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General Right

My American Journey

by Colin Powell, by Joseph E. Persico
Random House, 643 pp., $25.95

It would be hard to think of a more propitious year for a bright young black man of ambition, cheerful manner, and light complexion to join the United States Army than 1958. The segregation of the races within the Army had ended with a stroke of Harry Truman’s pen a decade earlier; the US military was embarked upon an era of almost permanent expansion to fight the cold war, creating a vast institutional appetite for officers. The United States Army was traditionally white at the top, and white with a southern accent at that, but the battles of the 1950s and 1960s over race in civilian life—the integration of public education in the South, the assault on Jim Crow legislation relegating blacks to the “back of the bus” in every walk of life, the struggle for voting rights—encouraged equal opportunity in the military, the one field of American life in which the executive branch of government could do the right thing without paying an immediate price at the polls. It is clear in retrospect that Colin Powell at twenty-one, a son of Jamaican immigrants, raised in the Bronx and a 1958 graduate of the Reserve Officers Training Corps at the City College of New York, enjoyed something very like the favor of the Gods as he departed for his first assignment, as a platoon commander with the 3rd Armored Division in West Germany.

It is no story of struggle against oppression that Powell tells in My American Journey. There were some stinging moments at hamburger restaurants around southern military bases before passage of the civil rights acts of 1965, some long stretches of southern highway between rest stops where a black man could pee, some prideful bile silently swallowed when an insensitive white commander early in his career said, “Powell, you’re the best black lieutenant I’ve ever known.” It was Thank you, suh, the angry Powell was thinking, but what he said was, “Thank you, sir.”

Powell may have been a military man, but he was singularly noncombative when it came to race: he did not consider it his problem when the people he met responded first or only to the color of his skin. He wasn’t going to agonize over their problem. In Powell’s long and interesting book, surely among the two or three very best campaign autobiographies published in two hundred years of American presidential politics, there are many reflections on the subject of race but few suggestions that it ever got in Powell’s way as he rose through the ranks, and none that it opened doors or speeded his passage, that he was the fair child, so to speak, of affirmative action. The Gods’ favor appears to have amounted to this: Powell was black in a time and place when superiors were modestly cautious not to be detected in an act of prejudice. Powell has refused to join Republican rivals in denouncing affirmative action, saying it helped him at times, but most of the credit for his extraordinary rise to the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—the first black, the first graduate of ROTC, the youngest man (at fifty-two) to fill the post—must be ascribed to native ability and a run of the sort of luck in timing which has traditionally marked some men for destiny.

The entire American political establishment now awaits Powell’s decision whether to declare himself a candidate for the presidency not because he was America’s top soldier, not because he has got a political machine or big political money looming at his rear, and certainly not because he is black. What sets Powell apart is the fact that virtually the entire country knows him and likes him. Most men who aspire to be President of the United States spend a lifetime in shoving and elbowing, getting to be known and liked, after a fashion; but Powell did it during the seven months of preparation and countdown ending in the extraordinary American military victory over Iraq in 1990 and 1991—more precisely, during the twenty-seven days of air war and four days and four hours of ground war which proved that the American military could sweep the board, if properly led. There is nothing like a war to rivet the national attention, and Powell’s war was on television twenty-four hours a day. The fact that he was black was an interesting irrelevancy.

The political attention focused on Powell as I write at the beginning of October is not all PR. Random House, his publisher, is serious about earning back the amazing $6 million paid as an advance on his book, but the Time and Newsweek cover stories, the television and radio interviews, the mushrooming of “Powell for President” committees, the sale of one, two, and three thousand books in a single afternoon all point to a genuine political phenomenon. Powell has given many speeches of uplift (at fees ranging up to $60,000 a clip), but otherwise he has lain low in the two years since he retired from the Army early in the Clinton administration. He has, so far as we know, courted no string-pullers or money-raisers in the Republican establishment, where it seems increasingly clear he is finding his home, and he has been careful to keep his political beliefs to himself until sharing a few of them at last with Barbara Walters. The other men running for President in 1996 are hoarse from beating the hustings while Powell has tinkered with old Volvos, labored on his book, spent time with his wife, Alma, and their children and grandchildren, and quietly pondered his place in the political firmament, if any.

