News Brief: Colin Powell — Stumbling Empire Personified

Citations Needed | October 20, 2021 | Transcript

Former Sec. of State Colin Powell makes a case for the US invasion of Iraq to the UN Security Council on Feb. 5, 2003. (The New York Times / James Estrin)


Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: You can follow Citations Needed on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through We are 100 percent listener funded so all your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated. We do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled full length episodes when there is something breaking in the news that we feel like we just really want to talk about Adam, you and I, oftentimes when big personality, often war criminals, die, we see tons of hagiographies in the press. This week is no different. On October 18, 2021, General Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, died at the age of 84 of complications from COVID-19, and, of course, immediately the press was awash with glowing obituaries for, of course, the soldier, the warrior, the diplomat, the so-called “Great American.”

Adam: Yeah, I mean, this is very similar to John McCain, which of course, we also commented on, again, we don’t necessarily, we don’t enjoy the grim process of ragging on dead people, but of course, you’re allowed to comment on the legacy and the ideological implications of that legacy from the media, then, therefore, it becomes a story worthy of comment, right? It’s sort of a classic, you’re allowed to sort of compliment but not criticize, which is always a very suspect, rhetorical arrangement where you can give this kind of effuse and kind of pat praise about diplomat, statesman, first African American to do this, and this and this, which is, you know, that’s fine, and I understand why there’s a reason we do that. But of course, when you do that, you begin to really kind of trivialize the bad things Colin Powell did, and most importantly, the kind of theme of this particular News Brief, is the ideological cover for the bad things he provided, which in many ways are more consequential and dispositive than your kind of right-wing normal kind of background static noise — and what do I mean by that? So the purpose of Colin Powell, not only sanctioning the premises for the invasion and destruction of Iraq, but actually lobbying for them in a diplomatic body, like the United Nations, like support from Dissent magazine, quote-unquote “Dissent magazine,” like support from The New York Times, like support from The New Republic, liberal or even supposedly left, or moderate — because again, Colin Powell was known as being apolitical, he was somebody that people were unclear if he was a Democrat or Republican for many, many years — that that stamp of approval is actually more consequential than a Dick Cheney or Fox News, because that’s kind of a baseline 40 percent, convincing 40 percent of Americans, whereas when Bill Keller at The New York Times or Colin Powell or Christopher Hitchens, a sort of ex-Trotskyist, when they put their stamp of approval on these wars, it’s actually more meaningful. So that’s why the idea that somehow he sort of an incidental player in this is, I think, very disingenuous, because as sort of a matter of salesmanship, as far as converting people, converting kind of skeptical liberals and centrists, he had far more and convincing the editorial boards of The Washington Post — to the extent to which they really needed to be convinced, maybe it was a bit of a patina, but — I think that’s really where this whole thing is very annoying, because I think the reason why you and I talk about Iraq so much, aside from it being a very consequential sort of moral transgression, you know, it was the biggest kind of lie and scam of our generation.

Nima: Oh, absolutely.

Adam: I know you’re a little older than I am.

Nima: I think we’re the same fake generation, Adam, don’t worry about it. (Laughs.)

Adam: (Chuckles.) Thank you. It shaped our worldview, and then 20 years later to see this kind of, you know, it’s why I was so hard on Slow Burn, the Slate Iraq war podcast, because it was just a series of bumbling empire tropes. Then when we got here with Colin Powell’s passing, sort of the personified version of stumbling empire. Here’s a man who is a human manifestation of the stumbling empire trope, who’s adjacent to or around or assisting a series of imperial crimes, various degrees of violence.

Nima: Right, but that he himself is always able to maintain the kind of nobility, good intentions, if there are any, you know, false steps it’s a mistake, he then owns up to those, he is fallible, he is human, but he is no bully, has integrity. There was this really appalling tweet from Stacey Abrams, which after news broke that Colin Powell had died, she tweeted out, “Godspeed to Secretary Colin Powell, who led with integrity, admitted fallibility and defended democracy. Deepest condolences to his loved ones and friends.” Now, if Dick Cheney tweets something out, I mean, gross, but sure, if even Jake Tapper tweets something out, I’m sure has spent time on a show talking about Colin Powell, that all makes sense. When you have ostensible, slightly more progressive people doing that similar hagiography it does what Colin Powell did for agenda-driven neoconservative warmongering, right?

