The Great American War Hero Who Wasn’t

(Graphic: Brian Covert / Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

News media worldwide are awash now with stories about the recent death of Colin Powell, a towering figure in the world of American military matters and diplomacy, at the age of 84 due to coronavirus-related causes. Past presidents of the United States, not to mention right-wing media and the corporate press in general, are showering the late Powell with praise as a “great American,” a patriot and a war hero in the grand tradition of warmongering in the USA.

But while being respectful toward those who have personally lost a loved one in Powell, let us also spare the niceties here for the controversial public icon: Colin Powell was no war hero. He was, more accurately, a war criminal. And he was in good company, standing alongside other war criminals at the highest levels of the American state. Powell, like the others, was never prosecuted for war crimes in his lifetime and never took responsibility for his role in carrying out those crimes.

Far from being a celebrated military leader whose legacy is beautifully etched in the finest stone, Powell rather commands a legacy that is shamefully framed by the blood of innocent people in regions around the world. Powell’s own résumé tells the story of his bloodstained legacy better than anything else:

• Vietnam, 1960s — Powell played a peripheral role in covering up the U.S. army massacre of Vietnamese civilians at places like Son My village, My Lai hamlet, in Vietnam in 1968. There, about 500 defenseless Vietnamese civilians, mostly women, children and elderly men, had been murdered by soldiers of the 23rd (Americal) Infantry Division three months before Powell joined the same brigade during his second tour of duty in Vietnam.

As Vietnam war veteran and former U.S. Air Force officer S. Brian Willson documents in his book Don’t Thank Me For My Service (2018), in late 1968 while in Vietnam, Powell came into a possession of a letter by a lower-ranking military specialist, Tom Glen, informing the U.S. commander of forces in Vietnam of routine U.S. military atrocities against helpless Vietnamese civilians. Powell was tasked with investigating the charges in Glen’s letter. In reply to his military superiors, Powell rejected Glen’s charges and insisted that “relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent”. That, of course, was a lie on Powell’s part; nothing could have been further from the truth in Vietnam.

Powell played it safe and told his military superiors in Vietnam exactly what they wanted to hear — not the facts and truth of what was really happening on the ground. This was the pattern Powell would follow in later wars as he climbed up the U.S. military establishment ladder. Powell did not participate directly in the mass killing of Vietnamese civilians during that war, true, but he does stand accused of covering up those mass killings that were committed by his own military division and other U.S. forces in Vietnam. Powell’s actions in Vietnam and elsewhere are critically explored in more detail in this online article.

• Panama, 1989 — Colin Powell, by the end of the 1980s, was a four-star general in the U.S. army and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the U.S. Department of Defense, when he oversaw the U.S. invasion of the Central American nation of Panama. There, another type of mass killing of innocent civilians occurred.

To re-assert U.S. control of the economically vital Panama Canal and to supposedly capture Panama’s military dictator, Manuel Noriega — a paid, drug-trafficking asset of the Central Intelligence Agency — U.S. president George H.W. Bush (a former CIA director himself who had earlier supported Noriega), tasked Powell with carrying out “Operation Just Cause” in Panama with a total force of 27,000 military personnel to depose Noriega. 

In a surprise midnight U.S. attack on 20 December 1989, the superior U.S. forces battled the Panamanian military in the streets, leaving about 20,000 people homeless in the bloody urban warfare that followed in some of Panama’s poorest neighborhoods. The United Nations and the Organization of American States, not to mention many countries around the globe, immediately denounced the U.S. invasion of Panama as illegal and a violation of international law.

By the time Powell’s invasion plans had been concluded 43 days later, an estimated several hundred to several thousand civilians in Panama had been killed, many of them in the crowded, poor neighborhoods of major cities like Panama City and Colón. Some Panamanian civilians were found to have been tied up and executed in the streets by U.S. soldiers.

U.S. troops were also witnessed trying to hide the evidence of American military killings of civilians by digging huge holes in the ground and dumping corpses into mass graves, along with stuffing the dead bodies of many Panamanian civilians into garbage bags for anonymous burial. In the days before Powell’s own recent death on 18 October 2021, those bags of dead bodies in mass graves were still being dug up in Panama — three decades after the illegal invasion that Powell commanded.

A 1992 documentary film, The Panama Deception, won an Academy Award in Hollywood for its reporting on the U.S. invasion of Panama three years earlier and the cover-up surrounding it. An excerpted version of the film shows scenes that had never been reported to the American public at the time by the U.S. press. These atrocities all happened under Powell’s watch as overseer of the invasion of Panama, a blueprint of sorts for America’s future wars.

• Iraq, 1991 — As chairman of the U.S. Joint Chief of Staff, Colin Powell oversaw another U.S. war in which he was again responsible for the deaths of innocent people: the six-week-long Persian Gulf War of 1991. The war was waged ostensibly to punish Iraqi military dictator Saddam Hussein (yet another former asset of the CIA) for his invasion of neighboring Kuwait, a vital U.S. geopolitical ally in the oil-rich Middle East region.

