There was a time, back in the 1980s, when young officers in the United States military cheered as one of their own made the big time. Colin Powell had been named chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest rank a uniformed soldier can obtain in the Department of Defense. Many of the lieutenants and captains around the army didn't cheer Colin Powell necessarily because of his skin color, or his background (his parents were immigrants from Jamaica), or any of the more popular check boxes. But instead because he was the first ROTC grad to obtain that rank.
All the chairmen of the JCS before Gen. Colin Powell were from the academies. But in 1989, a regular-Joe grunt from City College of New York via its ROTC program would be the nation's top officer. Hu-RAH!
Colin Powell seemed to be in the background in most of the American narrative since graduating from that ROTC course. Kennedy sent him to Vietnam. LBJ sent him again in '68, where Maj. Colin Powell was in charge of investigating rumors about something that happened at a place called My Lai. He spent a tour in West Germany, when there was something called West Germany. There's a picture of him shaking hands with Nixon.
Colonel Colin Powell was a battalion commander in Korea when the Pentagon called. After war college, the promotions came as due. By the time Granada made the news, he was a senior aide to Caspar Weinberger, the secretary of defense. Just before he made chairman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he was a national security adviser to the Reagan White House.
But it wouldn't be until something called Desert Storm that Colin Powell would become familiar to the country.
For the first time, Americans could watch a major war in real time. No movie reels had to be developed and air-lifted back to the states. And with live TV, good luck running the footage by any censors. Gen. Colin Powell gave the nation briefings on each major development as the USA, along with a few UN allies, kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait.
Not every presentation would reflect honorably on him. For any honest accounting of the Colin Powell story must include the chapter on the 2003 presentation to the UN Security Council that convinced the world that Saddam Hussein had an ongoing mass casualty weapons program. For all those who'd make the case that the Bush the Younger administration "lied us into war" in Iraq, we'd suggest it was Saddam Hussein who lied us into that war. For he lived in a rough neighborhood, and thought playing games with international weapons inspectors could (1) keep his neighbors guessing and (2) keep the Americans at bay. In early 2003, the Americans were in no mood for games. The American administration (along with every spy organization on the planet) was proven wrong about the weapons, and Saddam Hussein paid the price for his dissimulation.
Colin Powell was wrong in that case. Along with--for starters--the CIA, Mossad, most European spooks and the whole of the Middle East. For some reason, many critics focused on Colin Powell's reputation, maybe because it was so respected in the first place. How well did his reputation recover? See the massive bipartisan tributes to him Monday, when news came of his death at 84.
The papers say that Colin Powell--the first Black secretary of state, inventor of the Powell Doctrine, receiver of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (twice)--died of covid-related problems early this week. He had been battling cancer. The papers say he'd been vaccinated fully, but no vaccine is 100 percent effective. Especially for cancer patients, which is a major Previous Condition when it comes to these things.
Colin Powell has been in so much of the news over the last 40 years that it's hard to imagine him gone. Or that he could be gone. It just never dawned on some of us that he'd one day be off the stage. But what a part he had while on it.
(Add snappy salute here.)