Adam: This whole thing is a civic religion, because people say, ‘Why does Ocasio-Cortez praise John McCain? Why do these people do this?’ I’ll tell you what it is. It’s an incantation at a civilian religious service where you sort of, you say, ‘Please, God, don’t pile on me.’ Not to sort of make excuses, but it’s a way of saying like, ‘I don’t want to be on a list. I don’t want to be considered difficult. I don’t want to be considered radical or fringe. So I’m going to give this fatuous, they-were-good-people civility bullshit, because it’s an ideological signal that I’m going to exist within a very specific framework.’

Nima: Exactly.

Adam: And my thing is always like, well, why not just shut up? Why say anything at all? Because it is very trivializing to the victims.

Nima: Well, because then, Adam, then it will be ‘Oh, well, look, you know, Stacey Abrams,’ I’m just using Stacey Abrams as an example, and certainly not an example of anyone on the left, but just an example of like a mainstream personality who just feels like they need to say something, right? Because then it becomes, ‘Oh, well, I didn’t see you say anything when so and so died,’ right? And so it’s this thing where everyone should just either shut up or be clear about their own ideology in their praise, but that never happens of course.

Adam: We need to be honest about the ideological work that’s done when you praise these things. Because again, I mean, if you praised Fidel Castro or any other kind of official enemy, and people did, there was a meltdown when certain politicians did that. Karen Bass did that and had the answer for it for weeks from, you know, from a mugging Jake Tapper, that to act like it’s sort of not an implicit ideological endorsement is very disingenuous, because of course it is, and of course, it trivializes the crimes they commit, which I think are worth kind of recapping here on the show, because it’s not just ideological claptrap.

Nima: Yeah, let’s see quite how Colin Powell was leading with integrity during his career, which can be traced of course back to Vietnam. In his memoir, My American Journey, Powell recounted his reaction upon seeing a dead member of the revolutionary Viet Cong army for the first time, and he wrote this, quote:

He lay on his back, gazing up at us with sightless eyes. I felt nothing, certainly not sympathy. I had seen too much death and suffering on our side to care anything about what happened on theirs.

End quote.

In a 2000 Consortium News report by Robert Parry and Norman Solomon, they wrote this about Powell’s experience in Vietnam, quote:

While success against the armed enemy was rare, Powell’s ARVN unit punished the civilian population systematically. As the soldiers marched through mountainous jungle, they destroyed the food and the homes of the region’s Montagnards, who were suspected of sympathizing with the Viet Cong. Old women cried hysterically as their ancestral homes and worldly possessions were consumed by fire.

‘We burned down the thatched huts, starting the blaze with Ronson and Zippo lighters,’ Powell recalled. ‘Why were we torching houses and destroying crops? Ho Chi Minh had said the people were like the sea in which his guerrillas swam. … We tried to solve the problem by making the whole sea uninhabitable. In the hard logic of war, what difference did it make if you shot your enemy or starved him to death?’

End quote.

Powell and members of the 132nd MP Company pose for photographs in Saudi Arabia, December 22, 1990. (Reuters / Jonathan Bainbridge)

In 1968, as the war raged on, Powell was instrumental in the cover up of the My Lai massacre in which US soldiers raped and slaughtered hundreds of women, men, many elderly and of course, children in the hamlet of My Lai. A soldier named Tom Glen wrote a letter explaining the abject cruelty of the US troops toward Vietnamese civilians, including what were deemed suspected Viet Cong members to somehow justify that. Powell, who at that point had ascended the army ranks to become an executive officer effectively denied the massacre. Again, from the 2000 Consortium News report by Parry and Solomon, there’s this, quote:

Powell claimed that U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were taught to treat Vietnamese courteously and respectfully. The American troops also had gone through an hour-long course on how to treat prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, Powell noted.

‘There may be isolated cases of mistreatment of civilians and POWs,’ Powell wrote in 1968. But ‘this by no means reflects the general attitude throughout the Division.’ Indeed, Powell’s memo faulted Glen for not complaining earlier and for failing to be more specific in his letter.

‘In direct refutation of this [Glen’s] portrayal,’ Powell concluded, ‘is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.’

Powell’s findings, of course, were false. Thought they were exactly what his superiors wanted to hear.

