On 18 October 2021, Colin Powell, former American Secretary of State, died of complications of COVID during the treatment of blood cancer. At the peak of his influence, Colin Powell was one of the most powerful men in the United States. Powell oversaw the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the most profound war of the twenty-first century. He had called his actions in the lead up to the war a blot on his career. The war resulted, not only in the death of lakhs of Iraqis the destabilization of the Middle East and the development of a new generation of terrorist networks but also a foundational shift in international politics. The Iraq war destroyed the international system of justice and created an environment in the twenty-first century where war would become the norm.
The most “reasonable” right-winger
Powell had the image of a moderate right-winger. He was always been considered pragmatic and measured regarding American war efforts. His policies, however, have never prevented war. As a Vietnam War veteran, he often spoke about going to war in ambiguous terms. He would insist that it was a necessary evil to protect American interests. From early in his career, he would cover up war crimes and encourage American military intervention in poor countries, from East Asia to Latin America, to the Middle East.
The My Lai massacre coverup
Powell’s record began when he was only 31 years old in the cover-up of the Vietnamese My Lai Massacre. The My Lai massacre was one of the bloodiest episodes in the Vietnam war when nearly 100 American troops killed nearly 500 Vietnamese civilians and brutally sexually assaulted many women and children. 17 of the victims were pregnant women, and 53 were infants. The massacres occurred in the hamlets of My Lai and My Khe.
The massacre occurred on 16 March 1968. Following an attack on the province, Americans landed in the area, expecting to find enemy combatants. They only found local farmers. The soldiers rounded up the villagers and killed them. Many of them were dragged into holes in the ground and shot with machinegun fire. The soldiers also destroyed property, burning the village to the ground. The soldiers claimed that they attacked the villagers fearing that they were working with the enemy, but they also reported that they encountered no resistance in the villages. The three American servicemen who opposed the massacre were killed. The killings finally stopped when a superior officer landed his helicopter between the fleeing civilians and the gunning soldiers.
Colin Powell, then an army major, was tasked with investigating the events. In his report, he insisted that relations with American troops and the local Vietnamese were fine and that his report was unable to uncover the widespread killings that had happened or any other war crimes.
When asked about the My Lai massacre, Colin Powell would always take a politically correct position. He would condemn the killing of civilians, plead that he was ignorant when investigating, ask people to see a balance between the good and the bad done by American troops.
Rising the ranks
In 1989, Powell achieved the highest position in the military as the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In this time, he oversaw many American military actions, including the invasion of Panama, and the first war America had with Iraq. Across Latin America, Powell either oversaw or directly participated in wars that subverted democracy and helped institute neo-liberal governments.
Powell’s personality was more cautious than many of his contemporary war-mongers. As a veteran of the Vietnam War, America’s most public failure, he often expressed a need to weigh out the consequences of war, but his interests were strictly American.
His positions have been casually referred to by the American media as the Powell doctrine, where everything is evaluated from the point of view of military practicality, achievable interest, and public support. For Powell, American military interventions should be strategic, limited and only performed after a propaganda campaign.
Unwilling leader of the insurrection
Colin Powell was a “cautious” supporter of the invasion of the Iraq War. He had declared to the United Nations that Iraq had been uncooperative in investigations. It could have weapons of mass destruction. This was a lie. He then said that the United Nations needed to support a full-scale investigation into Iraq’s capacity. If Iraq did not cooperate with these terms, the United Nations should oversee an American-led invasion.
Powell insisted that there were two positions, invade Iraq under the UN, or invade Iraq unilaterally. When the United Nations refused to give in to American demands, America invaded unilaterally.
While the loss of life, destruction, and misery of the Iraqi people has been a multi-generational tragedy, the Iraq war become something beyond a war crime. It was a War Insurrection.
Before the invasion of Iraq, wars were considered legal or illegal. Wars needed justification and appropriate authority. If a country invaded another with no justification, the war would be illegal. Self-defence from an ongoing or impending attack would be a justification. Self-defence from an imagined or inevitable attack would not be a justification. In cases where a country feared such an attack, they would have to go to the United Nations to launch an attack. The United Nations was supposed to be an international body that could evaluate the risk and justification of conflicts. The UN would protect countries at risk and could seek a resolution without having to go to war. It would also mediate the consequences of war to reach amicable terms. It had many problems but was far better than that follower.
Powell’s international campaign on the Iraq war, which he would later call a blot on his career, amounted to an insurrection on the international stage. He told the authorities that an invasion was impending and they would have a choice regarding its legitimacy. The Iraq War undid a system of international relations that came in the aftermath of World War II. The Iraq invasion destroyed what might have been the only protection against nuclear war during the Cold War.
Beyond being a War Criminal, Powell, and the others responsible for the American invasion of Iraq, are War Renegades. They brought the global justice system back a century, and because of them, the world is at greater risk. The invasion of Iraq, under his guide, marked the beginning of an era where human rights and lasting peace ceased to even be aspirations.
The author is a mathematician and political observer based in Bangalore, Karnataka. Views are personal.