His rivals would love to be able to get away with this slow and statesmanlike progress on the road to power, so reminiscent of the anointing of Warren Gamaliel Harding, but know all too well what George Orwell used to call the “big public” will quit listening the minute they stop talking. Powell has promised to declare his intentions in the weeks before Thanksgiving, after concluding his twenty-six-city book tour in Norfolk, Virginia, on October 20. In his book he suggests that neither political party “fits me comfortably in its present state” and further hints that “the time may be at hand for a major third party.” This is persiflage, not even camouflage. The real decision facing Powell is whether to enter the Republican primaries. Powell’s main Republican rivals could not hide their intentions for five minutes. In Powell’s case the question is genuinely open; he might go for it, and he might not.

In trying to decide what Powell will do, what sort of race he might run, and what sort of President he might make, the most important single body of evidence is probably to be found in My American Journey. The man revealed in the book is an attractive person, full of optimism, sober in his sense of responsibility, slow to take offense, quick with thanks and praise, always trying to do his best. But the book has been written “with Joseph E. Persico,” a biographer of the CIA’s William Casey, the news broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, and New York’s Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Persico is a fine writer with a gift for crisp simplicity and he knows plenty about what is expected in the persona of a public man. What Powell brings to the book, and what Persico has done with it, cannot easily be parsed. Still, it is Powell’s story, he has told some important parts of it to others in very similar terms,1 and this is the book he has chosen to speak for him.

He describes it as “the story of a black kid of no early promise” who rose by pluck and luck to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a latter-day version of the classic American story, and that is what we get.

Humble” is an appropriate word for Powell’s beginnings. His mother and father both worked for modest wages in New York’s garment district, and Powell grew up in a mixed neighborhood of the Bronx known as “Banana Kelly” (for the long curve of Kelly Street) until his father hit the numbers for $10,000 and bought a house in Queens. Along with black slaves brought from Africa to cut Jamaican sugar cane Powell’s ancestors include an Englishman, an Irishman, a Scot, a Jew, and (probably) an Arawak Indian. In Powell’s crowd as a teenager being black was nothing special and the doors at CCNY were equally wide. There, conscious the draft would get him eventually anyway, he joined the ROTC program and a fraternity called the Pershing Rifles.

Powell has an explanation for why he fell instantly in love with the military. “The discipline, the structure, the camaraderie, the sense of belonging were what I craved,” he writes. It reminded him of the embrace of the Episcopal Church, the other of the twin pillars of his life. It was a growing love of soldiering in the ROTC that kept Powell in college, not his nominal course of study—at first engineering, then geology. For the first time in his life he excelled. The Army took him seriously, gave him a chance, rewarded his effort. As a platoon leader in Germany Powell had the job of stopping a Russian attack through the Fulda Gap. “Why would the Russians be coming? I did not know; the answer was above my pay grade.” This was the classic soldier’s view. The reason was whatever the reason was and that was good enough for him.

Powell’s military career lasted thirty-five years. The measure of success in the military life is not so much rank as time in grade. There is no bending the rule of “up or out”; when an officer has been twice passed over he must resign. Achieving the rank of lieutenant colonel is pretty much assured to an officer who does not pass out at the general’s Christmas party. The rank of colonel is the plateau where all but a few careers halt, but the attrition continues just as fiercely for those who cross the great divide to brigadier general. Ability has something to do with it, but so do luck and politics. One hard-nosed commander in a pissy mood can mean the end of the road. So can too many jobs working for civilians in Washington.

Powell seems to have done everything just right—picked a wife who could handle the dislocations of military life, spent two tours and earned a Purple Heart (for a poisoned bamboo spike through the foot) in Vietnam, succeeded in advanced study (an MBA at Georgetown; Army Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth; the National War College), and was awarded a White House Fellowship, giving him the chance to make all-important friends. He became, at forty-two, the youngest general in the Army, and finally got on the ladder of ever more important national security jobs in the Reagan and Bush administrations.

It is obvious that Powell’s career was made in Washington, where he became protégé and friend to both Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci, whom he met when working in the Office of Management and Budget as a White House Fellow. But for military men high-profile jobs in Washington are like marrying the boss’s daughter, a blessing and a threat. A secretary of defense can bestow a star or two but the generals who preside over promotion do not forgive a failure to punch the necessary tickets along the way—command in the field, at the division and at the corps level for those with real ambition. At the very top are four stars and a post as one of the ten “CINCs”—commanders in chief of one of the principal military commands, whether in the US or abroad. In the final decade of Powell’s career he never escaped Washington for as long as a year, but the older soldiers did not hold it against him. In 1989 they gave him a fourth star and the all-important job as CINC of Forces Command. Four months later he was summoned back to Washington by Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs. All might have ended quietly with a testimonial dinner a few years later but for the ambitions of Saddam Hussein.

