Colin Powell's Tolerance of Murder
Former Secretary of State and retired four-star Gen. Colin Powell has returned as the Washington media's favorite oracle, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to tell President Barack Obama, the Republican Party and the nation what they should be doing. That has been followed by media figures like MSNBC’s Chris Matthews swooning at the revealed wisdom from the ultimate Wise Man.
However, rather than solicit Powell’s critiques of everyone else, “Meet the Press” host David Gregory might have asked Powell to reflect on a story that was on the front page of Sunday's Washington Post, the grisly tale of five U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan who have been accused of hunting and killing Afghan civilians for sport.
Powell might have had some useful insights because back during the Vietnam War, he not only participated in the cover-up of the war’s most notorious massacre but defended a fellow officer who was accused of going on hunting expeditions for Vietnamese civilians.
Powell even included some of this ugly business in his much-lauded memoir, My American Journey, although the fawning Washington press corps has always averted its eyes from these disclosures.
For instance, in one 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 [a U.S. helicopter] 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 combat is undeniably brutal and judgments can be clouded by fear, mowing down unarmed civilians does not constitute combat. It is murder and, indeed, a war crime. Neither can the cold-blooded murder of civilians be excused by the combat death of a fellow soldier.
But Powell had an even more direct connection to the willful hunting of civilians that parallels the current Afghan case.
After returning from Vietnam in 1969, Powell helped in the defense of 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 for sport.
In an interview in the mid-1990s, 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, 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 1968-69 as an Americal officer in Chu Lai, 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."
The retired Army investigator told me that Powell was questioned in the Donaldson case. But the investigator said Powell volunteered little knowledge about the atrocities.
Nevertheless, the investigator claimed, "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.
In his memoir, Powell justified other acts of brutality against Vietnamese civilians, including burning down their homes and destroying their villages. As a U.S. military adviser to a Vietnamese Army unit during his first tour in 1963, Powell oversaw this practice.
"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?"
For nearly six months, Powell and his Vietnamese Army unit slogged through the jungles, searching for Viet Cong and systematically destroying the food and villages of the region's Montagnards. Old women would cry hysterically as their ancestral homes and worldly possessions were consumed by fire.
My Lai Cover-up
In his second Vietnam tour as a young, up-and-coming Army major, Powell sank even deeper into the bloody morass of Vietnam. He was made an executive officer with the Americal Division and was stationed at an outpost at Duc Pho on July 27, 1968.
The "drain-the-sea" strategy that Powell had practiced years earlier had led American forces into even harsher treatment of Vietnamese civilians. Though it was still a secret when Powell arrived, Americal troops had committed an act that would stain forever the reputation of the U.S. Army.
On March 16, 1968, a bloodied unit of the Americal Division stormed into a hamlet known as My Lai 4. With military helicopters circling overhead, revenge-seeking American soldiers rousted Vietnamese civilians -- mostly old men, women and children -- from their thatched huts and herded them into the village's irrigation ditches.
As the round-up continued, some Americans raped the girls. Then, under orders from junior officers on the ground, soldiers began emptying their M-16s into the terrified peasants. Some parents used their bodies futilely to shield their children from the bullets. Soldiers stepped among the corpses to finish off the wounded.
The slaughter raged for four hours. A total of 347 Vietnamese, including babies, died in the carnage. But there also were American heroes that day in My Lai. Some soldiers refused to obey the direct orders to kill and some risked their lives to save civilians from the murderous fire.
A pilot named Hugh Clowers Thompson Jr. from Stone Mountain, Georgia, was furious at the killings he saw happening on the ground. He landed his helicopter between one group of fleeing civilians and American soldiers in pursuit.
Thompson ordered his helicopter door gunner to shoot the Americans if they tried to harm the Vietnamese. After a tense confrontation, the soldiers backed off. Later, two of Thompson's men climbed into one ditch filled with corpses and pulled out a three-year-old boy whom they flew to safety.
Several months later, the Americal's brutality would become a moral test for Major Powell, too.
A letter had been written by a young specialist fourth class named Tom Glen, who had served in an Americal mortar platoon and was nearing the end of his Army tour. In the letter to Gen. Creighton Abrams, the commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, Glen accused the Americal Division of routine brutality against civilians.
Glen's letter was forwarded to the Americal headquarters at Chu Lai where it landed on Major Powell's desk.
"The average GI's attitude toward and treatment of the Vietnamese people all too often is a complete denial of all our country is attempting to accomplish in the realm of human relations," Glen wrote.
