May 26, 2009
There is no one, it seems, that the U.S. mainstream news media loves
more than Colin Powell, a "moderate" Republican who gives a careerist
journalist the chance to do some smart positioning in the "center." But
the truth about this retired four-star general is that he is the ultimate careerist.
That was apparent again during Powell's May 24 interview
on CBS' "Face the Nation" as Powell juxtaposed himself as the
reasonable Republican in contrast to former Vice President Dick Cheney,
who vowed last week that there was "no middle ground" in the "war on
The press coverage
of Powell's CBS appearance focused on his reaffirmation of his
membership in the Republican Party - after Cheney and talk show host
Rush Limbaugh suggested that he should or had already left the party -
and on Powell's reasonable talk about the GOP's need to be "more
Given far less
attention was Powell's disingenuous response to Bob Schieffer's
question about the ex-Secretary of State's knowledge regarding
"enhanced interrogation techniques," which the International Committee
of the Red Cross and virtually all other objective observers say
who was a member of President George W. Bush's Principals Committee
which oversaw the interrogation policies, claimed to have been kept
mostly out of the loop. He asserted that while the techniques "were
outlined" at meetings he attended, he was "not privy" to the legal
memos authorizing the abusive treatment, nor many other details.
think it was unfortunate but we had a system that kept that in a very
compartmented manner," Powell said. "And so I was aware that these
enhanced interrogation techniques were being considered. And they were
judged not to be torture at the time."
Powell also repeated the all-purpose Cheney-Bush excuse for all manner of sins: "9/11."
the possibility of a 9/11, you had to give some -- some flexibility to
the CIA," Powell said. "It's easy now in the cold light of day to look
back and say, you shouldn't have done any of that."
So what was it? Did Powell participate in the Principals Committee as
it - according to some reports - "choreographed" the torture sessions
or didn't he? Did he favor giving the CIA "some flexibility" or did he
object to the abusive techniques, including the near-drowning of
waterboarding, that he says "were judged not to be torture"?
For a Washington press corps that has been up in arms challenging House
Speaker Nancy Pelosi's claim that the CIA obscured key details of the
harsh interrogations from congressional leaders, it was impressive to
see how little skepticism was evinced by Powell's claim of ignorance
from his seat on Bush's Principals Committee.
Powell deflected attention from his dubious torture explanation by
boldly rejecting one of the new absurd "wedge" issues developed by the
Republican Right, that it would be dangerous to bring accused
terrorists from the Guantanamo Bay prison to the United States for
trial or incarceration. But Powell then maneuvered himself back to the
"center" by also criticizing President Barack Obama's handling of the
saying that the Guantanamo prisoners could safely come to the United
States, Powell faulted Obama for not moving faster on the prison
closing and "frankly giving enough time to opponents of it to marshal
their forces as to why we shouldn't do this."
Glass-House Stone Throwing
But second-guessing by Colin Powell represents the classic case of a
glass-house resident throwing stones. Throughout his career - dating
back more than four decades - Powell has almost always taken the route
of least resistance that pointed toward the top, but his actions have,
in hindsight, failed the test of history.
From his whitewash investigation of My Lai-related complaints as a
young Army officer to his key role giving legitimacy to George W.
Bush's presidency and the Iraq War, Powell almost always did what was
best for his career, not for his country.
In the 1960s, during Powell's two tours in Vietnam, he never joined
with other U.S. military officers who risked their careers to warn
their superiors about the brutal and self-defeating strategies that,
eventually, ended up costing the lives of 58,000 Americans and millions
Indeed, in his memoir, My American Journey,
Powell justifies many of the worst tactics, such as burning down
Vietnamese villages and shooting unarmed peasants from helicopters,
acts that objectively would constitute war crimes.
During his first tour in 1963, Powell describes his work as an adviser
to a South Vietnamese army unit that systematically destroyed the homes
and food stocks of villagers who were believed sympathetic to the Viet
"We burned down the
thatched huts, starting the blaze with Ronson and Zippo lighters,"
Powell recalled. "Why were we torching houses and destroying crops? Ho
Chi Minh had said the people were like the sea in which his guerrillas
"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
On his second tour
in 1968, as an executive officer for the Americal Division, Powell was
asked to investigate allegations from a distraught U.S. soldier who was
aware of brutality committed by other Americal Division soldiers
against Vietnamese civilians and captives. This complaint was an early
official warning about the My Lai massacre, which an Americal unit had
committed several months earlier.
However, for Colin Powell, it was another chance to impress the brass.
