The Consortium

By Robert Parry & Norman Solomon

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 superiors.

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."

Mystery Interview

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 against Donaldson.

"John Donaldson was a cover-up specialist," the old investigator growled.

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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