Adam: Yeah. So from the beginning we have a company man, I get there are racial dynamics to this, obviously running up the ranks as a black man in the US military comes with a certain different set of standards that I’m sympathetic to, but that’s kind of the point, right? He’s a functionary, he’s a brand that represents a kinder, gentler machine gun hand, which we’ll see throughout his career. Powell also defended Brigadier General John W. Donaldson, who was accused by the army of murdering unarmed civilians while flying over the Quảng Ngãi province where My Lai was located. Again from Consortium News, quote:

When the Army charged Donaldson with murder on June 2, 1971, Powell rose in the general’s defense. Powell submitted an affidavit dated Aug. 10, 1971, which lauded Donaldson as ‘an aggressive and courageous brigade commander.’

Powell did not specifically refer to the murder allegations, but added that helicopter forays in Vietnam had been an ‘effective means of separating hostiles from the general population.’

Cut to El Salvador, as former guest of the show, Roberto Lovato noted on Twitter in reference to his native El Salvador, quote, “Since he’s trending, important to remember that Colin Powell was 1 of the leading generals arming, training & protecting the Salvadoran military & death squads responsible for slaughtering 75–80,000. He did so throughout the war.” As General Powell helped train the US aligned right-wing paramilitary death squads in El Salvador during the Salvadoran Civil War from 1979 to 1992. Powell supported Alfredo Cristiani, a Salvadoran president and member of the far right Arena Party, which was co-founded by a squad leader, Roberto D’Aubuisson Arrieta in 1991. By then he was the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell publicly advocated for the Persian Gulf style solution to El Salvador, the El Salvador Civil War in order to protect US interests. From a 1991 UPI article, quote:

Asked about a Persian Gulf-style solution, Powell spoke at length about political, as opposed to military, solutions being the model for dealing with modern conflicts.

‘But at the same time,’ he added, ‘if it becomes necessary to defend freedom, then one must do it.’

Nima: To defend freedom.

Adam: 1989 Powell oversaw the invasion of Panama, the resulting deaths of at least 500 Panamanians. 500 is the official number, the actual number is probably much higher, as revealed by finding the remains of many more dead in 2020.

Nima: Yeah, so I think we’re starting to see the kind of democracy defense and, you know, leadership with integrity that Colin Powell should be known for, isn’t known for, but maybe should be known for. Of course, there’s this course there is also this, in late 1992, this is from an article in The New Republic, quote,

President Elect Clinton said that he intended to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military. In the President’s very first week in office however, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including the immensely popular Colin Powell, threatened to resign in protest over any such effort.

Now, of course, this is what sparked the don’t ask, don’t tell policy, which has since been rescinded. But again, a moral giant, of course, always able to see far ahead and make the right decisions — is that Colin Powell? I don’t know about that. And then, of course, we get to the Iraq War, where Colin Powell was integral in selling this war crime to not only the American public further, but tried to on a world stage, at the UN, on February 5, 2003, making a now infamous presentation to try to make the case for aggressive invasion of Iraq.

Adam: We won’t get into the excruciating details of Colin Powell’s UN speech, we will reference you instead to Jon Schwarz’s really good breakdown from February of 2018 called, “Lie After Lie: What Colin Powell Knew About Iraq 15 Years Ago and What He Told the U.N. The evidence is irrefutable: Powell consciously deceived the world in his 2003 presentation making the case for war with Saddam Hussein.” Which basically shows several different examples, cross referencing with other memoirs and accounts showing Colin Powell knew that this was bullshit. Of course, you don’t really need those references to cross reference to know that he should have known. The new line that a lot of people were spouting was that Powell was just a soldier doing his part, that the State Department was not privy to intelligence. This is amusing for a couple reasons. Number one is the State Department actually is privy to intelligence. Number two —

Nima: He was the Secretary of State, for Christ’s sake.

Adam: Yeah, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he didn’t just get off the cabbage truck. Number two, the idea that somehow these ex oil executives like Cheney, PNAC psycho, who’ve been writing op-eds for invading Iraq for over 10 years, who we know were part of the team B who planted false information about the Soviets that they laundered through Russian media and other kind of CIA carve outs in Eastern Europe. We know that they planted evidence before, this is not new, anyone who understands what they did, their job was to plant false information to sow discontent among communist factions in Eastern Europe, we know that of course, the PNAC group that was, you know, the Wolfowitzes, Richard Perle, had very clearly said they wanted to invade Iraq, we know that their intention was invade Iraq the second the second airplane hit the twin towers on 9/11. Powell would have to absolutely be the biggest fucking dope in the world to not know that they were cooking the books on the intelligence, he of course knew that, he of course knew his job was to play the role of the moderate, kind of reasonable, non ideological realist who’s looked at the evidence and to simply come to the conclusion that it’s irrefutable. “Irrefutable,” was the headline of The Washington Post editorial the following day, in February of 2003, the editorial of The Washington Post enthusiastically endorsing the war, the editorial said, quote, “Irrefutable,” that was the headline, it would go on to say, quote:

After Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s presentation to the United Nations Security Council yesterday, it is hard to imagine how anyone could doubt that Iraq possesses weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Powell left no room to argue seriously that Iraq has accepted the Security Council’s offer of a ‘final opportunity’ to disarm. And he offered a powerful new case that Saddam Hussein’s regime is cooperating with a branch of the al Qaeda organization that is trying to acquire chemical weapons and stage attacks in Europe. Mr. Powell’s evidence, including satellite photographs, audio recordings and reports from detainees and other informants, was overwhelming. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, called it ‘powerful and irrefutable.’ Revealing those tapes and photographs had a cost, as Iraq will surely take countermeasures. But the decision to make so much evidence public will prove invaluable if it sways public opinion here and abroad. At a minimum, it will stand as a worthy last effort to engage the United Nations in facing a threat that the United States could, if necessary, address alone or with an ad-hoc coalition.

So again, you had this is how, I remember watching this in school and I remember thinking, when my brother was grounded one time my father forced him to read Colin Powell’s biography.

Nima: Oh. That’s fucked up.

Adam: It’s a true story, my father was obviously very much a Republican, but this is how he was viewed by a lot of the country as the gold standard, man of integrity, man of ethics, led us to the Persian Gulf, he was kind of post partisan, he was not one of these foaming right-wing nuts, he was not a Rush Limbaugh guy.

Nima: He’s not driven by agenda. He’s driven by duty, right?

Adam: Yeah, he was the perfect kind of Council on Foreign Relations, imperial sort of figure. Similar to John McCain, right? Kind of above reproach, not really like, you know, he didn’t go on about homosexuals and Murphy Brown, and you know, he wasn’t into the culture war stuff. He was sort of above the fray. Although, I don’t know if he actually finished the book, I think to get back at him he read Malcolm X’s biography, but it’s a long story. But the point is, that this was sort of how he was viewed. So when he gives his stamp of approval for the war in Iraq, then it’s like, what The Washington Post says, it’s irrefutable, right? I mean, this is coming from a man with approval ratings that are Tom Hanks level, that are very popular. He’s sort of viewed as being, again, not a partisan hack, not a foaming neocon, and that is not evidence of his relative benignness, it is, in fact, evidence of actually being far more sinister. Because you can’t do it without him, you need a good cop, you can’t just have a bad cop, you can’t just have a Cheney, it doesn’t work that way. You have to have a good cop.

Nima: Exactly. That is actually what makes all of that really sinister, American imperial propaganda work. You can’t just have it come from Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld, you need that more even keel, different level, arbiter of the truth to move that along. You know, you see this always when high level members of US administrations leave their posts, then we hear, as we heard, say, in November of 2004, when Colin Powell had then left his post as Secretary of State, and we heard, it was reported that he called the neoconservatives in the administration that he worked alongside “crazies,” and so then he becomes yet again, on his way out the door, back to board- appointed posts.

Adam: Yeah, and then he, you know, he backs Obama 2008.

Powell meets President Barack Obama at the White House in 2010. (UPI / Rex / Shutterstock / Martin H Simon)

Nima: No, exactly. He gets to, you know, distance himself from, quote-unquote “the crazies,” and maintain that integrity, that nobility when he was a fundamental part of one of the biggest war crimes of this young century still.

Adam: And of course, his involvement in Iraq was sort of unavoidable, but his help covering up the My Lai massacre, and his role training death squads in El Salvador was not mentioned in his obituaries in The New York Times, it was not mentioned in the obituary in the CNN, it was not mentioned the obituary in NBC News. Washington Post briefly mentions My Lai, but frames it as a kind of “missed opportunity” for him to be even more of an American hero, and so you sort of omit the inconvenience stuff because, again, like McCain, he’s an avatar for the civic religion of military worship in this country. One of esteemed statesmen who believes in democracy and freedom and human rights and so his death is not about him really at all, it’s about reinforcing the ideological premises of US empire, sort of US forward projection, the kind of bromides of democracy, etcetera — freedom, integrity, statesmanship, diplomacy — and you can’t really do that if you mention the ways in which his career was defined by his willingness to go along with very bad things. Now, do I know if he went home and felt really bad about it, which is kind of what everyone says, right? He sort of felt bad about it, he felt bad about Iraq, he apologized.

