Remembering Colin Powell
He Was Much More Than a Good Soldier
I had the privilege of meeting General Colin Powell on several occasions, but we were not close associates during my army career. I was just one among hundreds of Army officers who were fortunate to cross his path on occasion. Each intersection was, however, an experience that left me smiling and impressed. If I had to sum up General Powell in one word, it would be “impressive” — he was always impressive.
I first met him when he was already a lieutenant general and the National Security Advisor to President Ronald Reagan. I was a young army major serving as a military assistant to the Secretary of the Army, and Powell had come to the Pentagon for a meeting. Like everyone in the Army, I was aware of Powell, and having scheduled the meeting with the secretary, met him when he arrived. Having himself once held a similar (if bigger) role for Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, Powell greeted me warmly, strolled into my small office cubicle, and offered some light but useful advice about handling such a position and dealing with senior officials — like him. He did not need to invest any time with a young officer, but he did. Soldiers in specific and younger people in general were always important to him.
A couple of years later, after he had become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the JCS), I found myself on his staff and working on two projects of national significance, experiences that gave me the chance to see the insightful way in which he addressed a problem, probed its numerous dimensions, and always found and focused on the key element — something not always apparent to the rest of us.
Afterwards I left to command an artillery battalion in Europe, and it was among the units Powell surprisingly deployed to Operation Desert Storm, a very successful military deployment conducted under Powell’s careful supervision if not command — the JCS chairman does not command anything, as current chairman General Mark Milley has recently reminded us. I never saw Powell during Desert Storm, but along with a few others returning from the operation met with him a year afterwards.
By then several books had already been published about the conflict, and I asked him which he felt was best. With a smile he suggested the one he described as “the least inaccurate,” so I purchased it and enjoyed the read, having been alerted to the portions with which he took some exception. When you’re in a war you are only fully aware of what’s happening near you, not the bigger picture. It was my view — then and now — that the team assembled by President George H. W. Bush to conduct Desert Storm was top notch, with Colin Powell arguably its most significant member. He was clearly a master at seeing the bigger picture.
A year after Desert Storm, when I was the Army Fellow at the Atlantic Council, Powell came to give a speech to the council’s directors, a distinguished group including business leaders, former cabinet officers, ex-diplomats, and retired generals and admirals. Powell spoke about the new post-Cold War era we had just entered. His observations were well reasoned and well presented. He received a standing ovation. A few months later I was attending a conference at the Virginia Military Institute for young ROTC cadets about to be commissioned as army lieutenants. Powell was the keynote speaker. Much to my surprise, with only minor changes to better fit his young audience, Powell gave essentially the same speech he had given to the elders of the Atlantic Counsel and with an identical result — a standing ovation.
That was so very indicative of Colin Powell, this uncanny ability to communicate effectively and persuasively — sometimes bluntly — with either presidents or privates. But that skill was also the one that set the stage for what he himself saw as the great blemish on his remarkable record, his 2003 United Nations speech while secretary of state detailing Iraq’s supposed possession of nuclear weapons and presenting the case for the US invasion.
Many of us were dubious about the case, as was Powell himself who went to great lengths to tone down the presentation from one previously made in a speech by Vice President Richard Cheney. After the UN speech, I contacted a retired senior officer who was close to Powell, one who shared my reservations, and asked why Powell had given the speech. “The president asked him to,” he replied, “and Colin’s always a good soldier.”
As the JCS chairman in 1991, Powell had argued against continuing to Baghdad after the Desert Storm campaign had ejected the Iraqi army from Kuwait and southern Iraq. We clearly could have gone further — much further, but Powell understood that military force has its limits. That understanding was rooted in his own experiences as a young officer in Vietnam, and in his study of military history. As a senior officer he had helped establish what became widely known as the “Powell Doctrine” — only use military force when there is a clear objective, when there is broad public support, and do so with overwhelming force. In essence, this was a modern era extension of the counsel an early 20th century general named Fox Connor had given his prized pupils George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower: Don’t fight unless you have to; don’t fight alone; and don’t fight for long. Powell had determined that in Vietnam the US had violated all three of Connor’s tenets, and he was determined not to allow a repeat performance on his watch.
Powell’s state department colleague in 1991, Deputy Secretary Lawrence Eagleburger, once commented that the team around the first President Bush knew “when to stop.” That understanding largely came from Colin Powell. Nonetheless, at the time he was roundly criticized for the decision. When asked twenty years later if he still thought the halt in 1991 had been the correct decision, he dryly commented that, “Nobody’s asked me that since 2003.”
The late Northwestern University Professor Charles Moskos was the foremost authority on the sociology of the American military. Himself a draftee in the 1950’s, Moskos spent most of his career studying American military culture. During a seminar session at West Point in the early 1980’s, he commented that in American society the military is the only place where, “A black man orders a group of white men to do something, and no one thinks anything about it.” It was true then, and one would hope still is.
When General Powell was about to retire in late 1993, I was again assigned to the Pentagon where I received a call from a reporter with a major media organization, one whom I had known for several years. He asked about Powell’s time as the JCS chairman, by law the highest ranking officer in the US military establishment. “What did people in the military think about having a Black man as the senior general?” he asked. Reflecting back on Moskos, I smiled and answered, “I don’t think anyone thought anything about it. After all, he was Colin Powell. We all knew who he was, a great leader and a good soldier.”
And he was a good soldier, and so much more. Enough said.