Powell fought two wars during his career. The first was in Vietnam, where he arrived on Christmas Day in 1962, sad about leaving his new wife behind but with few doubts about the mission. “Why had we come here to fight halfway around the world? To stop the spread of Marxism…. I was fired up all over again.” There is no sign Powell ever faltered in his duty, but he very quickly realized that the war in Vietnam made no sense. During his first tour he served as adviser with a Vietnamese army unit in the A Shau Valley near the Laotian border. This was the remote boondocks and a dangerous place to be. His Vietnamese counterpart assured him it was a “very important outpost.”

But why is it here?”

Outpost is here to protect airfield.”

What’s the airfield here for?”

Airfield here to resupply outpost.”

This moment of recognition is at the heart of what has come to be known as the “Powell doctrine”—a belief, Clausewitzian in its rigor, that military force should be used only to achieve clearly defined political goals, and then only with all the firepower and moral resolution required to win. The lack of a clear purpose in Vietnam, Powell believes, lost the war and all but destroyed the Army. The middle decades of Powell’s career were spent making his way through the corrupt Vietnam military culture of “phony readiness reports, rampant careerism, old-boy assignments, inflated awards, fictitious body counts—the whole façade of illusion and delusion.”

One of Powell’s real gifts as a military leader appears to be an ear for the nuance of irresolution—the desire on the part of leaders to look and sound tough without getting in deep enough to hurt. Even Jimmy Carter, the least bellicose of American presidents, sent a special operations force to rescue American hostages in Tehran, but it was too small, too confusingly organized, for anything but humiliating failure. President Reagan loved “standing tall,” but his enthusiasm for a military “presence” in Beirut ended the day two hundred and forty-three marines died in a suicide bombing. For all attempts to use military force as a “gesture,” to exert “pressure” or establish a “presence,” Powell feels nothing but scorn. How do you tell grieving parents that a child died in the Arabian desert, or the back streets of Mogadishu, or the hills of Bosnia-Herzegovina so that hot-shot White House staffers could prove they weren’t Ivy League wimps? Foreign opponents do not always creep away when a bomb or two falls from the sky. What then? In Powell’s view military force is a blunt instrument to be used when an issue admits no compromise short of war. The point is often repeated in My American Journey but Powell has perhaps expressed it best in an interview with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., published in The New Yorker: “I believe in the bully’s way of going to war. ‘I’m on the street corner, I got my gun, I got my blade, I’ma kick yo’ ass.”’2

Just what Powell had in mind was displayed during the war in the Persian Gulf. War was far from inevitable the day after Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait on August 1, 1990. Drawing a line in the sand to prevent a subsequent invasion of Saudi Arabia was first in Powell’s mind. The Saudi rulers were half in a mood to work a deal with the sociopath at their doorstep. It took Bush and his administration a few days, and quite possibly some bracing words from Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, to conclude that Hussein had to be kicked out of Kuwait, and the United Nations and the US Congress both had to be convinced to go along. Until the very eve of war the Soviet Union tried to finesse some kind of compromise and Saddam Hussein himself, if he had pulled out of Kuwait, could have prevented the first shot almost up to the moment US aircraft heavily laden with ordnance took off in the morning hours of January 17.

But war it was to be, and Powell fought it according to his doctrine. An expeditionary force of half a million men was sent to the Gulf in five and a half months—roughly the number of troops reached in Vietnam in many incremental steps over the seven years between the arrival of John F. Kennedy in the White House and the Tet offensive of January 1968. Wistful hopes by Bush and others that an air war might do the trick without putting American boys in harm’s way were steadfastly discounted by Powell, but at the same time he preceded the ground war with a fearful pounding of Iraq from the air that devastated a large part of the country. Even though some units of the elite Iraqi Republican Guard escaped destruction, the defeat of the Iraqi army was one of the most crushing in history. Among other things, it demonstrated that the margin of superiority enjoyed by the American military over what probably ought to be called native armies of the Third World was if anything growing. The performance of Iraq’s millionman army was a tragic joke, involving the sacrifice of more than 100,000 soldiers. The Dervishes of the Mahdi did better against the British in the Sudan in 1898, when “we had got the Maxim gun/and they had not.”

