Retired Gen. Colin Powell made what sounded like a heartfelt endorsement of Barack Obama – hailing the Democrat’s presidential qualities and criticizing the nasty tone of John McCain’s campaign. But why should anyone care what George W. Bush’s first Secretary of State thinks?
Not only did Powell lend his personal credibility to Bush at key moments – from the Florida recount battle to the Iraq War to Election 2004 – but a serious examination of his career would reveal a person who consistently has put his career ahead of his country’s best interests. [More on this below]
For that matter, why should Americans tune in to watch NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw interviewing Powell on “Meet the Press”? Brokaw is the news media’s version of a Colin Powell, never putting his career in harm’s way to alert the public about grave dangers ahead.
On March 19, 2003, as Bush was launching his unprovoked invasion of Iraq, Brokaw was onboard, sitting with a panel of retired military officers and predicting happily: “In a few days, we’re going to own that country.”
In Sunday’s "Meet the Press" interview with Powell, Brokaw was still positioning himself, presumably so he won’t get criticized by Republicans as one of those “anti-Americans.”
Brokaw even escalated the accusations against former Vietnam War-era radical William Ayers, whose passing association with Obama has become a centerpiece of McCain's campaign, what Powell denounced as “demagoguery.”
But Brokaw wouldn’t let go, even linking the timing of Ayers’s book Fugitive Days to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Ayers “wrote a book about [his radical days] that came out on 2001, on September 11, that said we didn’t bomb enough,” Brokaw told Powell and millions of other Americans.
Brokaw implied that Ayers, now a college professor living in Chicago, was such a twisted individual that he would put out his book at the precise moment when the American people were in shock and mourning over 9/11.
However, as Brokaw – himself an author – surely knows, books go to press months before their publication date (which for Fugitive Days was listed as September 2001, not Sept. 11, 2001), and Ayers’s book was in print well before 9/11. Indeed, Chicago Magazine published a review of the book in its August 2001 edition.
Brokaw may have been referring, sloppily, to a New York Times article about Ayers’s book that coincidentally appeared on Sept. 11, 2001. But again, Brokaw must know that newspapers go to press the day before the date on them, in this case on Sept. 10.
In other words, Ayers’s memoir about his experiences as a member of the Weather Underground on the run in the 1970s – as well as his Times interview – had nothing to do with 9/11. Yet, on Sunday, Brokaw joined a growing list of people, including ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and John McCain, who have made this prejudicial connection.
Since Ayers is a pariah whom virtually no one will dare defend, anything goes. But that is not how honest journalism is supposed to work. Everyone is entitled to a fair shake, whether you like them or not.
As much as U.S. news media stars present themselves as straightforward journalists, they actually operate with a powerful bias in favor of the powerful. To keep their high-paying jobs, they figure out whom they can smear and whom they must treat with respect.
We saw this phenomenon in the months before the Iraq War when any wild allegation could be lodged against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and the U.S. press corps – with few exceptions – joined in piling on.
Similarly, the Bush administration and the U.S. news media heaped contempt on Iraq War critics, like former weapons inspector Scott Ritter, when these brave citizens challenged the Bush administration’s case for an invasion.
The opposite set of rules apply to someone like Powell, who is regarded as a “Wise Man” known for his sagacious judgment – despite a very checkered record dating back to his days as a young officer in Vietnam.
Indeed, one of the ironies about the denunciations of Ayers for engaging in violent protests against the Vietnam War is that Brokaw and other journalists leave out the context, the revulsion that many Americans felt toward the unprecedented violence that the U.S. military was raining down on the people of Indochina.
Rather than deal with the moral ambiguity of that war, journalists at the Brokaw level position themselves by hailing those who served in Vietnam and by disdaining the war’s opponents who generally get treated as spoiled brats or disloyal crazies.
Over the years, Powell has become a perfect example of how this dynamic works, with little attention paid to his actual record in Vietnam or to his role in later government misconduct such as the Iran-Contra scandal.
Journalists simply swoon over his smooth style, his measured comments and his striking narrative as an African-American who rose from a humble background to reach the highest levels of American power.
However, the reality of Powell’s narrative is less of a noble hero than a calculating careerist who always kept an eye on his future.
In the 1960s, during Powell’s two tours in Vietnam, he never joined with other U.S. military officers who risked their careers to warn their superiors about the brutal and self-defeating strategies that, eventually, ended up costing the lives of 58,000 Americans and millions of Indochinese.
Indeed, in his memoir, My American Journey, Powell justifies many of the worst tactics, such as burning down Vietnamese villages and shooting unarmed peasants from helicopters, acts that objectively would constitute war crimes.
During his first tour in 1963, Powell describes his work as an adviser to a South Vietnamese army unit that systematically destroyed the homes and food stocks of villagers who were believed sympathetic to the Viet Cong.
