In reporting on Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation on Iraq at the U.N. Security Council, many media outlets gave more credence to his allegations because Powell is considered by media insiders to be both supremely trustworthy and a reluctant warrior. As a USA Today headline put it (2/6/03), “Case Is Stronger When ‘Biggest Dove’ Makes It.” Or as Time magazine gushed (2/17/03): “Powell, we sometimes forget, is a phenomenon, a chapter from tomorrow’s history books walking right in front of us. It isn’t just the unique resume that demands respect; it’s also the presence and the personality–the unforced authenticity and effortless sense of command…that stills and fills a room.” It went on like that.
Had more media outlets taken a look at that “unique resume,” they would have found elements that raise questions about whether Powell is either trustworthy or a dove. In his autobiography, My American Journey, Powell defends a Vietnam War practice of firing a burst of machine-gun fire in front of any peasant seen from a helicopter who looked “remotely suspicious.” Wrote Powell: “If he moved, his movement was judged evidence of hostile intent, and the next burst was not in front, but at him. Brutal? Maybe so…. The kill-or-be-killed nature of combat tends to dull fine perceptions of right and wrong.” If that’s our nation’s “biggest dove,” we’re in big trouble.
Another Vietnam anecdote reveals how far Powell can be trusted to evaluate evidence. In November 1968, a U.S. soldier in the Americal Division wrote a letter to Gen. Creighton Abrams describing abuses he had witnessed of Vietnamese civilians and of prisoners of war. Abrams forwarded the letter to Colin Powell, then a major in the Americal’s 11th Brigade. Without ever contacting the soldier who wrote the letter or suggesting that anyone do so, Powell dismissed his findings, writing, “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”
Among the atrocities that Powell failed to expose by his refusal to take the soldier’s charges seriously was the March 1968 My Lai massacre, in which hundreds of unarmed civilians were murdered–by members of Powell’s 11th Brigade.
See also Powell Media Mania, by Robert Parry and Norman Solomon (Extra!, 1-2/96).