Lessons Learned from “My American Journey”

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I first read Colin Powell’s My American Journey in 1997, two years after it came out and three years before he would become George W. Bush’s very first Cabinet appointee. Before 1990, I knew little about Powell except that he was Reagan’s National Security Advisor, a four-star general, and the first African-American to serve as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Then Iraq invaded Kuwait and soon after the Persian Gulf War broke out. Powell quickly ascended to international fame as one of  the chief architects of the Allied victory, and the Powell Doctrine – which basically says if you’re going to go in, go in with absolutely overwhelming force, but with concurrent public support (oxymoron?) – became a commonly used term among and within the American military brass and politicians.

By the time he retired in 1993, Colin Powell was arguably the greatest military rock star in American history since General Douglas MacArthur – but without the controversy. Powell’s reputation was sterling, his resume impeccable, his years of service and sacrifice to his country unparalleled by any general in the modern era.

When I finished the last page (after voraciously tearing through the book), it felt like I had even more respect for him than before. In some ways, it was like an American general’s Long Walk to Freedom.

And then February 5, 2003 happened. Powell took George W. Bush’s (i.e. Messrs. Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz) case to sell the UN Security Council on the “evidence” that Iraq had biological weapons and had the “capability to rapidly produce more, many more.”

Everyone knew it was bullshit. What confounded pundits – almost like a star falling from the sky – was that it seemed as if you were watching a superhero succumb to the Dark Side. Except this wasn’t a movie. The U.S. was still thirsty for blood after 9/11 and you just knew this was going to turn into a blood bath.

Later, Powell would disclose in an interview that it was a “blot” on his service record and that “It will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now.”

But this blog is  (mostly) about books and literature, so let me finally get to my point. In reviewing some of my notes from My American Journey earlier today, something struck me, forcing me to read and reread this passage and wonder if this was not presaging the rise of today’s Trump Doctrine.

Per Mr. Powell:

Release facts slowly, behind  the pace at which they are already leaking out to the public. Don’t tell the whole story until forced to do so. Emphasize what went well, and euphemize what went wrong. Become indignant at any suggestion of poor judgement or mistakes. Disparage any facts other than your own. Accuse critics of Monday-morning generalship. Finally, accept general responsibility at the top, thus clearing everybody at fault below.”

What haunts me most about this passage is that he inadvertently set the table for Kellyanne Conway’s now infamous “alternative facts” comment, yet ends it with a true Powellism: If you drop the ball, don’t blame the quarterback.

Although Mr. Powell’s speech to the UN in 2003 will never be forgotten by students of history, it should not serve as a blemish on his remarkable career and his selfless service to his country. He’s just proof that in a politically charged climate, even the best of us can make mistakes.

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