December 17, 2000
Behind Colin Powell's Legend
In his best-selling memoirs, Powell did not mention his brush-off of Tom Glen's complaint.
Powell did include, however, another troubling recollection that belied his 1968 official denial of Glen's allegation that American soldiers "without provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves."
After a brief mention of the My Lai massacre in My American Journey, Powell penned a partial justification of the Americal's brutality. In a chilling passage, Powell explained the routine practice of murdering unarmed male Vietnamese.
"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. Disturbingly, that was precisely the rationalization that the My Lai killers cited in their own defense.
But returning home from Vietnam a second time in 1969, Powell already had begun to prove himself the consummate team player. Those skills were tested again when 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, a senior investigator from the Donaldson case told us 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 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."
Powell apparently was questioned by Army authorities about his knowledge of Donaldson's alleged atrocities. But his answers may be lost to history. In his memoirs, Powell provides a brief -- and incorrect -- description of the 1971 interview in the context of the My Lai massacre.
"I was serving in the Washington area, and was called to appear before a board of inquiry conducted by Lt. Gen. William Ray Peers at Fort Belvoir, Virginia," Powell wrote. "The board wanted me to give a picture of fighting conditions in the Batangan Peninsula in 1968 [where the My Lai massacre had occurred]. I knew it had been a hellhole, a rough piece of territory inhabited by VC sympathizers."
Powell's account of the interview is itself a bit of a mystery. While it's true that in 1971, a commission headed by Gen. Peers was investigating the My Lai cover-up, all the Peers interviews were conducted at the Pentagon, not at Fort Belvoir.
Also, by 1971, the Army knew a great deal about the "fighting conditions in the Batangan Peninsula" and would not need the opinion of an officer who arrived months after the My Lai massacre. Further, when we examined the Peers Commission records at the National Archives branch at Suitland, Md., we found no indication that Colin Powell ever had been interviewed by the board.
There was, however, an investigation at Fort Belvoir conducted in the same time frame by the Army's criminal investigation unit. It was examining the murder allegations against Powell's friend, Gen. Donaldson.
The retired Army investigator told us that Powell was questioned in that case. But the investigator said Powell volunteered little knowledge about the atrocities. The investigator doubted that any record was made of the interview.
Nevertheless, the investigator claimed 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. "John Donaldson was a cover-up specialist," the old investigator growled.
While thousands of other Vietnam veterans joined the anti-war movement and denounced the brutality of the war, Powell held his tongue. To this day, Powell has avoided criticizing the Vietnam War other than to complain that the politicians should not have restrained the military high command.
With the My Lai cloud dissipated, Major Powell's career advanced smartly. Powell often says he learned many lessons from Vietnam. One lesson he doesn't mention is that a military bureaucrat succeeds best by sidestepping controversy and keeping quiet when superiors screw up.
As the years unfolded, that proved to be a very valuable lesson indeed.