|During the last generation, many sad things have happened. We sold our jobs, factories and technology to China. We turned millions of workers into right-wing extremists, some violent. We fought two generational wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, that accomplished little. We converted our society into a shrine to profit, with many unintended consequences.
So we made our economy brittle. When the pandemic came, we utterly botched our response until our legendary innovation, in the form of vaccines, saved us. We had elected an incompetent narcissist as our president, and he fomented a so-far-failed but sometimes violent populist revolution based on lies.
None of this makes me sad. Appalled, angry, committed, thoughtful and determined, yes. But not sad.
What made me sad was reading about the death of Colin Powell today. It seemed the end of an era, our fleeting American Century.
Powell was unique as an important historical figure, but not for the obvious reason. It wasn’t his race, although he was the first Black Chairman of our Joint Chiefs and our first Black Secretary of State. It wasn’t his distinguished service in different martial and political posts. It wasn’t even his successful management of the single major military adventure since Korea that we might call a “victory” without gagging. (More on this later.)
No, there was something about Powell that instilled confidence, optimism, loyalty, even devotion. He had no ideology. He didn’t think you can solve real, complex problems with abstractions that can fit on a bumper sticker. Like most generals, he was a practical man.
Powell was the epitome of quiet competence and moderation in word and deed. He exemplified the careful, thorough planning—so lacking today—that comes from knowing how many ways the best laid plans can go wrong.
It’s ironic. His “Powell Doctrine” for optional wars may have been the only product of his careful mind that might fit on a bumper sticker. Yet the media often get it wrong. It has three elements: (1) overwhelming force, (2) a well-defined and limited objective, and (3) a clear exit strategy. Yet in its otherwise fine obituary, the Washington Post omitted the third point.
Isn’t that the most important of the three? Win or lose, wars are painful. So shouldn’t we have a plan to end them as we go in? We lacked a clear exit strategy in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq (which still isn’t peaceful yet). And where are we today?
Under Powell’s careful management as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, we did infinitely better in Gulf I. We and our allies took five months to build up a force of half a million in the theater. Then we won the war in two months.
We kicked Saddam out of the Kuwaiti oil fields, degraded his fighting force and destroyed his military assets. Then we came home. The majority of our casualties (unfortunately long lasting) were environmental, caused by Saddam’s burning the oil fields in departing, and by troops’ exposure to the depleted uranium we used in our tank-killing shells.
Brakes don’t get much press. Engines get all the glory. But Powell’s greatest service to our country, and to humanity, may have been braking the sometimes violent extremism of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, at least for a time. Powell didn’t invade Baghdad or occupy Iraq—follies we avoided until Dubya’s self-admitted “bloodlust” after 9/11 led us astray. The press maligned Powell as “the reluctant warrior.” But isn’t that the best kind?
For me, the saddest thing about Powell’s career was not his standing behind George Tenet while Tenet claimed that Saddam’s possession of nuclear weapons—later completely debunked—was a “slam dunk.” For me, the saddest thing was Powell’s decision not to run for president in 1996.
Think about that. To paraphrase Will Rogers (who spoke of Democrats and horse thieves), not all Republicans are racists, but all racists are surely Republicans. The GOP has made racism a central pillar of its platform since the civil rights acts of the 1960s.
But if Powell had run under the Republicans’ banner, they would have had to put a stop to it: he would have been their man. We would be living in a very different America today; Obama would have had a much easier time, and the Demagogue would still be grifting in the New York City real-estate market.
I know, I know. This is speculation of the dreamiest sort. But in every age, general-presidents have come forward to pull us through the aftermath of our most difficult moments: Washington after our six-year long War of Independence, Grant after the agony of our Civil War, and Eisenhower after our species’ worst war in history, World War II.
All had important presidencies because generals—especially winning ones—are of necessity practical thinkers. They are free from ideological prejudices, and they know the value of peace. We missed the chance to have Powell pull us out of our post-Vietnam, post-Watergate malaise, not to mention the growing menace of a major party’s descent into racism and division as political strategies.
Powell declined the chance for the best of reasons: family. His wife Alma was reportedly depressive, and he felt she would not tolerate the torrent of racism that inevitably would engulf his family if he ran. So he didn’t run.
The loss was ours, as a nation. We endured a second term of Bill Clinton, hobbled by the Lewinski scandal and an impeachment trial, which ultimately crippled the Democratic Party. The results were Dubya’s disputed election, two unnecessary wars in response to 9/11, and GOP-mounted scorched-earth resistance to our first Black president and to meaningful health-care reform.
By the end of Dubya’s hapless presidency, we had nothing left but hope. We lacked the reserve of Powell’s careful planning, as job losses mounted and later sparked working-class rage and rebellion. The torrent of racism that engulfed Obama precluded investment in anything but health care. Then the pandemic came along.
We may wait a long time for Powell’s like to come again. He was immensely popular, for good reason. He had great media savvy. He had an inner confidence that came from his practicality, his self-restraint, and his innate knowledge that bumper stickers hold no wisdom. He had the humility to work well with others, to make detailed, complex plans, and to revise them when necessary. He had the decency and empathy of a Joe Biden, along with immense experience in the federal bureaucracy and the public adulation that comes from having won a big war with little pain.
So the sadness I feel with Powell’s passing is not just over the loss of a good man. All men die. But I wonder who like Powell will rise to lead our nation, in war or peace, and how long we’ll have to wait.