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colin powell: don't ask about my lai, don't tell about iran-contra
by Russ Kick (email@example.com) - May 21, 2001
As expected, Colin Powell breezed through his confirmation hearing and is now the Secretary of State. (I always have to catch myself, because I want to refer to him as Secretary of Defense, which would make more sense. Just why a four-star general "war hero" would be made the head of foreign affairs rather than defense matters isn't clear. You'd think Powell would be more comfortable with Scud missiles than Bolivian table etiquette.)
Powell's approval rating with the public is sky-high, and his appointment was never in doubt for even a nanosecond. He has charisma and a calm, nonthreatening air of confidence. He's considered a war hero for his command of US troops during the Gulf War. And, yes, he's an African American born of Jamaican immigrants, which allows the Bush Administration to seem racially enlightened while the public pats itself on the back for having a black man in a position of power. Challenging him would've been political suicide.
Yet behind this warm, cuddly, self-assured image is a mountain of dirt that the mainstream media refused to mention as they tripped over themselves to kiss Powell's brass. The problems with Powell are numerous and could probably fill a book-length expose. In the interest of time, here's a boiled-down look at the skeletons in Powell's foot locker.
The My Lai massacre. On March 16, 1968, US soldiers from the Americal Division slaughtered 347 civilians--primarily old men, women, children, and babies--in the Vietnamese village of My Lai 4 (pronounced, very appropriately, as "me lie"). The grunts also engaged in torture and rape of the villagers.
Around six months later, a soldier in the 11th Light Infantry Brigade--known among the men as "the Butcher's Brigade"--wrote a letter telling of widespread killing and torturing of Vietnamese civilians by entire units of the US military (he did not specifically refer to My Lai). The letter was sent to the general in charge of 'Nam and trickled down the chain of command to Major Colin Powell, a deputy assistant chief of staff at the Americal Division, who was charged with investigating the matter and formulating a response.
After a desultory check--which consisted mainly of investigating the soldier who wrote the letter, rather than his allegations--Powell reported that everything was hunkey-dory. There may be some "isolated incidents" by individual bad seeds, but there were no widespread atrocities. He wrote: "In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent." The matter was closed.
To this day, we might not know about the carnage at My Lai if it hadn't been for another solider who later wisely sent a letter to his Congressman.
(Twenty-five years later Powell gave an interview in which he not only failed to condemn the massacre but seemed to excuse it.)
Killing Civilians. Powell still has no compunction about killing civilians during war. The lefty media watchdog Fairness & Accuracy In Media points out that in his 1995 autobiography, My American Journey: An Autobiography (New York: Random House, 1995), Powell wrote: "If a helo [helicopter] spotted a peasant in black pajamas who looked remotely suspicious, a possible MAM [military-aged male], the pilot would circle and fire in front of him. If he moved, his movement was judged evidence of hostile intent, and the next burst was not in front, but at him. Brutal? Maybe so. But an able battalion commander with whom I had served at Gelnhausen, Lt. Col. Walter Pritchard, was killed by enemy sniper fire while observing MAMs from a helicopter. And Pritchard was only one of many. The kill-or-be-killed nature of combat tends to dull fine perceptions of right and wrong." In his memoirs, Powell also defends the torching of civilians' huts, a tactic his unit constantly employed in Vietnam.
Iran-Contra. While Powell was deputy security adviser to Ronald Reagan's Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, he learned of the illegal deal to supply arms to Iran in return for cash and the release of American hostages in Lebanon. He told Weinberger and, though they supposedly didn't like it, they went along with the deal. In violation of Pentagon procedure, Powell secretly transferred missiles from the Army to the CIA.
When questioned during the Iran-Contra hearings, Powell grudgingly gave testimony that has been described as contradictory, "limited," and "misleading." At one point in a sworn deposition he said that Weinberger did not keep a diary, but in a sworn affidavit five years later Powell said that his boss had indeed kept a diary at the time.
Powell later convinced Bush to pardon Weinberger, thus avoiding a trial that probably would've implicated the general.
On a related note, Powell was and is an unabashed supporter of the Nicaraguan contras. As FAIR notes: "Despite the contras' record of human rights atrocities and the condemnation of the World Court, Powell defends his hardline pro-contra actions to this day . . ."
Panama. It was Powell who pushed Bush into invading Panama to capture Manuel Noriega, a move that violated international law. Indiscriminately using force in civilian areas, the effort to arrest Noriega resulted in the deaths of many civilians. The US government admits to hundreds of dead innocents, and various observers and human rights groups say the true total is in the thousands.
The Gulf War. Powell seems to have achieved the worst of both worlds during Operation Desert Storm. He adamantly opposed US involvement in the Iraq/Kuwait shitstorm, but President Bush wanted it. Kowtowing to his superiors, as always, Powell led the way in torpedoing a Soviet deal that would have avoided the war. Once the ground assault started, though, he almost immediately tried to limit the combat. The New Republic notes: "After only four days of fighting, and although American units had yet to encircle Iraqi forces, Powell convinced President Bush to halt ground operations. 'The vaunted Republican Guard formations are no longer,' the general announced. But he was wrong. Their escape routes clear, three largely intact Republican Guard infantry divisions simply packed up and went back to Iraq--where Guard units promptly began massacring the civilians the United States had encouraged to revolt." Powell played a key role in convincing Bush not to press into Iraq and dethrone Saddam.