But despite the fact Powell presided over the most conspicuous success of American arms since the end of the World War II, he has been persistently criticized for preferring sanctions over war in the early stages, and then for ending the war too soon, before the Iraqi military was completely wiped out and before Saddam Hussein had been toppled from power. Whether this was a mistake depends to a large extent on whether Hussein manages ever again seriously to disturb the peace of the world. Until he does, Powell’s victory is hard to fault. Simple in military terms, the Gulf War was unusually complex politically. The coalition of Arab governments led by Bush had no desire to overthrow Hussein, occupy Baghdad, and establish the region’s first genuinely democratic regime. Hussein’s brutal tyranny therefore persists, but Powell points out fairly that his job was never to get rid of Hussein—only to free Kuwait.

The story of the Gulf War is well told in My American Journey. At moments Powell’s version of what was said matches word for word the account given by General H. Norman Schwartzkopf, the commander of US forces in the field. Other episodes closely follow the story told by Bob Woodward in his account of the American military during the Bush administration, The Commanders. The one unmistakable difference between his account and Woodward’s concerns Powell’s attitude toward sanctions as a possible means for ending the occupation of Kuwait short of war. Woodward suggests Powell leaned heavily in favor of sanctions, telling Bush early in October 1990, “There is a case here for the containment or strangulation policy…. This is an option that has merit. It will work some day. It may take a year, it may take two years, but it will work some day.” If anyone had asked, Woodward writes, Powell would have confessed his preference. But no one did ask, and he shrank from pressing a strategy in which the President clearly had no faith.

The question makes Powell uncomfortable. His own account seems nervous and awkwardly calibrated to suggest that he felt he had an obligation to offer Bush every choice, including sanctions as one realistic tool of coercion. “I was not advocating either route, war or sanctions, on this day,” he writes, pointing out that the meeting actually occurred on September 24. But he omits to challenge Woodward’s claim that Powell favored sanctions. Since the publication of Woodward’s book many writers have wondered whether Powell shrank from the war that made him famous, and some—for example William Safire in a column in The New York Times—have cuffed him soundly as a “reluctant warrior.”

In his new book, The Politics of Diplomacy, however, James Baker makes it clear that whatever Powell may have felt about sanctions in the first months after the invasion, by mid-October he was fully committed to a major buildup with a capacity for war.3 He describes a meeting with Powell on October 19, 1990, in which he and Powell, talking alone, agreed on the need to build “a deliberate offensive capability sufficient to eject Iraq from Kuwait if necessary.” Powell told Baker the US could put together a “real offensive force.” Baker presented this view privately to Bush two days later and says that by the end of October Bush and his advisers, including Powell, had agreed on a major buildup of forces, with reinforcements from Germany and the US, that they hoped “would persuade Saddam to leave peacefully.”

But in any event Powell does not apologize for having considered sanctions. “War is a deadly game,” he writes, “and I do not believe in spending the lives of Americans lightly.” He notes that subsequent events have established beyond doubt that sanctions could never have achieved what war did; they remain in place four years later and Hussein has still not fully bent the knee.

The Persian Gulf war is the heart but certainly not the whole of My American Journey. The book contains, among much else, some memorable vignettes of the great and the famous—Margaret Thatcher, for example, dressing down Caspar Weinberger for letting the French steal a major military contract from the UK, waving aside his faint demurrers: “But, Cap, I say there was dirty work at the crossroads!” After the big Iran-contra blowup Reagan’s White House aides, Powell reports, “learned to avoid the subject like poison ivy” because the least reference would send the President off on a woolly twenty-minute rehash of all the good reasons to think there really were Iranian moderates.

Best of all is Powell’s portrait of Weinberger, an unexpectedly sentimental and lonely man who secretly munched chocolates, carried a stub of pencil in his pocket dating back to his childhood, invariably saluted the sentries outside his office in the Pentagon no matter how often he passed them in the course of a day. Despite his reputation for cold ruthlessness, “Cap the Knife” was incapable of contradicting Reagan and felt keenly the President’s amiable neglect ever to say thank you. Powell describes just as well Weinberger’s extraordinary ability to work his will upon every other branch of the Federal government. What this sort of story tells us about a Powell presidency is that Powell would arrive in the White House with a good sense of what goes on there, and that he and Joseph Persico might be expected to write a good book afterward.

