Friends, family and former colleague Colin L. Powell, the widely acclaimed military-diplomat who from humble Bronx beginnings became the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later served as the first black secretary of state.
Powell is being remembered Friday at a funeral at Washington National Cathedral. President Joe Biden is expected to attend but cannot speak. The eulogist has to be Madeleine Albright, who was Powell’s immediate predecessor as the country’s top diplomat; Richard Armitage, who was deputy secretary under Powell and had known him since they had simultaneously served in the Pentagon during the Reagan administration; and Powell’s son Michael.
WATCH LIVE: Colin Powell’s funeral will begin at 12 p.m. EDT
During his tenure as ambassador to the United Nations during the Clinton administration, Albright occasionally clashed with Powell, although they became good friends. Both have recalled the time during their final months as joint major president, when they argued for US military intervention in the Balkans, asking why the United States would have created a spectacular army if such circumstances were not the case. I could not use it. Powell recalled being deeply irritated by her statement, “I thought I’d have an aneurysm.”
Powell’s view was that the United States should surrender its military only if it had a clear and achievable political objective, a key element of what became known as the Powell Doctrine.
Powell died on October 18 at the age of 84 from complications of COVID-19. He was vaccinated against the coronavirus, but his family said his immune system was compromised by multiple myeloma, a blood cancer for which he was undergoing treatment.
The story of Powell’s rise in American life is a historical example for many.
In his autobiography, “My American Journey”, Powell recounts a post-Depression Era childhood in the Hunts Point section of New York City’s South Bronx, where he was a mediocre student – happy-go-lucky but aimless.
He caught the military bug in 1954 during his first year at the City College of New York. Powell was inspired by seeing fellow students in uniform, and enrolled in the school’s Reserve Officer Training Corps.
“I felt distinctive”, in uniform, he wrote. He would go on to excel in a pioneering Army career.
Although he was only 4 years old when the United States entered World War II, he had vivid memories of the war years. “I deployed the soldiers of the major troop and directed the battle on the living room rug,” he wrote—a fictional forerunner of his military years.
Powell would serve 35 years in uniform. Commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1958, he served as a platoon leader in what was then called West Germany, and in 1962 posted to Vietnam for a year as an adviser to a South Vietnamese infantry battalion it was done. He was injured during that tour; He made a second tour in Vietnam in 1968 and later did a variety of assignments at home and abroad.
He distinguished himself in the Pentagon even before attaining the rank of Flag Officer. In the late 1970s he served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and as Brigadier General in 1983 he became Senior Military Assistant to Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger. He later served as National Security Advisor to President Ronald Reagan at the White House and was promoted to a four-star general in 1989. Later that year, President George HW Bush elected him as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
When Powell’s death was announced, former President George W. Bush said, “He was such a favorite of presidents that he twice earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”
It was a wonderful American dream trip that earned him international acclaim and trust. He put that credibility on the line in February 2003, when, appearing as Secretary of State for the United Nations, he made the case for the war against Iraq. When it was revealed that the intelligence he cited was faulty and the Iraq War turned into a bloody, chaotic nightmare, Powell’s stellar reputation was damaged.
Yet it was not destroyed. After leaving the government, he became a prominent politician on the global stage and the founder of an organization aimed at helping young underprivileged Americans. Republicans wanted him to run for president. Disillusioned with his party, he turned to the final three Democratic presidential candidates, who welcomed his support.
Powell’s influence was felt at the highest levels of the US defense establishment long after he retired from public life. Lloyd Austin, who became the first black secretary of defense in January, called Powell a friend and professional mentor. Like Powell, Austin rose through the ranks of the Army to become a four-star general.
On the day of Powell’s death, Austin called him “one of the greatest leaders we have ever seen”.
Powell was among several prominent national security leaders to die this year, including George Schultz, who served in President Ronald Reagan’s cabinet and was secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush; and Donald H. Rumsfeld, who twice served as Secretary of Defense. A few weeks before Powell’s death, Army General Raymond Odierno, a former US military commander in Iraq, died of cancer.