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Colin Powell: Military leader and first black secretary of state dies aged 84

Colin Powell, the first black US secretary of state and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has died from Covid-19 complications aged 84, his family announced.

Powell served two tours in Vietnam and became a household name during Operation Desert Storm, the first Gulf War, giving his name to the strategy that delivered victory with overwhelming force after nurturing strong public support: the Powell doctrine.

George W Bush said that he and the former first lady, Laura Bush, were “deeply saddened” by Powell’s death. “He was a great public servant . . . widely respected at home and abroad,” Bush said. “And most important, Colin was a family man and a friend. Laura and I send Alma and their children our sincere condolences as they remember the life of a great man.”

America’s youngest four-star general, Powell liked to say that he would probably have ended up as a sergeant major in the British army had his Jamaican parents done the logical thing and emigrated to Britain instead of the United States. A cousin, Mervin Powell, whose family did emigrate from the British colony to London, became a conductor on the No 63 bus from Crystal Palace to Kings Cross.

As it was, Powell’s parents took a United Fruit Company banana boat to Philadelphia and their son became the living embodiment of the proverbial American dream, transcending race in a country still beset by racial tension.
Raised in a tenement in the tough ethnic melting pot of the South Bronx, New York, Powell joined the army and rose through its ranks to become President Reagan’s national security adviser, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff under the first President Bush and secretary of state under George W Bush — the first African-American to hold any of those posts.

He was one of a new generation of leaders who helped to restore the army’s standing after Vietnam, transforming the US military into a leaner, nimbler organisation after the Cold War ended. A national hero after the first Gulf War, he was widely regarded as a likely Republican challenger to President Clinton in the 1996 election. Had he decided to run he might well have become America’s first black president as well but he chose not to, and his long career of distinguished public service ended instead with his reputation somewhat tarnished.

As secretary of state in an administration dominated by hawkish neo-conservatives, the man dubbed “the reluctant general” failed to avert a US invasion of Iraq in 2003 that he believed to be dangerously misguided. Worse, he put his prestige on the line by unequivocally asserting, in an address to the UN security council, that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and posed an imminent threat.

He delivered that address against his better judgement and it was subsequently shown to have been based on false intelligence. A proud and dignified man, he deeply regretted making it. “It’s a blot,” he admitted after leaving office. “It will always be a part of my record. It was painful. It’s painful now.”

Colin Luther Powell was born in Harlem, New York, in 1937, the youngest of two children. When he was four his family moved to the South Bronx where, he said, “everybody was either a Jew, an Italian, a Pole, a Greek, a Puerto Rican or, as we said in those days, a negro”. His father worked in a women’s garment factory.

Having failed to shine at school, Powell found his calling when he went to the City College of New York to study geology and discovered the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. “The discipline, the structure, the camaraderie, the sense of belonging were what I craved,” he said.
While his parents moved up the ladder to Queens, having won a $10,000 lottery, Powell joined the army and headed to Fort Benning, Georgia, in the still-segregated South.

He understood that he was being asked to defend a country that still denied blacks their fundamental rights, but refused to let that hinder him. “I occasionally felt hurt; I felt anger; but most of all I felt challenged. I’ll show you,” he said. And show them he did, with the help of a US military that had taken a lead by pronouncing itself colour-blind a few years earlier.
His first overseas posting was to the 3rd Armored Division in West Germany where he guarded the Fulda Gap against a Soviet Invasion and met Elvis Presley while the singer was doing national service.

He returned to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, and met Alma Johnson, an audiologist, on a blind date in Boston. They married hastily in 1962, weeks before Powell went off to Vietnam as an adviser to the South Vietnamese army. He was posted to the valley of A Shau, in the jungle along the Laotian border, to prevent Viet Cong infiltration. His patrols were regularly ambushed. After seven months he stepped on a booby trap, a sharpened bamboo spike which pierced his foot and poisoned it, ending his front line service.

He returned home to an infant son, Michael, who as an adult would join the army himself before becoming a lobbyist for the US telecommunications industry. The Powells subsequently had two more children: Linda, now an actress, and Annemarie, who went into television news.

Powell was fast-tracked upwards: an elite Pathfinder paratroopers’ course, an Infantry Officers Advanced Course at Fort Benning, Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He invariably graduated at or near the top of his class.
In 1968 he was sent back to Vietnam and posted to a base on the northern coastal plain until the commander of his division read of his qualifications in the Army Times and appointed him to his headquarters staff. He was lucky to survive when the commander’s helicopter crashed.

Powell was dismayed by the conduct of the war and the damage it did to the army’s stature. “War should be the politics of last resort,” he wrote, presaging what would later be dubbed the Powell Doctrine. “And when we go to war, we should have a purpose that our people understand and support; we should mobilise the country’s resources to fulfil that mission and then go in to win.”

Back home, but for a year in South Korea, his rise continued: a White House fellowship under President Nixon, the National War College in Washington DC, command of the 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, a senior job in President Carter’s Pentagon. At 42 he became the army’s youngest general.

Early in Reagan’s presidency Powell was appointed military assistant to Caspar Weinberger, the new defence secretary, and helped to oversee a massive increase in military spending.

