By Robert Parry & Norman Solomon
- Behind Colin Powell's Legend -- Pentagon-Man
The middle years of Colin Powell's military career -- marked
roughly by the twin debacles of My Lai and Iran-contra -- were a
time for networking and advancement. Powell often says he
learned many lessons from Vietnam. But one he doesn't mention
is that a military bureaucrat succeeds best by sidestepping
controversy and keeping quiet when superiors screw up.
By the time Powell returned home from his second Vietnam tour in
July 1969, the young Army major had mastered those skills. He
had a smiling, articulate, deferential style that passed well
enough for leadership in the Pentagon's political corridors.
While thousands of other Vietnam veterans joined the anti-war
movement and denounced the self-defeating 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. Powell also was not one to blow the whistle on wayward
Powell even sided with one 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 alleged that the general gunned down the
civilian Vietnamese almost for sport.
A senior investigator from the Donaldson case told The
Consortium recently that two of the Vietnamese victims were an
old man and an old woman who were shot to death while bathing.
Though long retired from the Army -- and now quite elderly
himself -- the 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."
A My Lai Side Story
The Donaldson case grew out of the investigation into the My Lai
massacre, the Americal's slaughter of 347 Vietnamese civilians
on March 16, 1968. Powell did not arrive at Americal headquarters
until several months later, but he did play a role in
discrediting some of the early allegations of Americal
brutality. (See The Consortium, July 22)
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."
In his memoirs, My American Journey, Powell went further,
defending one particularly brutal helicopter technique for
"separating hostiles." Powell explained that when a helicopter
pilot spotted a MAM, or Vietnamese "military-age male," the
gunner would "fire in front" of the MAM. "If he moved, his
movement was judged evidence of hostile intent, and the next
burst was not in front, but at him," Powell wrote approvingly.
When Powell returned from Vietnam, he seems to have been
questioned by Army authorities about his knowledge of
Donaldson's alleged atrocities. But Powell's answers may be
lost to history. In his memoirs, Powell provides a brief -- and
incorrect -- description of an interview he gave about the My
Lai massacre in 1971.
"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."
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. In an interview, the retired Army
investigator told The Consortium that Powell was questioned in
that case. But the investigator said Powell volunteered little
knowledge about the atrocities. The investigator even doubted
that any record was made of the inconsequential interview.
But the investigator claimed that "we had him [Donaldson] dead
to rights." Still, the investigation collapsed after the two
pilot-witnesses were transferred to another Army base and
apparently came under pressure from superiors already stung by
the negative P.R. from the My Lai massacre. The two pilots
withdrew their testimony, and the Army dropped all charges
"John Donaldson was a cover-up specialist," the old investigator
With the My Lai cloud dissipated, Maj. Powell's career advanced
smartly. He was stepping forward to become a true Pentagon-man.
The Army footed the bill for Powell's masters degree in business
at George Washington University. He won a promotion to
lieutenant colonel and a prized White House fellowship which put
him inside Richard Nixon's White House.
Powell's work with Nixon's Office of Management and Budget also
brought Powell to the attention of Frank Carlucci and Caspar
Weinberger, who quickly became Powell's mentors. That White
House networking would prove invaluable through the 1970s and
1980s as Powell continued to rise through the officer ranks.
When Ronald Reagan swept to victory in 1980, Powell's allies
-Weinberger and Carlucci -- took over the Defense Department.
When they arrived at the Pentagon, Powell, by then a full
colonel, was there to greet them.
But before he could move to the top echelons of U.S. military
authority, Powell needed to earn his first general's star. That
required a few command assignments in the field. So, under
Carlucci's sponsorship, Powell received brief assignments at
Army bases in Kansas and Colorado.
By the time Powell returned to the Pentagon in 1983, he had that
all-important general's star on his shoulder. He was a bona
fide water-walker, but he had not forgotten his Vietnam lessons
about how to succeed in the Pentagon bureaucracy.
(c) Copyright 1996 -- Please Do Not Re-Post
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