Nima: Like that fucking matters.

Adam: I don’t know. Look, several people said ‘despite his mistakes,’ a lot of people said ‘despite his mistakes,’ we all make mistakes, Nima, I’ve made lots of mistakes, you’ve made lots of mistakes.

Nima: The big mistake Colin Powell made is going to be a blemish on his otherwise perfect legacy.

Adam: But that’s like not, he didn’t, you know, a mistake is getting in a car accident maybe, a mistake is cheating on your taxes. I’m trying to sort of think of a serious mistake, right? A mistake is taking a pay cut to go find yourself in Europe, and you know, it ends up hurting the family. Those are the mistakes people make in their life. But when you destroy an entire country, like the question becomes, should that become the defining thing that defines you? And it sort of has to, otherwise what it shows is that to the reader, and to the journalist, and to the people reporting that, again, Arab lives simply don’t really matter. They’re viewed as being an unfortunate phase, sort of, like maybe torn jeans in college or something, but it sort of happened and we moved on, and there was a stumble, we were bumbling, and it’s like for those who take these things seriously, right, you know, for those who sort of believe in the moral gravity of the violence of American machinery, again, beyond the sort of sloganeering, the actual consequences of these things, the human consequences, the birth defects, the lives lost, the families destroyed, the cycle of violence unleashed by the war, the rise of ISIS, all the crimes ISIS committed as a result, for those who sort of view those things as being bad, it’s inherently trivializing to gloss over those, and to act like one of the key people, probably top three people responsible for selling the war, that it was a mulligan, that it was sort of an oopsie. It’s inherently trivializing.

Nima: Yeah, and so I think part of the hagiography we’re seeing, again, Powell now, McCain yesterday, is also wrapped up into this idealized nonsense about what civil political discourse could be. So it fits in, it’s like the latest kind of jigsaw puzzle piece to the kind of rote media assessment of, ‘We’re so partisan, why are things so difficult now? Why can’t we just go back to when we had noble statesmen, where it wasn’t Trump, and we just had men of integrity, who were in control, and we could trust them?’ And somehow, people like Colin Powell, are deemed those trustworthy people, people who literally lied deliberately, to the entire planet, in order to somehow justify the decision to commit massive war crimes that they were already committed to doing. And like having this fucking patina of integrity, and evidence and truth and fucking justice over it will never make up for those crimes. And so these obituaries that keep coming out for people like Colin Powell, or in this case, Colin Powell, specifically, are continuing to do the ideological work that he was trying to do at the UN on February 5, 2003. It is continuing when you praise someone like that in the terms that they are doing, beyond glass ceiling breaking, beyond noting that someone who held a, you know, high level position in a destructive and murderous administration has now passed away describing that because of the newsworthiness of it. No, these are all peons to who this person is and what he stands for, and what he fucking stands for, should be deemed criminal and awful, as opposed to noble and praiseworthy.

Adam: Yeah, there’s no way of removing the ideological content and immoral content from the statements. I mean, when people die who we think are baddies, we call them baddies. We think they’re good, we call them good. And this kind of cheeky thing where it’s like, well, we can respect the service. It’s like, what? No, that’s not a thing. That’s just the thing we made up because of cognitive dissonance, we have to sort of reconcile the inherent contradictions of the ruling class and the crimes they commit with our sort of warm and fuzzy feelings of them, and it’s kind of insulting to everyone’s intelligence, because again, it’s this civic, religious ritual. It is about making sure that we’re not veering too far off the kind of ideological, the acceptable ideological sandbox, and the whole thing is tedious and trivializing and it’s sort of, again, it’s why no one outside of the US or maybe some weirdos in the UK, it’s why no one takes the all the human rights and democracy posturing seriously because we hold absolutely zero people accountable in this country.

Nima: Well, right, because the headlines to the Powell articles are not, career war criminal who helped cover up the My Lai massacre and propagandized for the invasion and destruction of Iraq dies at 84 without ever being held accountable. That’s not the headline. The headline is statesman, warrior, secretary was lost, a man of integrity, you know, a great American, and so we just wanted to cover what we were seeing in the press, because hey, that’s the shit we do here on Citations Needed. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. But that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. We will be back next week with our next full length episode. So stay tuned for that, and until then, thank you everyone for listening as always. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks, everyone, we’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, October 20, 2021.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.