Despite his rather inept handling of the situation, Powell became a war hero for presiding over a lopsided slaughter--which included burying Iraqis alive and massacring them as they retreated--that left around 200,000 Iraqis dead (including tens of thousands of civilians), compared to 147 Americans killed by the enemy (with an additional 207 killed by accidents or "friendly fire"). Furthermore, Powell targeted for destruction Iraq's water systems, power supplies, civilian factories, and other non-military targets, actions which are war crimes.
Gulf War Syndrome. Powell has completely turned his back on sick Gulf War vets. Whether or not Gulf War Syndrome exists isn't the question here. The fact is that tens of thousands of former and current members of the military are complaining of a similar cluster of strange symptoms, and Powell has done nothing to help them. In an interview with legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, Powell pathetically tried to wash his hands of the situation. "Powell told me that he agrees that the United States has an obligation to take care of its ailing veterans, no matter what the cause of their illness, but added that his responsibilities ended upon his retirement from the Army in the fall of 1993. 'If there are still some veterans who say I should have done more or said more,' Powell said, 'my answer is, I wasn't in the government.'" (Against All Enemies: Gulf War Syndrome: The War Between America's Ailing Veterans and Their Government, New York: Ballantine Books, 1998: 9).
1) Powell was decorated for his role in planning Operation Vernon Lake in Vietnam. According to the military's own records, 104 innocent civilians were killed because of this action. (And remember that the Pentagon is notorious for low-balling the number of innocents who get snuffed during war.)
2) Declassified documents implicate Powell in the secret, probably illegal arming of Iraq in the years before the Gulf War.
3) Although he decried the sanctions against Iraq (which so far have killed 500,000 children under the age of five) in his autobiography, Powell surprisingly announced his enthusiastic support for the sanctions just as soon as Dubya tapped him for Secretary of State.
4) Powell's best friend is former Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Armitage, who has been linked to CIA-backed gun-running and drug-trafficking in Southeast Asia in the 1970s.
5) A declassified memorandum shows that in 1987 Powell was upset by the prospect that Ross Perot might secure release of live American POWs from Vietnam. Instead of being elated by the prospect, he was nervous about the political and economic ramifications, and said that Perot should not go to Vietnam to negotiate.
6) According to the Washington Post, Powell's personal worth is at least $27.3 million, with most of that coming from speaking fees that range from $59,000 to over $100,000 per engagement. This isn't illegal, and the ethical implications are a subjective matter, but it is further proof of one fact: The US is a nation governed by the superwealthy for the superwealthy. Powell is no exception.
7) Powell owns $13.3 million in AOL stock. His son, Michael Powell, was one of the five FCC commissioners who approved the colossal AOL/Time-Warner merger (and he's now Chairman of the FCC). Looks like Michael will be getting a few extra Christmas presents under the tree this year!
Powell Media Mania
Written by Robert Parry of Consortium News and Norman Solomon of the syndicated MediaBeat column, this is an excellent summation of what's wrong with Powell as of January/February 1996.
Colin Powell's Legend
If you crave more details on most of the above charges, check out these dozen articles by Robert Parry of Consortium News.
The Legend of Colin Powell
This New Republic article (April 17, 1995), by Charles Lane, is an important, hard look at Powell. One of the first and most influential articles to rain on Powell's parade.
Questions for Colin Powell
A list of questions that Powell should have to answer but never will. Includes a good amount of detailed information.
Powell's Secret Coup
In this Nation article (January 21, 2001), Christopher Hitchens offers his acid take on Powell. "And the State Department, which has the job of overseeing the numerous arms-control treaties to which the United States is a signatory, has been annexed by a former professional military man with a long record of shady politicization of the armed forces and their role. The selling of Star Wars will be a great deal easier with such a man at Foggy Bottom and with the press and Congress already predisposed to eat out of his 'inclusive' palm and lick his highly polished 'inclusive' boots."
Colin Powell the Untouchable
In this Salon article (March 20, 2000), David Corn, the reporter who broke the story of Powell's role in the Iran-Contra cover-up looks at his conflicting testimony regarding Weinberger's diaries.
A New Republic essay (January 1, 2001) by Lawrence F. Kaplan that shows that the "Powell doctrine" (using overwhelming force to quickly win clearly-defined objectives that involve American interests) is unrealistic and ineffective.
Colin Powell: Not the Man You Think
This October/November 1995 article from the US Veterans Dispatch by Tom Ashworth and Ted Sampley contains some now-familiar charges, as well as some unique information, including Powell's reaction to the potential recovery of POWs.
Echoes of My Lai
This Times South Pacific article (March 16, 1998), by Tim Larrimer, interviews survivors of the My Lai massacre.
The American Experience: Vietnam
This massive PBS site, for the The American Experience: Vietnam documentary series, features program transcripts, research archives, streaming footage, and more.
The Colin Powell Difference
This Salon article (May 19, 2001), by Ben Barber, examines Powell's favorable reception as Secretary of State by Foreign Service veterans.
Questions the Mass Media Won't Ask Colin Powell
Another run-down of the main objections to Powell.
A Political and Military Biography of Colin Powell
Not much unique info here, although this article from the No War Collective does mention that "when asked about the total number of Iraqi dead killed by the air and ground assault by the U.S., he [Powell] replied, 'It's really not a number I'm terribly interested in.'"
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