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Colin Powell was honored by a memorial service at Washington’s National Cathedral last Friday, November 5. This on top of the many tributes already accorded him for his character and role as a Black pioneer—the first African American to serve as National Security Advisor, Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State. Still, the obituaries have had to note a cloud on the horizon; as the AP headline put it, Powell was a “trailblazing general stained by Iraq.”

Indeed, Powell’s dog and pony show before the United Nations on February 5, 2003, was one of the most decisive and tragic turns on the George W. Bush administration’s drive to invade Iraq. Decisive because Powell’s credibility—double that of Bush at the time and salient across the entire political spectrum—sealed public opinion behind the cause of war. Tragic because Powell opposed the whole venture and because every other push to promote it partook, by turns, of lethal innocence, cynicism, ignorance, arrogance, and incompetent warmongering. Powell embodied the opposite of those qualities, but he made the whole thing happen. He was a good soldier.

* * *

It wasn’t the first time. As it happened, a few days before Powell’s death I led a book discussion of Max Hasting’s commanding Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975 (HarperCollins 2018). Much to my surprise I read (pp. 519-20) that no less than Colin Powell, then an Army major and divisional staff officer, wrote an “uncompromising whitewash” of American conduct in the infamous My Lai massacre. The military’s relations with the natives were “excellent,” he reported. When Lieutenant William Calley took the fall for 200+ officers above him on the food chain for the war crime and its subsequent cover-up, an outpouring of civilian and military sympathy helped set him free after 42 months of house arrest—2.5 days per victim. Actually, a fairly harsh sentence as these things go. I don’t know if Hastings included Powell among the 200, but the incident didn’t stop his climb to the pinnacle of power.

The My Lai report foreshadowed Powell’s part in a much grosser slaughter to come. The American invasion of Iraq precipitated the death of 8,250 US troops and contractors, perhaps six times that many Iraqi forces, and some 35,000 enemy fighters. The real casualties, of course, were civilians—somewhere between 185,000 and 210,000 of them—with another 9.2 million Iraqis being displaced at home or abroad. (This from a 2003 population of 25.6 million.) The ranks of the wounded, either in body or spirit, are untold. Financially, direct costs of the war totaled nearly $2 trillion ten years out in 2013, with much more to come in terms of veterans care and interest charges on a war fought entirely on borrowed money. And all of it on behalf of one of, if not the worst foreign policy decision in US history.

* * *

Robert Draper’s To Start a War: How the Bush Administration Took America into Iraq (Penguin 2020) gives a full, precisely detailed, and amply cited account of how this folly came to be. The names and details, the outright lies and innuendos, the misapprehensions and missed clues as to the real truth pile up here page by page, in clarifying, enraging, disheartening, and numbing detail.

The story can be rendered as a script summary for a caper-film become horror movie. Take a tour down memory lane:

  • The con: invade Iraq.
  • The shiny toy fabrications: yellow cake, aluminum tubes, mobile weapons labs, mysterious tankers.
  • The ghosts: Mohamed Atta, Ibn al-Shaykh Al-Libi, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, Curveball.
  • The nightmares: secret meetings in Prague, harbors for terrorists, chemical weapons, biological weapons, potential nuclear weapons, a mushroom cloud over every American city.
  • The master-minds: Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney.
  • The perps: Douglas Feith, Scooter Libby, John Hannah, William Luti.
  • The publicists: numerous. Notable on the liberal side: Judith Miller, Christopher Hitchens, John Hoagland, the New York Times, the Washington Post.
  • Con-men on site: Ahmad Chalabi the devious; L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer the clueless.
  • The cowards: Hillary Clinton, Dick Gephardt, and every other Democrat angling for presidential nomination in 2004.
  • The truth-tellers: many, including Hans Blix, Carl Levin, Brent Scowcroft, Jacques Chirac.
  • The pawns: George Tenet, Condoleezza Rice.
  • The patsy: Colin Powell.
  • The poodle: Tony Blair.
  • The mark: George W. Bush.
  • The enduring icon: Abu Ghraib.

* * *

Draper’s book begins by introducing the principals chapter by chapter, then weaves them together as they concoct and sell a case for war. The line of “Master-Minds” starts, in ascending order of importance, with Vice President Dick Cheney, at once cynical, paranoid, and apocalyptic. Seeing America as surrounded by deadly enemies, he was willing to use any method, cook any book, invoke any specter (see “Nightmares” above) to lash out against them.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld comes next, the perfect profile of arrogance. Determined to create a new model army and finding Iraq a useful place to deploy it, Rumsfeld disdained postwar planning, yet monopolized those powers, leading to the invasion’s catastrophic aftermath. This was part of the bureaucratic mastery by which he outmaneuvered Powell as a dangerous rival while treating NSA director Condoleezza Rice with utter contempt.

At the top of the heap stands Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld’s assistant, the lethal innocent. Fixated for years upon Saddam Hussein as the country’s mortal enemy and confident that 10,000 Iraqi troops mobilized in the south of the country could sweep him away, Wolfowitz just one week after 9/11 planted those seeds in the swamp of ignorant piety that was the brain of George W. Bush. The rest, as they say, is history, and Draper lays it out in maddening detail.

