Questioning Colin Powell

Colin Powell is a company man. As a young Army major he was in charge of the Army cover-up of the 1968 My Lai massacre, during which as many as 500 unarmed civilians were murdered. He refused to back the Clinton administration to permit homosexuals to serve in the military in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and, as Secretary of State, assured the world in a speech to the U.N. that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction and had links to al Qaeda. Powell has done what most people in power do. He has placed his career before ethics.

I spent time last June with investigative reporter Seymour Hersh at Wesleyan University as a part of a week-long journalism seminar. Hersh broke the story about My Lai. Powell was part of the Army hierarchy that sought to hide the truth. Powell concluded in his report that there was not enough evidence to investigate the mass killing seriously.

He wrote that atrocities carried out by American forces were isolated incidents. As a final detail, Powell wrote that “in direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”

Contrast Powell’s behavior with that of Daniel Ellsberg, a former Marine officer in Vietnam, who as a Pentagon analyst leaked the Pentagon Papers that exposed the military’s deceit about the war. Ellsberg was fired and put on trial. His career was ruined, but he acted with integrity and was the greater patriot. He exhibited the leadership that Powell lacked.

I do not want to single out Powell. Most people in power have little commitment to the truth, but as a liberal arts institution, one that seeks to transmit values as well as knowledge, we should not celebrate raw careerism.

This is especially a time when we desperately need to be reminded that there are examples of moral probity. Powell has, like most careerists, repeatedly walked away from confrontations that could harm his advancement.

Powell, as Secretary of State, visited the site of the Jenin Massacre in 2002, where rampaging Israeli soldiers in the West Bank killed unarmed Palestinians. Powell again fled from controversy. He testified to Congress: “I’ve seen no evidence that would suggest a massacre took place.”

Powell knew that to take on the Israeli lobby was a form of political suicide, just as exposing the truth about My Lai would have wrecked his Army career. He protected the power structure that protected him. The truth came out later about Jenin, thanks to courageous Israeli and international human rights organizations. The U.N. investigation estimated 52 Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers.

But perhaps Powell’s most destructive concession to power occurred in the months preceding the Iraq War. Powell attempted to dissuade President Bush from using force in the Middle East. When his argument was ignored, he signed on for Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.

As the only member of Bush’s cabinet to have been in war he could have credibly challenged the folly of the invasion and occupation. He had been in the first Bush administration when it decided, because it did not want to get embroiled in a civil war, not to go from Kuwait to Baghdad. Once again, Powell followed the route of least resistance. He stood before the United Nations General Assembly and repeated the lies used to justify the war. State Department analysts, no less, found dozens of factual errors with Powell’s report and noted that some statistics were blatantly fabricated.

Why, then, is Powell invited to Colgate as a part of the Global Leaders Lecture Series? Does being a “Global Leader” mean being an opportunist? Hedge fund managers and the sharks on Wall Street, who have also ignored the common good, have wrecked our financial system and plunged us into the worst depression since the 1930s. The self-interest that drove them is as destructive, and as immoral, as the self-interest that drove Powell.

During the My Lai massacre Hugh Thompson, an Army helicopter pilot, saw the killing from the air. He landed and ordered his gunner to open fire on American troops if they attacked a family of Vietnamese cowering near a rice paddy. Thompson leapt out of the helicopter and rushed to guide them onto his craft and fly them to safety. He was the only American at My Lai who exhibited moral courage.

Thompson was called to testify after Hersh broke the story. The Army, angered at his honesty, attempted to court-martial Thompson for endangering American soldiers. He received hate mail and death threats, and mutilated animals were tossed on his doorstep. He died of cancer in 2006. The Hugh Thompsons of the world, not the Colin Powells, are those we should be honoring. They are the real leaders.