One hesitates to write anything about former Secretary of State (and Chiefs of Staff head) Colin Powell upon his death this week. One runs the risk of adding to the unbearable clutter. Everyone seems to be writing about him and, predictably, it’s a mixed bag.
The mainstream press in the U.S. is pretty uniform in its praise with often obscured mentions of Powell’s “agony” at his Iraq war advocacy: “the incident” some call it. Sure, several publications (mainly left-wing in the U.S. and much of the “foreign” media) have published clear denunciations of the man centering on “the incident” and what it’s meant. If that were all that needs to be said, nothing would be said here.
There is, however, a truth obscured in the mix: Powell personified what is dangerous about the U.S. government not because of what he did around Iraq but because of who he actually was. When we look at that, we realize that what Powell did in the Iraq war was both predictable and horribly logical.
It’s not ease to see this. Surrounded by and often doing backroom battle with the collection of blood-thirsty nut-cases that populated much of the Bush administration, Powell was unquestionably a sane, thoughtful and very intelligent man. He was cool. He was dignified. He knew how to court the media and he knew how to make a powerful speech.
He seemed, in fact, like a perfectly nice guy: scandal-free, respectful of wife and family and publicly conscious of the struggles that any person of color takes on in trying to “get ahead” in any profession.
We are told, in all the articles about his death, that he opposed the invasion of Iraq but was bound by some sense of duty to parrot bizarre information from the CIA that said that Iraq’s government, led by Saddam Hussein, was building “weapons of mass destruction”. We are told he regretted for the rest of his life making a “convincing” presentation to the U.N. and to a bunch of other audiences of evidence of that program and the unavoidable duty “the U.S. and our allies” had to invade the place.
He was good and we did invade with lots of citizen and politician support. That war practically destroyed that country leaving over a half million dead in direct or related life loss and displacing between three and five million more. It left the people of Iraq the task of rebuilding a ravaged country the surpasses that of any European country have World War II and it left the people of that country traumatized after 20 years of uninterrupted military attack.
Colin Powell contributed to that enormously. That’s neither a secret or a disputed fact. But what’s important is that it shouldn’t be surprising.
All you have to look at is “the Powell doctrine”, a perspective he advanced for much of his Joint Chiefs career and as Secretary of State. Ten questions:
Is a vital national security interest threatened?
Do we have a clear attainable objective?
Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?
Have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted?
Is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?
Have the consequences of our action been fully considered?
Is the action supported by the American people?
Do we have genuine broad international support?
If you can answer “yes” to them all, he said, you need to go in with ground forces supported by air and aggressively pursue the war to finish it as quickly as possible. Kill as many people in the opposition as you can even if that involves killing a lot of people who aren’t combatants.
See a missing question there? It lurks behind the “risks and costs” and “consequences” question but never stated clearly because it’s not the risks, costs and consequences he was talking about.
The question is: Is there any morality in going to some country and massively killing people and destroying the lives of those you don’t kill? It’s not there because, while all his questions can theoretically be answered “yes”, the only answer to the lurking question is “no”. War waged by a powerful country against a weaker, smaller and usually less developed one is never moral. Moreover, it has no defense because war is senseless. In Iraq we went in to overthrow the legitimate government of the country for no truthful reason: there were no weapons of mass destruction. Or in the simultaneous war in Afghanistan, we went in to kill a guy who planned a massive attack on us: one guy who, as repulsive as he was, wasn’t worth the lives of so many others who died. It goes on and one. You can’t come up with one cogent, intelligent reason for any of the military invasions we have mobilized over the last 50 years.
Colin Powell didn’t take up that issue because questioning that wasn’t part of his background or training or development. Starting as a rising star in Vietnam and moving up the command line without major interruption, he was programmed to be a soldier and the role of a soldier is to kill people.
In our society’s madness of military mobilization, driven by the cultural centrality of conflict, the military is celebrated, defended, proudly portrayed and financially supported in truly grotesque proportion. From professional sports support for “our men and women in uniform” to unbalanced news coverage that often dramatizes the soldier’s pain while ignoring the pain of those he or she kills to a national budget that provides a billion dollars or so yearly to the largest military machine in the world, consciousness is battered by an unflinching belligerence in which little thought is given to what an army actually does.
The media and our government talk about “peace keeping” or “service to the population” or “training” or “protection of democracy”. But we don’t send pastors or social workers or doctors or political experts to these places during wars; we send people trained to kill other people. There’s no other way to define it and any other definition is a flat-out lie.
Powell was born of that culture, rose within it and became one of its super-stars. I have no idea how many lives were lost as a result of his decisions throughout his career but it must be in the millions.
Therein my point. It’s easy to be repulsed by lunatics like Paul Wolfenstein or unfeeling half-humans like Dick Cheney or, for that matter, the collection of lying lunatics that surrounded Donald Trump. But they aren’t the major problem because they aren’t the most important leaders and designers of war and death. They aren’t the ones who make up the pretexts, design the strategies and make the convincing arguments. They’re not the people who defend these acts of protracted homicide. They aren’t the worst of our enemies.
War, the most despicable sin humanity commits, is led by sane, often highly intelligent, respectable, thoughtful and often engaging men and women, like the strong and principled Mark Milley, the current Joint Chiefs head who thwarted Trump’s recent coup attempt and may have actually save this democracy. They are people one can admire until we look under the hood.
There in the working motor of government we find the bodies of so many people in other countries and in ours, the shattered lives of victims of war and men and women who were fooled into thinking it was their duty to fight one, the trail of broken countries thrust backwards into relentless under-development. We find the truth: that these are criminals who should be tried for the massive death and destruction they have perpetrated and, because of political realities and political power, will never face a trial in court.
When we finally write a history of this country based on the truth, we will expose them for the mass murdering criminals they actually are. We’ll be able to write the real legacy of people like dignified, engaging Colin Powell.