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October 20, 2021

Powell a war hero or a war criminal?

Scott Stockdale

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It's standard that the passing of Colin Powell, a war hero and Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration - has resulted in a deluge of maudlin tributes from dignitaries through the developed world, but not the entire world, because he had the blood of hundreds of thousands of civilians on his hands. Does this sound like a war hero or a war criminal?

Dispute the many accolades pouring in for him now that he's passed, history will remember Mr. Powell first and foremost for a February 5, 2003 speech to the United Nations Security Council when he said: "There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce more, many more."

Publicly, Mr. Powell said there was "no doubt in his mind" of the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He made a very convincing argument to the UN Security Council when he said: "Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertion. What we're giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence."

According to Larry Wilkerson, Mr. Powell's former chief of staff, Mr. Powell told a different story privately. Mr. Wilkerson said that after his 76 minute UN speech Mr. Powell said to him: "I wonder how we'll all feel if we put half a million troops in Iraq and march from one end of the country to the other and find nothing."

During his February 5, 2003 speech to the UN Security Council, Mr. Powell brandished satelllite photos of what he confidently said were decontamination trucks, aluminum tubes, and other WMD paraphenalia. He even held up a vial that he said could contain anthrax. It was a wonderful piece of theatre forever etched in the memory of an adoring main stream media, who disseminated the message to an adoring public. Witness the accolades continuing to pour in. The more bland the personality the more ink spots you can stick to it.

Mr. Powell's statement to the UN Security Council led directly to the deaths of an estimated 600,000 Iraqis, the destabilization of an entire region, and the death of over 4,000 Americans and many thousands more wounded and suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.

Former U.S. Marine Corps officer Scott Ritter said Mr. Powell made this statement at the UN despite knowing that the CIA had acknowledged that there was no new intelligence information about Iraqi WMD and that their information dated back to 1998 – a time when Mr. Ritter said he was very much in the center of the intelligence chain regarding Iraqi WMD.

Mr. Powell responded by publicly chastising Mr. Ritter telling reporters that "Ritter has been out of the intelligence chain for quite some time."

Long known as a team player, Mr. Powell was rewarded for his loyalty, serving Ronald Reagan as national security advisor, and both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton as chairman of the Joint Chiefs from 1989-93. Powell earned a number of civilian honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- twice from Bush Senior and Clinton.

The youngest and first African-American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under former President George H. W. Bush, Mr. Powell became the human face of the 1991 invasion of Iraq.

The success of the Gulf War made Mr. Powell an American hero. This was despite the abandonment of the Iraqis the U.S. urged to rise up and which Saddam then slaughtered with the Americans standing by.

Much of Mr. Powell's public appeal was a result of the fact that he was a real live war hero who actually participated in combat, as opposed to the rest of the Bush cabinet – including Bush himself – who were chicken hawks: they sent others to die, while remaining safely out of harm's way, later to become heroes standing atop the mountain of corpses they created.

Mr. Powell gained his war experience in the jungles of Viet Nam, where he served his first tour of duty as an advisor to a South Vietnamese army unit in 1963. While other U.S. advisers protested Captain Powell's countrywide strategy of torching villages to discourage support for the Viet Cong, as brutal and counter-productive, Powell defended this approach then and continued to defend it in his 1995 memoirs, My American Journey.

In a chilling passage, Powell explained the routine practice of murdering unarmed male Vietnamese.

“I recall a phrase we used in the field, MAM, for military-age male,” Mr. Powell wrote. “If a helo (helicopter) 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. And Pritchard was only one of many. The kill-or-be-killed nature of combat tends to dull fine perceptions of right and wrong.”

In 1968, as assistant chief of staff of operations for the 23rd Infantry Division, Major Powell was called upon to investigate the My Lai massacre:

On March 16, 1968 a unit of the Americal division stormed into a hamlet known as My Lai. While miltary helicopters circled overhead, Vietnamese civilians – mostly old men, women and children were rounded-up, then under orders from junior officers on the ground, soldiers emptied their m-16s into the terrified peasants. Later soldiers stepped among the corpses to finish off the wounded. After four hours of killling, a total of 347 Vietnamese, including babies, lay dead.

After a cursory investigation of this heinous crime, Mr. Powell admitted to no pattern of wrongdoing in a letter dated December 13, 1968.

Mr. Powell claimed that U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were taught to treat Vietnamese courteously and respectfully. The Americal troops also had gone through an hour-long course on how to treat prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, Mr. Powell noted.

“There may be isolated cases of mistreatment of civilians and POWs,” Mr. Powell said. But “this by no means reflects the general attitude throughout the Division.”

After his long storied – or sordid – career of public service, Mr. Powell left his position as Secretary of State but continued to make a contribution, joining the board of directors of Salesforce and Bloom Energy and becoming a "stategic adviser" to the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. Much as he had been as a soldier, then a military officer, then a government official, Mr. Powell was a trailblazer for a generation of retired generals who have become part of the elite they used to serve thanks to the flattering reviews they received in cultural and political circles, no matter the actual results of their government service. After all, who doesn't love a winner?

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Dotan Rousso. Holds a Ph.D. in Law—a former criminal prosecutor in Israel. Currently working as a college professor in Canada.

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