Three years later, anxious to return to soldiering, he was appointed commander of the 75,000-strong V Corps in West Germany where he kept a photograph of his Soviet counterpart, General Colonel Vladislav Achalov, on his desk. After five months, however, Reagan asked him to return to the White House as assistant national security adviser to sort out the mess created by the Iran-Contra scandal. When his boss, Frank Carlucci, moved to the Pentagon in 1987 Powell became national security adviser with a grand West Wing office.

For the remainder of Reagan’s term, Powell was his indispensable aide as he and Mikhail Gorbachev, his Soviet president, began cutting their nuclear arsenals and de-escalating the Cold War. “Up until now, as a soldier, my mission had been to confront, contain and, if necessary, combat communism. Now I had to think about a world without a Cold War,” Powell reflected. Gorbachev was so impressed by Powell that he gave him an engraved shotgun as a gift.
Powell was calm, authoritative and articulate. He kept a list of 13 rules on his desk, which included “It can be done!”, “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier” and “Share credit”. He won Reagan’s respect, and was floated as a possible running mate for Bush in the 1980 presidential election.

The new president instead appointed him commander of Forscom, the largest US army command. That job did not last long either. Within eight months Powell was back in Washington as chairman of the joint chiefs of staff despite being, at 53, the youngest of the 14 four-star generals eligible for the job.

His overarching task was to cut and redesign the US armed forces after the collapse of the Soviet Union. To that end he devised the Base Force strategy, which stipulated that those forces should in future be capable of fighting two major regional conflicts simultaneously. Almost immediately he found himself overseeing the invasion of Panama and that was a mere curtain raiser to the main event, the first Gulf War.
In 1990 Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Bush vowed that the invasion would not stand. The US amassed a huge coalition force of more than 500,000 soldiers in neighbouring Saudi Arabia and the Gulf in accordance with Powell’s belief in the use of overwhelming force.
At a celebrated press conference on the eve of battle Powell explained the strategy, a devastating air campaign to destroy the Iraqi army’s support system followed by an all-out attack on its forces in Kuwait. “First we are going to cut it off, and then we are going to kill it,” he declared, and that is exactly what happened. Five weeks of intense bombing was followed by a 100-day ground war that drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait before Bush halted the massacre. Just 383 US soldiers died.

Powell was a hero. He had restored America’s pride in its military. He was re-appointed to a second term as chairman of the joint chiefs. He received an honorary knighthood from the Queen. There was speculation that he would replace Dan Quayle on Bush’s 1992 re-election ticket, and the Clinton campaign sounded him out too.

In the event Clinton defeated Bush. Powell was never as comfortable with the first baby boomer president as he had been with Reagan and Bush. He opposed Clinton’s early focus on gays in the military, and the administration’s move towards intervention in the Bosnian conflict. Eight months after Clinton’s inauguration he retired from the army he had served for 35 years. At his leaving ceremony the president gave him a 1966 Volvo — restoring clapped-out Volvos being Powell’s favourite means of relaxation.

Powell did not vanish from view. At Clinton’s request, he helped Jimmy Carter persuade Haiti’s military dictatorship to surrender power to forestall a US invasion. He received a $6 million advance for writing an autobiography, My American Journey, that became a huge bestseller. And as the 1996 presidential election approached there was feverish speculation that he would run against Clinton as a Republican: polls suggested that he would comfortably beat the incumbent president.

After what he described as “a great deal of personal anguish” Powell rejected the chance of becoming the “black Eisenhower”. He lacked the hunger for the job, he explained. His wife also put her foot down. She was jealous of her privacy, suffered from bouts of depression and feared for her husband’s safety as a black presidential candidate.
Powell devoted himself to good works and the speakers circuit, but his public service was still not over. He endorsed George W Bush in the 2000 presidential election and was rewarded with the job of secretary of state. His four years in Foggy Bottom were unhappy, however.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks emboldened Dick Cheney, the vice-president, Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, and other prominent neo-conservatives to press for an invasion of Iraq to depose Saddam. Powell fought a long and sometimes bitter rearguard action against an operation that would break all the rules of the so-called Powell Doctrine. He pressed Bush to resolve the confrontation through diplomatic means, to delay the invasion to give UN weapons inspectors more time to do their work in Iraq and to obtain UN approval for any military operation.

Such was Powell’s stature that he could conceivably have prevented the invasion had he spoken out more forcefully and publicly, but, ever the loyal soldier, he did not. As the most trusted figure in the administration, he was instead persuaded to present its distinctly dubious evidence of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction to the UN security council in February 2003. “There can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce many, many more,” he asserted.

The invasion went ahead, no weapons of mass destruction were found, a disastrous occupation ensued and Powell’s reputation never fully recovered. He resigned without fuss at the end of Bush’s first term, dispensing with his security detail within hours.
Out of office, Powell was more critical of the administration. He reportedly referred to its neo-cons as “f****ing crazies”. He condemned its treatment of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere, asserting that “the world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism”.
In 2008, appalled by John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate, he endorsed Barack Obama, then watched the young senator from Chicago become the first black president of the United States that he might so easily have been himself.

Colin Powell, US general and secretary of state, was born on April 5, 1937. He died of Covid-19 on October 18, 2021, aged 84

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