If you were born after say, 1995 and are not particularly keen on 20th century U.S. history, Gen. Colin Powell might be something of a floating question mark to you – a name that dominated headlines at the beginning of your week but seems a touch unfamiliar. You know you’ve heard the name before, but you aren’t sure where and in what context.
But if you have any reverence at all for the history that Barack Obama made as our first Black president, you’d be entirely remiss not to at least appreciate Powell, who died early Monday morning of complications from COVID-19 at 84. Born in New York City in 1937 and raised in the Bronx as a first-generation Jamaican-American, Powell’s story is a case study in the resolve of immigrants who come to America and revel in the dream within its borders.
Powell’s curriculum vitae is a smorgasbord of historical firsts: He was the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, a position he held from 2001 to 2005. He was the first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, under presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush. He was the country’s first Black National Security Advisor, under President Ronald Reagan, during which he was instrumental in bringing to an end the Cold War with Russia. He was the only the second Black person to serve as a four-star general in the U.S. Army. He was one of only two to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom twice.
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He accomplished all of this in an historically conservative (read: racist) U.S. Army. Powell was first commissioned in 1958 – just a decade after President Harry Truman desegregated the Army – and spent decades moving up the literal ranks; it would be 41 years into his career (which included two tours in the Vietnam War) before he would become general. Powell had a hand in nearly every U.S. military conflict in the latter half of the 20th Century, and actually served as an architect of several, including the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s and the United States Invasion of Panama in 1989.
Unfortunately, the career blemish Powell wore until his death was the speech he delivered to the United Nations on February 2003, in which he justified the need to take down Iraqi despot Saddam Hussein with the now-infamous claim of “weapons of mass destruction.” We know now that there were none of those to be found in Iraq, but that it led to a protracted, maligned war that officially ended in 2011 but whose cascading effects have resulted in unrest in the region that persists to this day.
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Powell himself called the defense of the war and subsequent speech a “blot” on his record. He’s not to be completely absolved of that blame, but many conveniently forget that there were many cooks in the kitchen with the Iraq War, including Presiden George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (a trio many would consider the true "Axis of Evil"). There are also members of Congress – many of whom are still comfy in their gigs collecting checks – and, yes, even the press.
But Powell was the face – the Black face – that many use as a photo at the center of the Iraq War dartboard to this day. Take a look for yourself…there are as many headlines about Powell and the Iraq War as there are about his actual death.
As Powell was a dyed-in-the-wool military man, anyone with a beef with American imperialism, wars with specious provenance or the blood of young soldiers and innocent civilians on our hands could pick a worse target than him. However, to be a leader in the U.S. Government is to have blood on your hands. Full stop. Obama included.
If that’s the metric with which you wish to measure Powell, I won’t argue. However, I choose to remember him as an exceptional leader who was the first to accomplish a great many things thought unimaginable for a Black man when he accomplished them.