The Good Soldier: The Tragedy of Colin Powell

Jim Bratt

This post originally appeared in The Twelve: Reformed Done Daily on November 8, 2021.

Colin Powell at a meeting of the national security council at the White House on the day following the 9/11 attacks in 2001 with, from left, Donald Rumsfeld, President George W Bush and Dick Cheney. Photograph: Doug Mills/AP

Colin Powell was honored by a memorial service at Washington’s National Cathedral last Friday, November 5. This on top of the many tributes already accorded him for his character and role as a Black pioneer—the first African American to serve as National Security Advisor, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State. Still, the obituaries have had to note a cloud on the horizon; as the AP headline put it, Powell was a “trailblazing general stained by Iraq.”

Indeed, Powell’s dog and pony show before the United Nations on February 5, 2003, was one of the most decisive and tragic turns on the George W. Bush administration’s drive to invade Iraq. Decisive because Powell’s credibility—double that of Bush at the time and salient across the entire political spectrum—sealed public opinion behind the cause of war. Tragic because Powell opposed the whole venture and because every other push to promote it partook, by turns, of lethal innocence, cynicism, ignorance, arrogance, and incompetent warmongering. Powell embodied the opposite of those qualities, but he made the whole thing happen. He was a good soldier.

* * *

It wasn’t the first time. As it happened, a few days before Powell’s death I led a book discussion of Max Hasting’s commanding Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 (HarperCollins 2018). Much to my surprise I read (pp. 519-20) that no less than Colin Powell, then an Army major and divisional staff officer, wrote an “uncompromising whitewash” of American conduct in the infamous My Lai massacre. The military’s relations with the natives were “excellent,” he reported. When Lieutenant William Calley took the fall for 200+ officers above him on the food chain for the war crime and its subsequent cover-up, an outpouring of civilian and military sympathy helped set him free after 42 months of house arrest—2.5 days per victim. Actually, a fairly harsh sentence as these things go. I don’t know if Hastings included Powell among the 200, but the incident didn’t stop his climb to the pinnacle of power.

Continue reading on The Twelve, the Reformed Journal blog.

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin University, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

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