The eulogies for former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell, who died October 18, 2021 at 84, are so over-sweetened I am going into diabetic shock reading the headlines. The man was rotten to the core, a cover-up artist drenched in the blood of millions.
The footpath began in Vietnam. Powell played a major role in the My Lai massacre coverup, a slaughter of innocent civilians in 1968 that, along with the Tet Offensive that same year, contributed to massive public disillusionment with the war. “Relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent,” Powell wrote in a report for the initial investigation of My Lai.
In a May 2001 column for The Nation, David Corn wrote “Too often, in-the-field warriors who witnessed or engaged in tragedies or atrocities involving civilians…kept their secrets. Too often, their superiors—men like Powell—were not interested in unearthing these awful truths (which usually were the results of their orders and demands), and certainly they had no desire to share that side of the war with the public. The willful denial of the war’s managers is as much a part of the dark memory of Vietnam as the lethal misdeeds and mistakes of the soldiers.”
The My Lai coverup was part of a pattern of behavior that began more than five years earlier. As a military advisor serving during President Kennedy’s term, Powell arrived on Christmas Day 1962, rampaging across the A Shau Valley near the Laotian border. Huts were burned and crops destroyed in a mad scheme to drive civilians into the arms of the quisling Ngô Đình Diệm’s hopelessly corrupt South Vietnamese government.
“We tried to solve the problem by making the whole sea uninhabitable,” he wrote in his 2010 memoir, My American Journey. “However chilling this destruction of homes and crops reads in cold print today, as a young officer, I had been conditioned to believe in the wisdom of my superiors, and to obey.” That rationale is quite similar to the defense offered by many Nuremberg defendants, and found lacking by the judges.
Among the methods of murder were herbicides, one known as Agent Purple, which is as toxic as its infamous Orange cousin. “In the hard logic of war, what difference did it make if you shot your enemy or starved him to death?,” his memoir asked.”
Whether he believed them or not, Powell would peddle outrageous lies in service of the empire. Unlike his colleague Condoleezza Rice, who has the stage persona of a coat rack, or his toxic longtime nemesis Dick Cheney, Powell had a professional military demeanor that was beloved by Washington insiders and reporters. Hence, he was inevitably trotted out by government officials, and the media, when his imprimatur of respectability was required to justify crimes of the imperium.
After making a fool of himself at the United Nations in the lead up to the 2003 Iraq invasion under President George W. Bush, he prevaricated on the use of torture, something his fellow vet Sen. John McCain had a fit over. In a column for The Columbia Journalism Review in April 2009, Charles Kaiser wrote, “Powell, for his part, began making his non-denial denials—countering accusations that he had personally approved torture—by telling [ABC reporter Jan Crawford] Greenburg through a spokesman that there had been ‘hundreds of Principal Committee meetings…and that he could not recall specifics. And even if he could, he was not at liberty to discuss those meetings anyway.’ Then Powell told ABC’s Diane Sawyer that he did not have ‘sufficient memory recall’ about the meetings, adding, ‘I’m not aware of anything that we discussed in any of those meetings that was not considered legal.’”
Powell was not above the fray when it came to ethically-questionable domestic politics, such as good-old-fashioned nepotism. During the Dubya years, his son Michael was a complete disaster as Chair at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), a position he gained via Bush appointment. Thanks to Michael’s deregulatory glee, media firms further consolidated into the mega-behemoths they are today and the airwaves became increasingly homogeneous. It’s no surprise that today he is wreaking further damage as president of the powerful National Cable & Telecommunications Association trade association.
Powell, his many admirers claim, demonstrated a non-partisanship that preserved the national reverence for government and its institutions. What respect did he have for these institutions when he agreed to join the Dubya administration cabinet after it blatantly stole the 2000 election?
For years beltway insiders whispered that Powell might have made a run for President were it not for the ill health of his wife Alma. Instead, after seeing Gov. Sarah Palin catalyze the genesis of the Tea Party with her unvarnished racist nativism on the 2008 campaign trail for GOP nominee McCain, he endorsed Barack Obama. He went on to endorse Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Joe Biden in 2020.
But Powell’s career does not reflect the spirit of bipartisanship and respect for democracy. Instead it symbolizes the spiritual bankruptcy of trying to merely diversify the staff of the empire.