While the primary target of the U.S. air and ground war against Iraq was the Iraqi military forces, an analyst with the U.S. Census Bureau issued a report after the war confirming that the overwhelming numbers of deaths caused by the U.S.-led war were, in fact, innocent Iraqi civilians. The analyst, Beth Osborne Daponte, “calculated that 40,000 Iraqi soldiers and 13,000 civilians died in direct military conflict,” as reported in the New York Times. “In addition, she estimated that 30,000 [Iraqi] people had died during the Shiite and Kurdish rebellions after the war and that 70,000 [Iraqi] people died from health problems caused by the [U.S.] destruction of water and power plants.” The Bush administration soon fired the analyst and continued to cover up such U.S. atrocities in Iraq.

After a month and a half of intense, high-tech bombardment under the USA’s Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, the once-prosperous nation of Iraq — one of the ancient cradles of civilization — was a skeleton of its former self. The masses of Iraqi people were suffering more than they ever had before and the military dictator Saddam Hussein, at the urging of Colin Powell himself, was left in power to fight another day.

• Iraq again, 2003 — That day came just 12 years later in 2003 with the U.S. invasion of Iraq under the USA’s “Operation Iraqi Freedom” as declared by George W. Bush, son of the former president Bush. Colin Powell by this time was serving as secretary of state of the USA, the nation’s top diplomat. With the so-called “war on terrorism” in full swing, the Pentagon was unleashing a massive propaganda/PR campaign against the American public in the months leading up to the war to try to drum up public support for the planned invasion, and Powell undoubtedly served the most valuable role of all in that propaganda campaign.

On 5 February 2003, Powell, in an event reported live around the world, came before the United Nations Security Council to make the Bush administration’s case for an invasion of Iraq and to garner international support for such an invasion. Powell said in his U.N. address:

“My second purpose today is…to share with you what the United States knows about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. …Iraq’s behavior demonstrate that Saddam Hussein and his regime have made no effort…to disarm as required by the international community. Indeed, the facts and Iraq’s behavior show that Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction. [E]very statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”

Holding up a model vial of anthrax for the cameras, Powell insisted that Iraq under Saddam Hussein still had the capability of producing mass quantities of chemical and biological “weapons of mass destruction” that could be unleashed onto the world if Saddam Hussein were allowed to stay in power. Ironically, just two years earlier in 2001, Powell had gone on the record as stating that U.S.-led sanctions against Iraq had effectively kept any weapons of mass destruction from being developed by Saddam Hussein. Now, Powell was contradicting himself and insisting just the opposite.

As the world now knows, Powell’s statements before the United Nations that day in 2003 were half-truths and lies. But it didn’t really matter at that point because the Bush administration went ahead with its planned invasion of Iraq anyway, even without the broad support of the international community and despite massive public protests worldwide. No weapons of mass destruction ever turned up in Iraq. Powell’s credibility was all but destroyed, and his career as a military leader and diplomat came to an end as he ambled slowly off the international stage into the sunset.

But that didn’t stop the world from holding Powell responsible for his crimes. Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a series of “people’s tribunals” were held in cities around the world with the aim of seeking the truth behind the U.S.-led war on Iraq and holding officials accountable. This culminated in the final World Tribunal on Iraq hearing, held in Istanbul, Turkey in 2005. The tribunal’s jury called for Powell by name and others in the Bush administration at the time to be investigated for war crimes and blatant violations of international law.

Like other top officials working under Bush, Powell found it difficult in the ensuing years to travel abroad without the worry of possible arrest. During a visit by Powell to neighboring Canada, for example, to give a speech in 2008 — five years after the Iraq war had been started by the U.S. — there were calls demanding that Powell be turned away at the border or else be arrested by the Canadian government for war crimes if he stepped foot into Canada. (Past U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger still gets that same kind of treatment today in some countries, by the way.)

The Iraq Body Count project, a nonprofit web-based endeavor documenting deaths in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion, cites the number of Iraqi civilians who have died at more than 209,000. That is a conservative figure; the actual death toll would certainly be much higher. Meanwhile, Powell had maintained up to the end of his life that the 2003 invasion of Iraq had been the right thing to do and that the Iraqi people were better off being liberated by the USA from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. But do the Iraqi people themselves believe that? Hardly. Powell is best remembered by the people of Iraq today for the lies he told to the United Nations in 2003 in order to justify a murderous U.S. invasion and illegal occupation of their sovereign country.

And domestically within the African-American community itself, Powell had long been a controversial figure, respected by many for breaking racial barriers in the U.S. military and government hierarchies as a Jamaican-American citizen, but also derided by many for being so ready and willing to do the dirty work of white American political leaders and not speaking up enough for issues that concerned the Black community. His legacy among Black America remains mixed at best.

All of which raises a burning last question: Looking back on Powell’s long and storied career in total and balancing out all that he has achieved, does he honestly deserve the praise that is currently being heaped upon him by U.S. government officials and the American news media, now that he has passed away?

A very strong case could well be made that, all things considered, no, Colin Powell was not a great American war hero. If anything, he was an American war criminal — one war criminal in a long line of them within the U.S. government and military establishments since the founding of the United States as a nation some 300 years ago, but a war criminal just the same. That is really how other people around the world view him today, and it is high time that Americans pause their faux patriotic slobbering long enough to do the same.

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