Without interviewing the soldier, Cpl. Tom Glen, Powell simply accepted
a claim from Glen's superior officer that Glen was not close enough to
the front lines to know what he was writing about.
After that cursory investigation, Powell drafted a response on Dec. 13,
1968, admitting no pattern of wrongdoing. "In direct refutation of this
[Glen's] portrayal," Powell wrote, "is the fact that relations between
Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent."
Exposing My Lai
It would take another Americal Division veteran, an infantryman named
Ron Ridenhour, to piece together the truth about the atrocity at My
Lai. After returning to the United States, Ridenhour interviewed
Americal comrades who had participated in the massacre.
On his own, Ridenhour compiled this shocking information into a report
and forwarded it to the Army inspector general. The IG's office
conducted an aggressive official investigation, in contrast to Powell's
review. Courts martial were held against officers and enlisted men who
were implicated in the murder of the My Lai civilians.
In his memoir, Powell did not mention his brush-off of Tom Glen's
complaint, but did include another troubling recollection that belied a
statement in his 1968 report, in which he had denied that U.S. soldiers
"without provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves."
recall a phrase we used in the field, MAM, for military-age male,"
Powell wrote. "If a helo spotted a peasant in black pajamas who looked
remotely suspicious, a possible MAM, the pilot would circle and fire in
front of him.
"If he moved,
his movement was judged evidence of hostile intent, and the next burst
was not in front, but at him. Brutal? Maybe so. But an able battalion
commander with whom I had served at Gelnhausen [West Germany], Lt. Col.
Walter Pritchard, was killed by enemy sniper fire while observing MAMs
from a helicopter.
Pritchard was only one of many. The kill-or-be-killed nature of combat
tends to dull fine perceptions of right and wrong."
While it's certainly true that combat is brutal and judgments can be
clouded by fear, the mowing down of unarmed civilians in cold blood
does not constitute combat. It is murder and a war crime.
Neither can the combat death of a fellow soldier be cited as an excuse
to murder civilians. That was precisely the rationalization that the My
Lai killers cited in their own defense.
A Murder Case
After returning home from Vietnam in 1969, Powell was drawn into
another Vietnam controversy involving the killing of civilians. In a
court martial, Powell sided with an Americal Division general who was
accused by the Army of murdering unarmed civilians while flying over
Quang Ngai province.
Helicopter pilots who flew Brig. Gen. John W. Donaldson had alleged
that the general gunned down civilian Vietnamese almost for sport.
In an interview in 1995, a senior Army investigator from the Donaldson
case told me that two of the Vietnamese victims were an old man and an
old woman who were shot to death while bathing.
Though long retired - and quite elderly himself - the Army investigator
spoke with a raw disgust about the events of a quarter century earlier.
He requested anonymity before talking about the behavior of senior
to bet in the morning how many people they could kill - old people,
civilians, it didn't matter," the investigator said. "Some of the stuff
would curl your hair."
eight months at Americal headquarters in Chu Lai during 1968-69, Powell
had worked with Donaldson and apparently developed a great respect for
this superior officer. When the Army charged Donaldson with murder on
June 2, 1971, Powell rose in the general's defense.
Powell submitted an affidavit dated Aug. 10, 1971, which lauded
Donaldson as "an aggressive and courageous brigade commander." Powell
added that helicopter forays in Vietnam had been an "effective means of
separating hostiles from the general population."
In the 1995 interview, the old Army investigator told me that "we had
him [Donaldson] dead to rights," with the testimony of two helicopter
pilots who had flown Donaldson on his shooting expeditions.
Still, the investigation collapsed after the two pilot-witnesses were
transferred to another Army base and apparently came under pressure
from military superiors. The two pilots withdrew their testimony, and
the Army dropped all charges against Donaldson.
But this complex and troubling history of Powell's time in Vietnam is
routinely white-washed by Washington journalists who uniformly treat
Powell with the respect owed a genuine war hero. The U.S. news media's
fawning over Colin Powell also has not been a victimless exercise.
By holding Powell up as a near-perfect hero, journalists have allowed
Powell to steer public opinion at key moments - from his work
containing the Iran-Contra scandal in the late 1980s, to his political
embrace of George W. Bush during the Florida recount battle in 2000, to
his selling of the Iraq War in 2003, to his support for Bush's second
term in 2004. [For more details on Powell's record, see our book Neck Deep.]
Now, at this late date, the Washington press corps doesn't want to
spoil its splendid narrative of Colin Powell's heroic career by
concentrating too much on his role on Bush's Principals Committee as it
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