But My American Journey tells us very little of what Powell thinks about the leading political questions of the day. For that we must turn to his recent interviews with journalists. The suspense is over. Powell’s views on the hot-button issues are shared by the majority of other Americans, according to polls: he is (reluctantly) prochoice on abortion, he favors (some measure of reasonable) gun controls, he favors (not prayer but) a moment of silence in the schools.

But on the issue of race Powell has spoken with more clarity and feeling, especially in his remarks to David Frost broadcast on September 29. There Powell made it clear that he regards race as high on the American social agenda, and that he views it very differently from his Republican rivals.

White power, white money, white people, and the white education system have left African-Americans behind in these inner cities, and they are trapped,” Powell said. “So is there something wrong with…trying to level the playing field by making sure that we can bring qualified youngsters into the competition? … I wish some of my friends in the political world would be as concerned about preferences for corporate lobbyists and corporate welfare and corporate tax loopholes as they are about the preferences they say exist for minority youngsters.” What this suggests is that Powell as President might have as much trouble with the Republican Congress as President Clinton.

But would Powell run? Would he fight to the wire for the nomination? Will he campaign hard to win the general election?

Powell told Time magazine, “You don’t do it to fool around, you do it to win.”4 This sounds like the Powell doctrine in its purest form, but in fact the life as we have it suggests two ways in which a decision to run for President would represent a major change in Powell’s psychology. First, he is wary of bold action and surprised by it in others, especially when it seems to defy conventional good sense.

As described by Bob Woodward in The Commanders and confirmed in My American Journey, Powell (like the US intelligence agencies) was convinced until the eve of the August invasion that Saddam Hussein had massed his forces on the Kuwaiti border purely as a bargaining tactic. He was surprised when Bush, after waffling inconclusively the first day or two, abruptly insisted to reporters on Sunday, August 5: “This will not stand, this will not stand—this aggression against Kuwait.”5 He was just as surprised when King Fahd of Saudi Arabia broke with all precedent and invited American forces into his country. After a huge American buildup and a late-November United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force, Powell was “amazed…that [Hussein] still had not blinked.” In mid-December Powell “found it hard to believe that Saddam, at the last minute, would not fold.”

Right up until the shooting started Powell feared Hussein would work some kind of political miracle, get the UN to accept a promise of withdrawal, and leave the huge American expeditionary force with no enemy to fight and no safe way to go home. Powell, of course, was thinking rationally and Hussein was not. But Powell was just as surprised when Bush put himself on the line before his staff had a chance to think through all the implications. Powell gives the impression of being a man who cannot reach a decision until it makes solid sense, which is the way we would want it…most of the time.

Powell’s native caution has doubtless been reinforced by his experience as a soldier, where disaster of tragic dimensions may follow a decision to fight, and where the correlation of forces can be accurately if not infallibly weighed in advance. In modern war being firstest with the mostest is the best guarantor of success; but in the world of politics things are just the other way around. It is impossible to know how much money it will take to win a presidential race, impossible to know if you can get it until you decide to run, impossible to predict how chance will influence the campaign, impossible to assess the real feelings of voters until the day of the election. Above all, in politics fighting the good fight is sometimes more important than who wins, and defeat may be followed by attractive job offers. It is not the spirit of the gladiator that rules in the game of politics, but the spirit of the gambler.

Weighing carefully what we know of Powell as he has revealed himself thus far, we are probably safest if we predict that he will dislike the odds against him, be troubled by the lack of a strategy bound to win, give weight to his wife’s fears that some nut will shoot him, worry that in the privacy of the voting booth Americans will decide he is black after all, shrink from risking all he has won so far, and therefore conclude that presidency of a major foundation might do just as well. It all adds up: the man hasn’t got it in him.

Which is precisely the judgment Colin Powell reached about Saddam Hussein.

October 5, 1995

  1. 1

    See especially The Commanders by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster, 1991) and Colin Powell: Soldier-Statesman–Statesman-Soldier by Howard Means (Fine, 1992). Powell cooperated with both projects.

  2. 2

    The New Yorker, September 25, 1995, p. 73.

  3. 3

    The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War and Peace, 1989–1992 (G. B. Putnam’s Sons, 1995).

  4. 4

    September 18, 1995, p. 73.

  5. 5

    My American Journey, p. 466; The Commanders, p. 242.

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