neither he nor anyone else spoke to Glen and when Powell responded he blamed the whistle-blower for not reporting the crimes to people who had chosen to do nothing about them. He then wrote a classic yes-man response which concluded, “In direct refutation of this portrayal, is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese are excellent.”
The following year a second soldier, Ronald Ridenhour, ended his tour with an expose of the U.S. massacre of an estimated 500 civilians in the village of My Lai. Ridenhour conducted his own investigation and sent his letter off to federal officials, including president Nixon. On this occasion Powell got a surprise visit from the Inspector General’s office and was asked about combat activity around the date in question. Good soldier Powell reported only what was in the falsified record and thus played a role in an attempt to cover up which fortunately proved to be futile.
Of course Powell had committed his own crimes during his first tour of duty in Vietnam. He admitted as much in his memoir, My American Journey. “We burned down the thatched huts, starting the blaze with Ronson and Zippo lighters. Why were we torching houses and destroying crops? Ho Chi Minh had said the people were like the sea in which his guerrillas swam. Our problem was to distinguish friendly or at least neutral fish from the VC swimming alongside. We tried to solve the problem by making the whole sea uninhabitable. In the hard logic of war, what difference did it make if you shot your enemy or starved him to death?” Of course, collective punishment against a civilian population is by definition a war crime, but Powell succeeded in rising to the top and as such was immune from such truthful descriptions of his activities.
If Powell would run interference for Army brass in Vietnam, he would do no less for his boss, President George W. Bush. In early 2001, Powell said of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, “He has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction. He is unable to project conventional power against his neighbors.” Two years later Powell made a great show at the United Nations saying just the opposite. Bush decided to invade Iraq and good soldier Powell was tasked with making the public case for a war of aggression. He famously held up a vial which he said represented the weapons of mass destruction which he knew did not exist.
Those who remembered his assurances that Hussein posed no threat were few in number and the corporate media were ready to help the Bush administration get support for the invasion. Powell’s past statements magically disappeared as were any narratives that might contradict the Bush administration. Powell was the public face of the case for a war crime which eventually killed some 1 million people in Iraq.
Of course his boss wasn’t finished with his criminality and Haiti was next in the cross hairs. The U.S. wanted president Jean-Bertrand Aristide out, kidnapped him at gunpoint, and took him to the Central African Republic in March of 2004. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) such as Maxine Waters and Charles Rangel must be credited with speaking up. When Powell claimed that Aristide wanted to be taken out of his country because he feared for his life, Rangel called him a liar saying, “… this information about Aristide asking to leave the country or that his life was in danger was never shared with us.” These CBC members and everyone else who protested were marginalized and the “moderate” Powell won the day without a peep from the rest of congress or the corporate media.
Powell was the ultimate careerist, striving to get ahead, proving himself to be of service to the powerful. Although in the end he was hoisted on his own petard. Bush informed him his services were no longer needed as his second term began. Powell committed crimes on Bush’s behalf and then was unceremoniously let go. The dirty work had been done, Bush was safely in office again and the man who was falsely marketed as a moderating force was no longer needed. He retired to a nice life, making lots of money giving speeches and sitting on corporate boards.
Yet he had accomplished something very significant. Colin Powell paved the way for Barack Obama to become president. After years of seeing a Black man working side by side with presidents, and carrying out U.S. foreign policy imperatives, the thought of another Black man being the actual president no longer seemed outlandish to millions of white people. Powell was well liked by the press and the liberal chattering classes and many of them would have supported him had he chosen to run for president. Obama profited from this new dynamic in his own successful presidential campaign.
Aside from the Vietnamese, Panamanians, Iraqis and Haitians who directedly suffered at his hands, Black people were most negatively affected by him. By the time Powell came to prominence, the notion of liberation came to mean little more than having access to those places where only white people had been allowed. If one of those places entailed being a decision maker when bombs rained down and coup plots were hatched, so be it. Black politics had diminished to such a point that Black people turned against their own ethos and were no longer averse to aggression and criminality if someone who looked like them was a party to the wrongdoing.
The people who excused Powell’s actions ended up excusing Barack Obama when he destroyed Libya, a country they previously viewed in a positive light and defended when no one else would. The destroyer in chief was not to be questioned because his very presence in office seemed to validate them and, as such, he gave them a dangerously false feeling of comfort. That inclination has not dissipated ever since Powell worked for presidents or Obama was one himself.
The desire to respect the Black face in a high place is still very much present among Black people. There have been endless paeans to Powell among people whose politics indicate that they should know better than to join in the seemingly obligatory deification. Congressman Jamaal Bowman felt the need to express admiration and inspiration. Public Enemy also felt obliged to honor the fallen criminal. Nina Turner joined them in believing she had to give condolences too.
Their need to announce some sort of respect for Powell reflects the feelings of most Black people. It doesn’t matter that they opposed the wars against Iraq and the continued attacks on Haiti’s sovereignty. There was a Black person in the room when the terrible decisions were made and that is all that matters, even to many of those who think of themselves as being left or progressive. The call to this perverse version of racial solidarity outweighs all other considerations.
This reaction must be understood but it should not be legitimized or respected. The fight for self-determination is not just an external one. It is an intra-group battle amongst people who may otherwise be on the same page but who may lose their political perspective when one of their own reaches what is considered a place of honor.
Of course the U.S. foreign policy apparatus is a place of great dishonor. America has bloody hands and the Black people who rise to the places of high-level criminality are no exception. That is still the challenge. The so-called high place is in fact one of the lowest and worst.
Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She is the author of Prejudential: Black America and the Presidents . Her work can also be found at patreon.com/margaretkimberley . Ms. Kimberley can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)BlackAgendaReport.com.