Adekeye Adebajo | Colin Powell – The reluctant Jamaican American warrior
Jamaican American four-star General Colin Powell, who died of complications relating to COVID-19 on October 18 at the age of 84, was one of America’s most well-known public figures, with four decades of service in which he broke down racial barriers.
FROM THE BRONX TO BOOT CAMP
Powell was born on April 5, 1937, to Jamaican immigrants Luther (a shipping room foreman) and Maud (a seamstress), who moved to New York in search of opportunities. He grew up in the multi-ethnic working-class South Bronx and studied geology at City College of New York. By his own admission, Powell was not a strong student, but found his passion in the college’s Reserves Officer Training Corps, through which he joined a recently desegregated United States (US) army. Here, he found the discipline, drive, camaraderie, and community that he had lacked. Powell married Alma Johnson in 1962, and they raised a son and two daughters together.
He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1958, serving two stints in Vietnam, in 1962 and 1968. This experience scarred him, and he developed a life-long aversion to what he regarded as trigger-happy, deceitful politicians playing around with the lives of soldiers without a clear political strategy or public support. But Powell was also accused, as head of an investigation, of a cover-up of the US military’s My Lai massacre in 1968, merely refuting a letter from a serving soldier by stating that “relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent”.
After receiving a master’s degree in business administration from Georgetown University in Washington, DC in 1971, the Jamaican American rose rapidly, serving in South Korea and with the elite 101st Airborne Division, before becoming a one-star general in 1979 at the age of 42. He then worked as a senior military assistant to US Defence Secretary Casper Weinberger from 1983, before commanding an army corps in Germany three years later.
NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER
As military adviser to another Republican defence secretary, Frank Carlucci, Powell was involved in planning the 1983 military invasion of Grenada. This prepared him for the role of national security adviser in the reactionary Ronald Reagan’s Republican administration between 1987 and 1989, in which Powell got blood on his hands. He was deeply involved in American support for murderous regimes in ‘Dirty Wars’ in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, only narrowly escaping sanction for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal that funnelled arms to the killing squads in Nicaragua. Powell also championed the misguided policy of ‘constructive engagement’ with the destructive apartheid regime in South Africa.
JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF
As the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union disintegrated, he worked with the exceptionally able foreign policy team of President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker. Powell became the youngest chair of the military’s Joint Chiefs of staff, promoted over 14 more senior generals. He masterminded the military invasion of Panama in 1989, and led the Gulf War that expelled Iraq from Kuwait two years later. Despite his blustering warning, “We’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it,” towards an ill-equipped Iraqi army, Powell had been a reluctant warrior who advocated economic sanctions against Saddam Hussein, until forced by Defence Secretary Dick Cheney to draw up military plans.
He finished his term as the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the Democratic presidency of Bill Clinton. Powell fought with the president over gays serving openly in the military, and famously clashed with UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright, who scathingly asked him over the Bosnia slaughter: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” An angry Powell’s riposte was true to character: “American GIs are not toy soldiers to be moved around on some global game board.”
SECRETARY OF STATE
Appointed George W. Bush’s secretary of state in 2001, the moderate Powell had to contend with powerful conservative ‘hawks’, like Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who masterminded the disastrous Iraq war of 2003-2011. The multilateralist Powell faced off against unilateralists, who showed open disdain for the United Nations (UN), and even allies like France and Germany. The general, however, often lacked the courage of his conviction, and was forced into embarrassing U-turns on Palestine, Pakistan, and North Korea.
Powell’s presentation of flawed intelligence on non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to the UN Security Council in February 2003 was, by his own admission, a permanent “blot” on his record. African American civil rights activist Harry Belafonte’s stinging condemnation of the general as a “house slave,” in retrospect, appears to have understood the dynamics of a white-dominated Washington establishment. Bush asked Powell to resign from his post at Foggy Bottom in 2004. Though widely loved as a courteous and humane leader at the State Department, he did not put in the travel the job required, and failed to restrain the administration’s hawks. Cheney would later castigate Powell for expressing his views more to the public than to President Bush. As the clarion call sounded for the Cabinet’s battles to begin, the general had declared himself a conscientious objector.
TWILIGHT OF A GENERAL
Powell left the military in 1994 at the age of 57, spending time on the lucrative lecture circuit, running the Alliance for Youth charity, and rebuilding old Volvos. He was the most popular political figure in the US, with a 64 per cent favourability rating, and was courted by both the Republican and Democratic parties. He flirted with a presidential run in 1996, as his bestselling autobiography My American Journey was published, but bowed to his wife Alma’s fear of assassination. By now, Powell had acquired a reputation for being a political chameleon, registering as an independent, but voting for three Democratic presidents in 1960, 1964, and 1976, before loyally serving the Republican Ronald Reagan. He finally came out as a Republican in 1995.
Two years later, Powell became the founding chair of America’s Promise, a civil society organisation supporting at-risk children. He also chaired the board of visitors of the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at City College of New York. The notoriously cautious Powell, who often downplayed depictions of him as a symbol of black achievement, eventually spoke out for African American rights and child welfare issues. He became so disenchanted with the Republican party that he voted for Democrats in the last four elections, from Barack Obama to Joe Biden. His contempt for Donald Trump’s racist rabble-rousing was so strong that he declared the president “a national disgrace,” and left the Republican Party after Trump’s storm troopers attacked the Capitol Building in January 2021.
Powell was a dyed-in-the-wool soldier who preferred to lead by example than become embroiled in controversial policy battles. He was a cautious bureaucrat who operated best behind the scenes, protected by powerful politicians. Pragmatism thus often trumped principles. As Caspar Weinberger noted: “Colin is quintessentially a good soldier who does his duty and carries out orders.” When exposed to the full glare of political responsibility as secretary of state, Powell faltered, and tragically besmirched a career built up over 40 years of public service.
Professor Adekeye Adebajo is director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Global African Affairs (IGAA) in South Africa, a joint initiative with The University of the West Indies. Send feedback to email@example.com.