Former Secretary of State and retired four-star Gen. Colin Powell has returned as the Washington media's favorite oracle, appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press" to tell President Barack Obama, the Republican Party and the nation what they should be doing. That has been followed by media figures like MSNBC's Chris Matthews swooning at the revealed wisdom from the ultimate Wise Man.
However, rather than solicit Powell's critiques of everyone else, "Meet the Press" host David Gregory might have asked Powell to reflect on a story that was on the front page of Sunday's Washington Post, the grisly tale of five U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan who have been accused of hunting and killing Afghan civilians for sport.
Powell might have had some useful insights because back during the Vietnam War, he not only participated in the cover-up of the war's most notorious massacre but defended a fellow officer who was accused of going on hunting expeditions for Vietnamese civilians.
Powell even included some of this ugly business in his much-lauded memoir, My American Journey, although the fawning Washington press corps has always averted its eyes from these disclosures.
For instance, in one chilling passage, Powell explained the routine practice of murdering unarmed male Vietnamese.
"I recall a phrase we used in the field, MAM, for military-age male," Powell wrote. "If a helo [a U.S. helicopter] spotted a peasant in black pajamas who looked remotely suspicious, a possible MAM, the pilot would circle and fire in front of him. 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. But an able battalion commander with whom I had served at Gelnhausen [West Germany], Lt. Col. Walter Pritchard, was killed by enemy sniper fire while observing MAMs from a helicopter. And Pritchard was only one of many. The kill-or-be-killed nature of combat tends to dull fine perceptions of right and wrong."
While combat is undeniably brutal and judgments can be clouded by fear, mowing down unarmed civilians does not constitute combat. It is murder and, indeed, a war crime. Neither can the cold-blooded murder of civilians be excused by the combat death of a fellow soldier.
But Powell had an even more direct connection to the willful hunting of civilians that parallels the current Afghan case.
After returning from Vietnam in 1969, Powell helped in the defense of an Americal Division general who was accused by the Army of murdering unarmed civilians while flying over Quang Ngai province. Helicopter pilots who flew Brig. Gen. John W. Donaldson had alleged that the general gunned down civilian Vietnamese for sport.
In an interview in the mid-1990s, a senior investigator from the Donaldson case told me that two of the Vietnamese victims were an old man and an old woman who were shot to death while bathing. Though long retired, the Army investigator still spoke with a raw disgust about the events of a quarter century earlier. He requested anonymity before talking about the behavior of senior Americal officers.
"They used to bet in the morning how many people they could kill -- old people, civilians, it didn't matter," the investigator said. "Some of the stuff would curl your hair."
For eight months in 1968-69 as an Americal officer in Chu Lai, Powell had worked with Donaldson and apparently developed a great respect for this superior officer.
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."