Colin Powell died on Oct. 18. Within hours of his death, ruling-class politicians, including all former presidents except Trump, had publicly praised him. Powell had been this country’s first Black national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and secretary of state. 

The corporate media, from the New York Times to Fox News, are now presenting the four-star general as a shining icon for others to emulate. And that’s a problem for those who love liberation and fight imperialism.

Any Black man appointed to those posts must have enormous drive and talent. And if Powell had grown up in a country where he was able to apply those qualities to become a warrior on the side of the oppressed, he might have become a great hero.

But Powell grew up in the United States. He competed within the capitalist system, not as a resistance fighter against that system. To succeed, he had to overcome enormous obstacles, and be twice as good as his rivals. He ended up in the service of U.S. imperialism, imposing the Pentagon’s military power on the world’s people.

Instead of becoming a hero for the oppressed, he became a servant of the billionaire ruling class, against the oppressed. 

Powell came of age as an officer during the U.S. war against Vietnam. He watched a long, drawn out war against a people’s army wear down the U.S. military and turn ordinary soldiers into war resisters. 

Perhaps as a result of this experience in Vietnam, Powell developed this strategy: “Identify clear political objectives, gain public support and use decisive and overwhelming force to defeat enemy forces.” 

“Powell was the architect of the invasion of Panama in 1989 and of the Persian Gulf war in 1991,” wrote the New York Times on Oct. 18. 

So Powell applied his strategy in Panama and in Iraq. It led to quick victories, with few U.S. casualties, accompanied by terrible war crimes against those two countries.

In Panama, the U.S. bombed civilian housing projects. In Iraq, besides murderous attacks on civilian targets, the U.S. trapped retreating Iraqi soldiers in 1991 after the war had officially ended and slaughtered thousands of them on a road thereafter called “the highway of death.” (“War Crimes,” by Ramsey Clark and others, Maisonneuve Press, Washington, D.C., 1992)

Then Powell committed a different kind of crime, leading to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. As secretary of state he lied to the world, telling them that the U.S. had proof that Iraq possessed “weapons of mass destruction.” He knew Washington really had no evidence, as he admitted later.

Powell was loyal to an imperialist government. That meant he had to lie to justify a war, even if he thought the war was a bad idea. According to Powell, this caused him pain − but he did it. He followed orders.

That is the lesson of Colin Powell’s life: Avoid becoming a servant of imperialism, or run the risk that most of the world will condemn you as a willing accomplice of a mass-murdering empire and a war criminal.

John Catalinotto

John.Catalinotto@workers.org

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