Colin Powell died on Monday at the age of 84, “of COVID-19 complications,” as reported by his family, according to whom he had been vaccinated. The first reaction came from former U.S. President George W. Bush: “America loses a great servant of the state.”
Powell made an unseemly exit from the world stage after having reached the top of his political-military career and such popularity that the idea of a White House run was floated, which he rejected on the grounds that he was not interested in politics.
His moment of greatest “popularity” was reached on February 5, 2003, when he came to the UN to demonstrate that Saddam Hussein was dangerous and should be taken down. For the demonstration, he was equipped with vials with a white powder, which was supposed to be anthrax, and toy vans to simulate the mobile laboratories with which Saddam could deploy the alleged “weapons of mass destruction.”
The West believed that ridiculous full-blown theatrical display, which was preparatory to the launch of the second Gulf War. The war machine was already in gear, ready to launch the attack six weeks later. The information from the UN inspectors in Baghdad, claiming that Saddam no longer had those weapons, was ignored.
Not only were such weapons never used, but they were never found, because they were not there. But Saddam had been eliminated and Iraq destroyed. Two years after Powell’s UN speech, a government report said the intelligence community had been “dead wrong” in its assessments of Iraq’s ability to produce weapons of mass destruction prior to the U.S. invasion.
But the damage was done, and Colin Powell, asked by an ABC news reporter on September 8, 2005 whether he felt his reputation had been damaged, replied that it was “a blot” that “will always be a part of my record.” “I’m the one who presented it on behalf of the United States to the world … It was painful. It’s painful now,” he said, adding that he felt “terrible” that he had been misled about the accuracy of the intelligence. But if he had second thoughts that perhaps led to his shift from conservative to Democrat—he voted for Obama and Biden—these were not enough to redeem his “honor.” Not least because the second Gulf War was not the only one Powell played a major part in during his long career.
His first two military missions date back to the 1960s in Vietnam. In 1962, he was one of the advisors sent by John F. Kennedy to South Vietnam; he returned wounded and received his first Soldier’s Medal. The second time (during 1968-69) he was sent to investigate the My Lay massacre, in which more than 300 civilians had been killed.
Powell’s report denied the validity of the charges against U.S. soldiers, claiming that “relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.” He was wounded for the second time in a plane crash where he managed to save his comrades, and got another medal.
After commanding a battalion in Korea in 1973, he got a job at the Pentagon. He was senior military assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger when he coordinated the invasion of Granada and the bombing of Libya. As Reagan’s security adviser at the time of Irangate, which served to fund the Contras fighting the Sandinista government, he was called to testify before Congress but came out unscathed.
New challenges would await him as chief of staff of President Bush Sr., such as the invasion of Panama to eliminate the dictator Manuel Noriega, who did not yield to U.S. demands on the Panama Canal. The “humanitarian” operation in Somalia is also the work of General Powell, although he had retired from the army a few days before the disastrous battle of Mogadishu (1993).
But it was mainly against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq that he was fully engaged, and not only in the second Gulf War, but also in the first one. That war had begun on January 16, 1991 with a massive and devastating cruise missile bombardment by American, British and Saudi warships and aircraft.
The attack was initiated by President Bush Sr., but Operation “Desert Storm” was reinforced by a plan of attack via land forces strongly supported by Powell, who was head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was the first real media war, directed by the Pentagon: the journalists had been evacuated, and only Stefano Chiarini of il manifesto and Peter Arnett of CNN remained in Baghdad.
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