A Lesson from the Late Secretary Colin Powell

Colin Powell

It is a terrible and painful irony that the Bush Administration prevailed on Colin Powell to present “the evidence” to justify our invasion of Iraq in 2002 to find weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist.

An honorable retired general and Vietnam combat veteran then serving as the United States Secretary of State, Powell regrettably found a way to sell the administration’s false case and in so doing made a tragic error, which he ever after regretted as that “blot,” to use his word, on an otherwise largely distinguished public record.

The tragedy stems in part from Colin Powell’s considerable military experience and personal sacrifice, his sense of duty and righteousness, his commitment to the language as a critical tool in public policy, and finally, from his own sense of conscience.

In his 1995 memoir, My American Journey, General Powell wrote in-depth about his specific aversion to imprecise language on those occasions of American use of force, or the grotesque consequences of Newspeak, to use a term coined by George Orwell.

“I was developing a strong distaste for the antiseptic phrases coined by State Department officials for foreign interventions which usually had bloody consequences for the military, words like “presence,” “symbol,” “signal,” “option on the table,” “establishment credibility.” Their use was fine if beneath them lay a solid mission. But too often these words were used to give the appearance of clarity to mud.”

President John F. Kennedy, incidentally, had a similar lack of appetite for the kind of terms referred to by General Powell. In his book, Eyeball to Eyeball, about the Cuban Missile Crisis, Dino a Brugioni writes, “President Kennedy, himself adept at clear, concise usage of the English Language, particularly disliked anything smacking of military jargon.”

Twenty-one years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, on Oct. 23rd, 1983, terrorist truck bombs killed 241 United States Military Personnel in Beirut, payback, the late General argued, for imprecise and, in fact, illogical delivery of a supposed “military message.”

In his memoir, Powell pieced together a context for the infamous Marine Barracks killings:

“On August 29, before the [Marine barracks bombing], two Marines had been killed by Muslim mortar fire; on September 3, two more, and on October 16, two more. Against [Defense Secretary Caspar] Weinberger’s protest, [National Security Advisor Bud] McFarlane, now in Beirut, persuaded the President to have the battleship U.S.S. New Jersey start hurling 16-inch shells into the mountains above Beirut, in World War II style, as if we were softening up the beaches on some Pacific atoll prior to an invasion. What we tend to overlook in such situations is that other people will react as much as we would. When the shells started falling on the Shiites, they assumed the American ‘referee’ had taken sides against them. And since they could not reach the battleship. they found a more vulnerable target, the exposed Marines at the airport.

“What I saw from my perch in the Pentagon was America sticking its hand into a thousand-year-old hornet’s nest with the expectation that our mere presence might pacify the hornets.”

Those in positions of government power tasked with communicating policies impacting actual people’s lives, especially the lives of those on the forward lines of American defense, should read or revisit Colin Powell’s book on this, the sad occasion of his death, and – again, with an appreciation of tragic irony, given the level of developed conscience in his case – examine the fine underpinnings of the mind of a public servant who himself erred, but routinely struggled to improve – sometimes successfully – the politically devitalized and confused circumstances in which he labored.

May he rest in peace.

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