By Robert Parry & Norman Solomon
- Behind Colin Powell (Part 2): Colin Powell's Lessons from
On Jan. 17, 1963, in South Vietnam's monsoon season, U.S. Army
Capt. Colin Powell jumped from a military helicopter into a
densely forested combat zone of the A Shau Valley, not far from
the Laotian border.
Carrying an M-2 carbine, Capt. Powell was starting his firstand
only -- combat assignment. He was the new adviser to a 400-man
unit of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). Across
jungle terrain, these South Vietnamese government troops were
arrayed against a combined force of North Vietnamese regulars
and local anti-government guerrillas known as the Viet Cong.
The 25-year-old Powell was arriving, too, at a pivotal moment in
the Vietnam War. To forestall a Communist victory, President
John F. Kennedy had dispatched teams of Green Beret advisers to
assist the ARVN, a force which suffered from poor discipline,
ineffective tactics and bad morale.
Already, many U.S. advisers, most notably the legendary Col.
John Paul Vann, had profound doubts about the ARVN's brutality
against civilians. Vann feared that the dominant
counter-insurgency strategy of destroying rural villages while
hunting down enemy forces was only driving the people into the
arms of the Viet Cong.
But as Colin Powell arrived, he was untainted by those concerns.
He was a gung-ho young Army officer with visions of glory. He
brimmed with an enthusiastic trust in the wisdom of his
superiors, a trait that would stay with him and serve his career
well for the next three decades.
Powell's first combat experiences in Vietnam also would shape
his attitudes toward how best to wage war. Years later in
commanding American forces in Panama and the Persian Gulf or in
pressing the Nicaraguan contra cause in Congress, Powell would
adopt the same fierce us-against-them posture that he did in
The Powell Doctrine, as the strategy became known, called for
pouring down overwhelming violence upon the enemy, even at the
risk of heavy civilian casualties, in order to minimize losses
to allied forces. The roots of that doctrine go back to Vietnam
where Capt. Powell felt the deepest sympathy for the ARVN troops
under his command, but only a cold contempt for the enemy.
A Dead and Deadly Enemy
Soon after his arrival, Powell and his ARVN unit left for a
protracted patrol that fought leeches as well as Viet Cong
ambushes. From the soggy jungle brush, the Viet Cong would
strike suddenly against the advancing government soldiers. Often
invisible to Powell and his men, the VC would inflict a few
casualties and slip back into the jungles.
In his memoirs, An American Journey, Powell recounted his
reaction when he spotted his first dead Viet Cong. "He lay on
his back, gazing up at us with sightless eyes," Powell wrote. "I
felt nothing, certainly not sympathy. I had seen too much death
and suffering on our side to care anything about what happened
While success against the armed enemy was rare, Powell's ARVN
unit punished the civilian population systematically. As the
soldiers marched through mountainous jungle, they destroyed the
food and the homes of the region's Montagnards, who were
suspected of sympathizing with the Viet Cong. Old women would
cry hysterically as their ancestral homes and worldly
possessions were consumed by fire.
"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?"
Even three decades later, Powell could not recognize what was
wrong, both morally and tactically, with a military strategy
that wreaked havoc on civilians as well as the Viet Cong. Unlike
other advisers, such as Vann, Powell did not protest to his
superiors this scorched-earth warfare that convinced many
Vietnamese that the Americans were their enemies and the VC
For nearly six months, Powell and his ARVN unit slogged through
the jungles, searching for Viet Cong and destroying villages.
Then while on one patrol, Powell fell victim to a Viet Cong
booby trap. He stepped on a punji stake, a dung-poisoned bamboo
spear that had been buried in the ground. The stake pierced
Powell's boot and quickly infected the young soldier's right
foot. The foot swelled, turned purple and forced his evacuation
by helicopter to Hue for treatment.
Although Powell's recovery from the foot infection was swift,
his combat days were over. He stayed in Hue, reassigned to the
operations staff of ARVN division headquarters. As part of his
work, he handled intelligence data and oversaw a local airfield.
By late autumn 1963, Powell's first Vietnam tour ended.
On his return to the United States, however, Powell did not join
Vann and other early American advisers in warning the nation
about the brutal and self-defeating counter-insurgency
strategies. In 1963, Vann carried his prescient doubts back to
a Pentagon that was not ready to listen to doubters. Then, when
Vann's objections fell on deaf ears, he resigned his commission
and sacrificed a promising military career.
In contrast, Powell recognized that his early service in Vietnam
put him on a fast track for military success. He signed up for
a nine-month Infantry Officer Advanced Course that trained
company commanders. In May 1965, Powell finished third in a
class of 200 and was the top-ranked infantryman. A year later,
he became an instructor.
In 1966, as the numbers of U.S. servicemen in Vietnam soared,
Powell received a promotion to major, making him a field-grade
officer before his 30th birthday. In 1968, Powell continued to
impress his superiors by graduating second in his class at Fort
Leavenworth's Command and General Staff College, a prestigious
school regarded as an essential way station for future Army
Recognizing Powell as an emerging "water-walker" who needed more
seasoning in the field, the Army dispatched Powell to a command
position back in Vietnam. But on his second tour, Powell would
not be slogging through remote jungles. On July 27, 1968, he
arrived at an outpost at Duc Pho to serve as an executive
Then, to the north, at the Americal headquarters in Chu Lai,
division commander Maj. Gen. Charles Gettys saw a favorable
mention of Powell in the Army Times. Gettys plucked Powell from
Duc Pho and installed him on the general's own staff at Chu Lai.
Gettys jumped the young major ahead of more senior officers and
made him the G-3 officer in charge of operations and planning.
But history again was awaiting Colin Powell. The Americal
Division was already deep into some of the cruelest fighting of
the Vietnam War. The "drain-the-sea" strategy that Powell had
witnessed near the Laotian border continued to lead American
forces into harsh treatment of Vietnamese civilians.
Though it was still a secret when Powell arrived at Chu Lai,
Americal troops had committed an act that would stain forever
the reputation of the U.S. Army. As Major Powell settled into
his new assignment, a scandal was waiting to unfold.
(c) Copyright 1996 -- Please Do Not Re-Post
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