Bush was thrilled to get a cause worthy of his Manichaean passions and, protesting a yearning for peace all the way, rode his mantra relentlessly toward war. Freedom, he “reasoned,” is the universal yearning of all humanity. America, by God’s design, is the epitome of freedom. Therefore America should, can, must bring freedom to any nation that needs it, particularly those that might resist and most particularly the one that had outlasted his father and possessed lots of oil. Doing this by armed invasion would be no problem.

You don’t know whether to laugh or cry over this big baby when, observing the looting and mayhem that took over Iraq’s streets after the invasion, Bush turns to his aides and asks plaintively: “Why aren’t they cheering?”


In this play, Powell took the role of a servant, not a manipulator. So did CIA Director George Tenet. Tenet had his own bureaucratic priorities, aiming to restore the Agency from the neglect into which the Clinton administration had cast it. His strategy was to give “the First Customer” just the information or hypothetical possibilities that he, Bush, wanted. Here and not with the Trump administration, Draper declares, was the dawn of the post-intelligence era, when fantasy and speculation could drive and anchor policy.

Again, Powell opposed all this. Hence the tragedy—for the man, for the nation, for the world. Well down the road toward war, Bush asked his Secretary of State directly: did he, Powell, agree with his president? Was there a case for war? Would he make it on the world stage, at the UN? At this point, Draper argues, Powell could have told the truth: there was neither a just nor a prudential case for war, so, no, he did not agree, would not promote, would instead resign.

That action would probably have stopped the war momentum in its tracks at home. It certainly would have triggered a like resignation by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, turning Parliament against Tony Blair’s push for war, and thus forfeiting the alliance with which Bush was frosting his cake. In other words, this was the last chance, and Powell threw it away.

In later life Colin Powell owned up to his error and acknowledged, while bristling at, the enduring stain it put upon his reputation. Indeed, there are many qualities worth saluting in the man, and not just in comparison to fools like Bush and moral ciphers like Donald Trump. On matters of race and social mobility, he embodied some of the better possibilities of America, even if he also facilitated its love of war. Perhaps he can be best remembered for setting forth starkly the ambiguous nature of the good soldier: a necessity, perhaps, on the battlefield, but hardly ideal for a Secretary of State and not of all for a purported moral icon of the nation.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Had to be said.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Makes us anti-war folks shake our heads in grief and rage in harnessed anger.
    Colin Powell, fully human, like each and all of us. The good and the bad. Not one without the other.

  • William Harris says:

    I think this underplays the war party—the “Vulcans”—they were out for Hussein from the late 90s. Would a Powell resignation have derailed them? That finally is hard to see; I remember the 2002 election, the drumbeats, the shameful attacks on moderates (Sen Max Cleland!!). Some part of the problem may be in the nature of Pres Bush himself who was under-equipped by experience to resist the war party.

    Of course, all this poses the question of what we expect from our leaders here in our Reformed world. How will we as a community raise up our Colin Powells?

    • Jim says:

      Well, Draper thinks that a Powell resignation (along with that of his whole staff ) would have checked the Vulcans. BTW, his whole book is an analysis of them working their will. Powell’s resignation would have been the only equal and opposite force and might well have worked. In any case, in Draper’s opinion–and mine after him–it was worth a try.

      And yes, the Reformed commitment to working within institutions bodes ill for this sort of (truly) prophetic gesture. But then there’s that old Presbyterian Wm Jennings Bryan resigning as Secy of State when it was evident that Wilson was setting himself and the country on a war course…..

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    In the wake of the human and moral horror that was and is Donald Trump, most Republican leaders suddenly looked good in retrospect. I confess that I have softened toward W. Bush and like it that he and Michelle Obama have forged some kind of friendly bond. But the human carnage and sickening death toll unleashed by the misadventure that just was the invasion of Iraq cannot be expunged and must not be out of honor to those injured and murdered and killed. It is not as though the truth was not pretty clear even at the time. Powell did not convince me by a long shot. This was clearly drummed up to finish up some unfinished Neocon business with Hussein. There was zero connection to 9/11 even though Cheney and others repeated that connection so often that by March of 2003 a whole lot of Americans were convinced Saddam Hussein had been a 9/11 mastermind. There was no such thing as memes back in the early 2000s but one would-be meme that circulated at the time was right: No One Died When Clinton Lied. When Bush and company lied, the death toll became inexcusably sickening.

  • Rodney Haveman says:

    Thank you, Jim. As always your posts are enlightening and powerful … maybe hopeful. It seems to me that most of life is the regular pattern of every day and then there are a few moments that will define us. It is so easy to scoff at Powell for failing this moment (I don’t think you are doing this exactly by the way). I wonder how I will handle my moments. I suppose I’m lucky that the lives of around 10+ million plus all the wounded soldiers etc. do not hang in the balance with those decisions in my life.
    Powell is just like me, sort of softens my heart for him and raises the urgency for how I live and the choices I make.
    Thank God I don’t carry the pressures he did, but who knows, maybe I could have risen to the moment. I will likely never know. God be praised.

    • Jim says:

      Right, I wasn’t scoffing, more like mourning. My anger goes toward the militarism that has so saturated the USA, sweeping good people behind the ploys of evildoers. And yes, May all our eyes be open to how and where we meet such a challenge .

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