Former Secretary of State and Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Colin Powell received virtually wall-to-wall adulation in corporate media coverage of his death last week.
In the New York Times (10/19/21), Bret Stephens called Powell “an exemplary military leader and presidential adviser.” Stephens’ Times colleague Maureen Dowd (10/23/21) said Powell was “the best America had to offer” and a “great man.” Theodore R. Johnson wrote in the same paper (10/21/21) that “we should take inspiration from Mr. Powell’s accomplishments.”
Powell led, as David Ignatius tells it in the Washington Post (10/18/21), an “extraordinary life of service,” characterized by “a sterling career of public service.” Like Ignatius, Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal (10/21/21) lacked a thesaurus, describing Powell as “a great man” and one of “the great ones.” In another Journal piece, Paula Dobriansky (10/20/21) called him “a true inspiration and a model not only for military leaders and diplomats but all Americans,” a “hero of our time.”
This gratuitous fawning deflects readers from reckoning with Powell’s record. Consider the heinous acts the “great man” admitted to carrying out in Vietnam. (See Consortium News, 7/8/96.) In his memoir, My American Journey, Powell said of his unit in Vietnam: “We burned down the thatched huts, starting the blaze with Ronson and Zippo lighters.” The “hero of our time” wrote:
Why were we torching houses and destroying crops? Ho Chi Minh had said the people were like the sea in which his guerrillas swam…. We tried to solve the problem by making the whole sea uninhabitable. In the hard logic of war, what difference did it make if you shot your enemy or starved him to death?
Similarly, Powell’s “sterling career of public service” involved obstructing the truth of US war crimes in Vietnam. After the My Lai Massacre, when Powell was an Army major posted in Saigon, he was tasked with investigating a soldier’s letter describing US barbarism against the Vietnamese (Columbia Journalism Review, 4/3/09). Powell denied the charges, writing, “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”