Colin Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants who became a US war hero and the first Black secretary of state but saw his legacy tarnished when he made the case for war in Iraq in 2003, died on Monday of Covid-19 complications. He was 84.
The retired four-star general and former head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who served four presidents made his reputation as a man of honor distant from the political fray — an asset in the corridors of power.
“General Powell is an American hero, an American example, and a great American story,” George W. Bush said as he announced Powell’s nomination as secretary of state in 2000.
“In directness of speech, his towering integrity, his deep respect for our democracy, and his soldier’s sense of duty and honor, Colin Powell demonstrates … qualities that will make him a great representative of all the people of this country.”
But he found it hard to live down his infamous February 2003 speech to the United Nations Security Council about the alleged existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — the evidence he presented was later proven to be false.
“It’s a blot… and will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now,” Powell said in a 2005 interview with ABC News.
Born April 5, 1937 in Harlem, Powell’s “American Journey” — the title of his autobiography — started in New York, where he grew up and earned a degree in geology.
He also participated in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) in college, and upon his graduation in June 1958, he received a commission as a second lieutenant in the US Army, and was posted in what was then West Germany.
Powell completed two tours of duty in Vietnam — in 1962-63 as one of John F Kennedy’s thousands of military advisors, and again in 1968-69 to investigate the My Lai massacre.
He earned a Purple Heart, but also faced questions about the tone of his report into the hundreds of deaths at My Lai, which to some seemed to dismiss any claims of wrongdoing.
“I was in a unit that was responsible for My Lai. I got there after My Lai happened,” he told interviewer Larry King in 2004.
“So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored.”