"Far beyond merely dismissing the Vietnamese as 'slopes' or 'gooks,' in both deed and thought, too many American soldiers seem to discount their very humanity; and with this attitude inflict upon the Vietnamese citizenry humiliations, both psychological and physical, that can have only a debilitating effect upon efforts to unify the people in loyalty to the Saigon government, particularly when such acts are carried out at unit levels and thereby acquire the aspect of sanctioned policy."
Murder and Torture
Glen's letter contended that many Vietnamese were fleeing from Americans who “for mere pleasure, fire indiscriminately into Vietnamese homes and without provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves.”
Torture also was being used on Viet Cong suspects, Glen reported.
“Fired with an emotionalism that belies unconscionable hatred, and armed with a vocabulary consisting of 'You VC,' soldiers commonly 'interrogate' by means of torture that has been presented as the particular habit of the enemy. Severe beatings and torture at knife point are usual means of questioning captives or of convincing a suspect that he is, indeed, a Viet Cong. ...
“It would indeed be terrible to find it necessary to believe that an American soldier that harbors such racial intolerance and disregard for justice and human feeling is a prototype of all American national character; yet the frequency of such soldiers lends credulity to such beliefs. ...
“What has been outlined here I have seen not only in my own unit, but also in others we have worked with, and I fear it is universal. If this is indeed the case, it is a problem which cannot be overlooked, but can through a more firm implementation of the codes of MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) and the Geneva Conventions, perhaps be eradicated."
In 1995, when author Norman Solomon and I questioned Glen about his letter, he said he had heard second-hand about the My Lai massacre, though he did not mention it specifically. The massacre was just one part of the abusive pattern that had become routine in the division, he said.
The letter's troubling allegations were not well received at Americal headquarters.
Major Powell undertook the assignment to review Glen's letter, but did so without questioning Glen or assigning anyone else to talk with him. 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, an assertion Glen denied to us.
After that cursory investigation, Powell drafted a response on Dec. 13, 1968. He admitted to no pattern of wrongdoing.
Powell claimed that U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were taught to treat Vietnamese courteously and respectfully. The Americal troops also had gone through an hour-long course on how to treat prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, Powell noted.
"There may be isolated cases of mistreatment of civilians and POWs," Powell wrote. But "this by no means reflects the general attitude throughout the Division." Indeed, Powell's memo faulted Glen for not complaining earlier and for failing to be more specific in his letter.
"In direct refutation of this [Glen's] portrayal," Powell concluded, "is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent."
Powell's findings, of course, were false, though they were exactly what his superiors wanted to hear.
It would take another Americal hero, 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 marked contrast to Powell's review.
Confirming Ridenhour's report, the Army finally faced the horrible truth. Courts martial were held against officers and enlisted men who were implicated in the murder of the My Lai civilians.
But Powell's peripheral role in the My Lai cover-up did not slow his climb up the Army's ladder, indeed it may have helped by establishing him as the kind of guy who would play along with whatever his superiors wanted. After the scandal broke, Powell pleaded ignorance about the actual My Lai massacre.
Luckily for Powell, Glen's letter also disappeared into the National Archives -- to be unearthed only years later by British journalists Michael Bilton and Kevin Sims for their book, Four Hours in My Lai. In his own memoir, Powell did not mention his brush-off of Tom Glen's complaint.
However, the patterns set in Powell’s early career would continue guiding his rise within the U.S. military and in the esteem of Official Washington.
At the apex of his career, as George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, Powell again put his standing with his superiors over any higher commitment to telling the truth or saving lives. He played the role of “closer” for the Iraq invasion in 2003, overriding his own doubts and making a deceptive presentation to the United Nations. [For more on Powell’s history, see Neck Deep.]
Even though the dark side of Powell’s history as a careerist was publicly know prior to his UN speech [see, for instance, Consortiumnews.com’s “Behind Colin Powell’s Legend”], his Inside-the-Beltway reputation was such that nearly every influential national columnist fell in line behind Powell’s speech.
Whatever doubts existed in Official Washington about the Iraq invasion were washed away.
Powell has since acknowledged that his UN speech was a “blot” on his reputation. But he is still treated by the likes of David Gregory and Chris Matthews as the paragon of Washington virtues. His every word – no matter how bland and predictable – gets awe and respect.
For example, on Sunday, while commenting on former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s bizarre and racist remark about President Barack Obama’s “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior,” Powell dismissed the comment as simply an example of how Gingrich “occasionally” sounds off “to make news and also to stir up dust.”
Though Powell’s statement sounded more like an excuse than a condemnation, he was predictably hailed for his courageous stand across the news media, including by Chris Matthews on MSNBC’s “Hardball.”
It is apparently too much to expect the Washington press corps to treat Colin Powell with anything approaching journalistic skepticism – or to ask him if the atrocities in Afghanistan and Iraq have changed his sympathetic views about murdering civilians in a war zone.
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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