The Consortium

By Robert Parry & Norman Solomon

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 Vietnam.

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 on theirs."

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 their protectors.

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 generals.

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 officer.

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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