Colin Powell’s larger legacy may be missed even while celebrating his stature as the first black American to become the nation’s top soldier (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) or its premiere diplomat (Secretary of State). He was all of those things and more, leading American troops to the stunning victory in the Hundred Hour War, underlining the renascence of American arms. For an Army still finding its panache after Vietnam, Colin Powell provided an epic battle cry as Desert Shield morphed into Desert Storm: ”Our strategy to go after (the Iraqi) army is very, very simple. First, we’re going to cut it off, and then we’re going to kill it!” Any questions?
After so many uncertain trumpets echoing for so long, it sometimes seemed as if Vietnam had permanently besmirched the American warrior tradition. Drafted as that war ended, I was sent as a lieutenant to West Germany, where black and white soldiers routinely rioted while a drug culture reigned supreme. The first ray of hope in our unit came when a new battalion commander arrived: Lieutenant Colonel Julius Parker, a tall and accomplished Black man who quickly set new standards of leadership and follower-ship, eventually becoming a two-star general.
Although we didn’t know it back then, future generals Parker and Powell typified a new generation of officers who helped the Army reclaim its soul. With Desert Storm barely concluded, the eminent Army historian Rick Atkinson summarized their contributions for the newly-graduated West Point Class of 1991: “There is a tendency now to believe that victory in the Persian Gulf war was easy and cheap…(But ) the seeds of this victory were planted more than 20 years ago in the jungles of Vietnam. (Its junior officers) stayed the course after Vietnam when the Army was an institution in anguish, beset with the anarchy of drugs, racial strife and utter indiscipline. They remained true to the profession of arms and set out to make things right…” (my emphasis).
Our first obligation was to end the lying, first to ourselves and then at every level. We gradually re-discovered more than a century of our own shared history, from the Buffalo Soldiers to the Tuskegee Airmen; even so, few could have imagined that this legacy would one day produce Colin Powell. I might never have met him at all except for a direct order from my boss, General Carl Vuono, Army Chief of Staff and the architect who re-built the service’s weaponry, training and professionalism. Since General Powell had just come from being President Reagan’s National Security advisor, what were his thoughts about Mikhail Gorbachev and the apparent end of the Cold War? As Chief, General Vuono also wondered if the American people would still support their Army – then consisting of 780,000 soldiers organized into 18 divisions.
Meeting General Powell was like graduate school finals, where real-world experts quickly determined if you knew your stuff or were just wasting their time. Characteristically courteous, Colin Powell was curious and direct, following questions to their conclusions. He was already ahead of us in thinking about how the American people would react as their Soviet enemies withdrew. “It’s like when a bright high school kid goes off to college. You find out pretty quickly if the record reflects his abilities or strong parental pressures. Same with us!” He could not predict whether recent Cold War history had permanently altered America’s even longer tradition of unpreparedness but left me pondering a key insight. “Security is only one of the things the American people expect from their Army. Don’t forget all the others.”
He was right of course because military services live their histories, fighting wars in the present while building for the future; yet those critical functions fail without the full partnership of the American people. Colin Powell was chosen to lead our armies, navies and air forces into combat precisely because he was the natural offspring of the American soul, the best of who we hope to be. He also exemplified the outrageous ideal that equality of opportunity can produce the most extraordinary of results. His example not only reaffirms that ideal but also provides hope that the individual soldier, sailor, airman, marine (or ordinary citizen) can make a lasting difference.
In the aftermath of hard-won victories in the Cold War and Desert Storm, why have we adopted the heresy that conflicts can be won without reaffirming our ideals or mobilizing the American people? Why do we thus ignore the timeless teachings of Martin Luther King or the shining example of Colin Powell?
Rest in peace, General!