Colin Powell

HE was a big man on a big stage for a long time and I always liked him. Capable and resourceful, Colin Powell had a perfect military bearing and an equally perfect American life-story. Contrary to racist cliches – and apparently of no interest to obituarists – he was not born into the old African-American milieu, however narratively useful it may be to conflate skin colour with familial culture. The son of free, enterprising Jamaican immigrants and with white forebears in the genetic mix, he was like Barack Obama in one important way: he was ineluctably drawn into the ‘black experience’ but was not really a part of it. He always marched to his own drum. How many gentile teenagers in Powell’s (and Al Sharpton’s) New York today would be as keen as he was to learn Yiddish from an employer? How many black Americans ever asked the heraldic authority of Scotland for a coat of arms? When a race riot occurred during his tour in South Korea in the early 1970s, Powell was the man tasked with getting rid of black radicals from the army’s ranks.

It would be easy to cite these race-blind idiosyncrasies and lack of roots, in the Alex Haley sense, as the reason he was later spoken of as a possible Uncle Tom. His background, however, had little to do with it. Apart from press-ganging him into their service periodically as a race token – albeit half-heartedly: the Vietnam-era ‘movement’ didn’t see military careers as prestigious anyway – ‘progressives’ had little time for Powell principally because he was a Republican. The best control comparison for this thesis is the treatment afforded his brilliant contemporary, Condoleezza Rice. A Birmingham, Alabama, native with pre-Civil War slave ancestors, she was nevertheless mocked as an Aunt Jemima and a big-lipped black mammy. She abandoned the Democrats during the Carter years and was never forgiven.

His status as a man above partisan ownership became solidified as a modus operandi by the mid to late 1970s. Powell was shrewd enough to realise GOP presidents from Richard Nixon onward had a vested interest in advancing his career and also that Democrats would only embrace him fully if he took the John Kerry route of flagellating himself for his own war record. He took advantage of the former and lost no sleep about the latter. The army was the only institutional constant in his life; as its esprit de corps was rebuilt after the anti-war revolution of the 1960s, a gifted loyalist like Powell (whose career in uniform began in 1958) could write his own ticket.

Colin Powell will not be endorsing any more Democrats. He will, of course, continue voting for them.” – Ace

That strength, however, eventually became a weakness. What many are calling Powell’s ‘infamous’ address to the UN Security Council in February 2003 justifying the invasion of Iraq was portended earlier in his career. As a young major seconded to investigate the 1968 Mỹ Lai massacre, he found no evidence of the crime. Twenty years later, as a Reagan Administration favourite (appointed the President’s National Security Adviser in 1987), he was fortunate not to be ensnared to an indictable extent with his former principal, Caspar Weinberger, in the Iran–Contra affair. By the time he was Secretary of State in George W. Bush’s administration, the days of the establishmentarian insider – the patriot who would always do the ‘right thing’ for a noble cause – were over.

Ever the survivor, Powell eventually turned on the Republican Party, hoping for the condescending rehabilitation he’d spent a lifetime scorning. I still believe he was one of the great men of the post-Vietnam era. Donald Trump’s statement on his death was ill-advised even if his disappointment at not being credited by Powell “the reluctant warrior” for not starting any wars is valid. The Powell conundrum is how much, if at all, allegiance to a state under siege transcends fidelity to the demos and to truth, come what may.

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19 Responses to Colin Powell

  1. FlyingPigs says:

    A great Man who lived through ‘interesting times’.

    His biography is well worth reading.

  2. a reader says:

    Powell and Rice were definitely the pick of that era of US politicians. He seemed like a good bloke

  3. C.L. says:

    Definitely. Seems like a different world now – when people of that calibre were the senior figures in a US administration.

    Stupid remarks by Trump.

  4. FlyingPigs says:

    Stupid remarks by Trump.

    perhaps C.L,

    but when you lend your name to communist progressives then expect push back no matter how great you are.

  5. rosie says:

    Trump would never make a diplomat.
    Me neither.

  6. Not Trampis says:

    Powell will be forever tainted by his speech to the Security council. His heart was never inti because it was shite . A poor excuse for a illegal invasion which made the US weaker not stronger.

    Trump’s remarks were as usual all about Trump not Powell. Powell was a cconservative. Trump never was.

  7. C.L. says:

    Was the Security Council presentation any more wrongheaded than the claims made by Democrats about Afghanistan being the ‘good war’?

    How’d that turn out?

    At least the Iraq War was actually won.

  8. Bruce of Newcastle says:

    Hi, CL! He’s one of my distant cousins. I regard him very well as an Eisenhower-style military man, but I think he fitted right in at the State Department, which is lefty. Unfortunately by the Trump period there was no longer any central ground and when forced to he chose the left.