“We burned down the thatched huts, starting the blaze with Ronson and Zippo lighters,” Powell recalled. “Why were we torching houses and destroying crops? Ho Chi Minh had said the people were like the sea in which his guerrillas swam. ...
“We tried to solve the problem by making the whole sea uninhabitable. In the hard logic of war, what difference did it make if you shot your enemy or starved him to death?”
On his second tour in 1968, as an executive officer for the Americal Division, Powell was asked to investigate allegations from a distraught U.S. soldier who was aware of brutality committed by other Americal soldiers against Vietnamese civilians and captives. This complaint was the first official inkling of the My Lai massacre, which had occurred several months earlier.
However, for Colin Powell, it was another chance to impress the brass. Without interviewing the soldier, Cpl. Tom Glen, Powell simply accepted a claim from Glen’s superior officer that Glen was not close enough to the front lines to know what he was writing about.
After that cursory investigation, Powell drafted a response on Dec. 13, 1968, admitting no pattern of wrongdoing.
“In direct refutation of this [Glen’s] portrayal,” Powell wrote, “is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”
It would take another Americal veteran, an infantryman named Ron Ridenhour, to piece together the truth about the atrocity at My Lai. After returning to the United States, Ridenhour interviewed Americal comrades who had participated in the massacre.
On his own, Ridenhour compiled this shocking information into a report and forwarded it to the Army inspector general. The IG’s office conducted an aggressive official investigation, in contrast to Powell’s review.
Courts martial were held against officers and enlisted men who were implicated in the murder of the My Lai civilians.
In his memoir, Powell did not mention his brush-off of Tom Glen’s complaint, but did include another troubling recollection that belied his 1968 official denial of Glen’s charge that American soldiers “without provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves.”
“I recall a phrase we used in the field, MAM, for military-age male,” Powell wrote. “If a helo spotted a peasant in black pajamas who looked remotely suspicious, a possible MAM, 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 [West Germany], 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.”
While it’s certainly true that combat is brutal and judgments can be clouded by fear, the mowing down of unarmed civilians in cold blood does not constitute combat. It is murder and, indeed, a war crime.
Neither can the combat death of a fellow soldier be cited as an excuse to murder civilians. That was precisely the rationalization that the My Lai killers cited in their own defense.
After returning home from Vietnam in 1969, Powell was drawn into another Vietnam controversy involving the killing of civilians. In a court martial proceeding, Powell sided with an Americal Division general who was accused by the Army of murdering unarmed civilians while flying over Quang Ngai province.
Helicopter pilots who flew Brig. Gen. John W. Donaldson had alleged that the general gunned down civilian Vietnamese almost for sport.
In an interview in 1995, a senior investigator from the Donaldson case told me that two of the Vietnamese victims were an old man and an old woman who were shot to death while bathing.
Though long retired – and quite elderly himself – the Army investigator still spoke with a raw disgust about the events of a quarter century earlier. He requested anonymity before talking about the behavior of senior Americal officers.
“They used to bet in the morning how many people they could kill – old people, civilians, it didn’t matter,” the investigator said. “Some of the stuff would curl your hair.”
For eight months at Americal headquarters in Chu Lai during 1968-69, Powell had worked with Donaldson and apparently developed a great respect for this superior officer. When the Army charged Donaldson with murder on June 2, 1971, Powell rose in the general’s defense.
Powell submitted an affidavit dated Aug. 10, 1971, which lauded Donaldson as “an aggressive and courageous brigade commander.” Powell did not specifically refer to the murder allegations, but added that helicopter forays in Vietnam had been an “effective means of separating hostiles from the general population.”
In the 1995 interview, the old Army investigator told me that “we had him [Donaldson] dead to rights,” with the testimony of two helicopter pilots who had flown Donaldson on his shooting expeditions.
Still, the investigation collapsed after the two pilot-witnesses were transferred to another Army base and apparently came under pressure from military superiors. The two pilots withdrew their testimony, and the Army dropped all charges against Donaldson. [For more details on Powell’s real record, see our book Neck Deep.]
But this complex and troubling history of the Vietnam era is routinely white-washed by the likes of Tom Brokaw, who treats Colin Powell with the respect owed a genuine war hero and holds anti-Vietnam War radicals such as William Ayers in disdain reserved for traitors, now even asserting a link between Ayers’s memoir and 9/11.
The U.S. news media’s fawning over Colin Powell also has not been a victimless exercise. By holding Powell up as a near-perfect hero, the news media has allowed Powell to steer public opinion at key moments – from his work containing the Iran-Contra scandal in the late 1980s, to his political embrace of Bush during the Florida recount battle in 2000, to his selling of the Iraq War in 2003, to his support for Bush’s second term in 2004.
Perhaps, Powell is seeking to ameliorate some of that damage now by endorsing Barack Obama and warning of the dangers from another right-wing Republican presidency.
But there remains another troubling question: Why does the United States give so much respect to someone like Colin Powell – or accept as a responsible journalist someone like Tom Brokaw.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on October 21, 2008.