    Unfortunately Jamaican politics is lefty, and the upper class stratum is in that zone. Another of my Jamaican relos (his 1st wife was Gen. Powell’s 2nd cousin), who I met a couple of times and liked, was on direct speaking terms with Fidel. He eventually died in a Cuban hospital where he was evacuated to after an accident elsewhere in Caribbean.

    So vale to Gen. Powell. I think he did pretty well. But I was disappointed by his nasty treatment of Donald Trump.

  9. Not Trampis says:

    first of all Powell cleaned up the mess he inherited in the Reagan years. you were obviously smoking something when you wrote that. He came in AFTEr contra etc.

    Afghanistan was the good war. they cleaned out the taliban unfortunately none of the four Presidents had a clue about building a democracy and how important institutions are in that build.

    When they were leaving the USA was tainted by the corrupt regime they had put together. A bit like Cuba when Castro took over. That did not end well.

  10. C.L. says:

    Homer, as a longstanding America-phile, I wrote this piece as more or less a personal reflection on the man. I was aware that several other obituaries and essays about Powell were available for people to read. I chose just a few discussion points about his life to bring out the essential strengths and flaws in his character and career.

    It has always been my practice to accept corrections and make appropriate changes when necessary. Were you to say, for example, “ahoy, CL – Powell wasn’t Reagan’s NSA at the time of Iran-Contra but was still Weinberger’s senior military assistant,” I would thank you and either correct the text or explain my reading of the facts.

    Here is my explanation: Powell did NOT clean up Iran-Contra. He was up to his ears in it – specifically, the transfer of TOW anti-tank missiles from Israel to Iran – despite knowing it was technically illegal. He didn’t resign, didn’t blow the whistle and was adjudged by Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh to have deliberately withheld information about the affair under questioning.

    Second: Walsh brought in the Iran-Contra indictments in 1992, four years after Reagan left office. It would have been more correct for me to have written that Powell was lucky to escape indictment; not that he was lucky to escape indictment while serving as Reagan’s NSA.

    Like I said, the conundrum in Powell’s career is whether we condemn his patriotic loyalty to Uncle Sam or admire him for not being a snitch when it comes to bending the rules in a just cause. That is a subjective question. My view is that Powell was the kind of man, by and large, who had the decency to make those calls. It is also my view, however, that such a warrant, as it were, must have a limited lifespan.

  11. Bruce of Newcastle says:

    Mark Milley makes Colin Powell look like George Patton.

  12. C.L. says:

    Wow, Bruce. That’s a proud claim being Powell’s relo.

  13. C.L. says:

    Correction made:


    Twenty years later, as Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisor, he was lucky not to be indicted along with Caspar Weinberger for obstruction following his congressional testimony about the Iran–Contra affair.


    Twenty years later, as a Reagan Administration favourite (appointed the President’s National Security Adviser in 1987), he was fortunate not to be ensnared to an indictable extent with his former principal, Caspar Weinberger, in the Iran–Contra affair.

  14. Not Trampis says:

    I guess we have to differ on Iran Contra.
    A person up to his ears in it would have been charged and at the best would have had a nasty smell about him.
    Powell had none of those.
    As it proved later his sense of duty led to decisions he later regretted.

    you need to look where Iran contra was occurring at the time

    He did clean up the mess that was left after this issue was over however.

  15. John H. says:

    Great post CL.

  16. Bruce of Newcastle says:

    CL – I’ve mentioned my Jamaican heritage many times. My mum got into the family tree thing and got in contact. I went with her to Kingston in 1999 and met all these relos I didn’t know I had. The guy who picked us up at the airport was the one I mentioned. Played cricket with his son in their backyard! It was fun, and they were very friendly to their long lost Australian family members (my grandad came here with my granny and my mum just after the war). Nice also that one of the younger sons in Kingston migrated here and is now an Aussie.

    Families are families. Some members do big things, others smaller things.

    I haven’t commented on your blog hitherto, but having dropped by and read your excellent piece on Gen. Powell it seemed appropriate to say something.

  17. C.L. says:

    Is it true that cricket fell by the wayside when the locals started to be picked up by the big league soccer franchises?

    It’s one of the tragedies of modern culture how the WI lost their dominance in cricket. I loved those blokes when I was a kid.

  18. Bruce of Newcastle says:

    CL – No. My relo told us what occurred. The problem was the TV broadcasting contracts came up for renewal and the US put pressure on the government to go with the feed from the American networks. So they switched from the BBC to the US broadcasters. That meant basketball, not cricket, and that whole culture then went right through that generation of kids.

    I don’t follow basketball, but maybe now there are young Jamaican guys in the NBA making squillions. Which they weren’t doing in the West Indies team. If so good on them, but the gangsta culture that came with US basketball has badly affected Jamaica, and much of the old genteel Pommy ways have disappeared.

  19. C.L. says:

    Thanks, John!

    Bruce, that’s very sad. There’s a lot not to like about American culture nowadays, I’m afraid.

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