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The Truth about Colin Powell

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Note from Robert Parry: As we’ve noted before, false narratives about historical events can steer the American people in directions that are harmful to their interests.

But false narratives about individuals can do the same, often getting the public to trust someone who doesn’t deserve it.

There has rarely been a better example of that than the case of retired Gen. Colin Powell. Across the political spectrum, pundits encouraged the American people to trust Colin Powell.

So, no one looked very closely at the troubling reality behind his pleasant façade. Which made him the perfect choice to sell the Iraq War.

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This excerpt from the new book, Neck Deep, describes the real Colin Powell, the ambitious military bureaucrat who followed orders and put his career interests first:

On January 17, 1963, in South Vietnam’s monsoon season, U.S. Army Capt. Colin Powell jumped from a military helicopter into a densely forested combat zone of the A Shau Valley, not far from the Laotian border.

Carrying an M-2 carbine, Capt. Powell was starting his first – and only – combat assignment. He was the new adviser to a 400-man unit of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN).

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Across jungle terrain, these South Vietnamese government troops were arrayed against a combined force of North Vietnamese regulars and local anti-government guerrillas known as the Viet Cong.

The 25-year-old Powell was arriving at a pivotal moment in the Vietnam War. To forestall a communist victory, President John F. Kennedy had dispatched teams of Green Beret advisers to assist the ARVN, a force suffering from poor discipline, ineffective tactics and bad morale.

Already, many U.S. advisers, most notably the legendary Col. John Paul Vann, were voicing concerns about the ARVN’s brutality toward civilians. Vann feared that the dominant counterinsurgency strategy of destroying rural villages and forcibly relocating inhabitants while hunting down enemy forces was driving the people into the arms of the Viet Cong.

But as Colin Powell arrived, he was untainted by these worries. He was a gung-ho young Army officer with visions of glory. He brimmed with trust in the wisdom of his superiors.

Soon after his arrival, Powell and his ARVN unit left for a protracted patrol that fought leeches as well as Viet Cong ambushes. From the soggy jungle brush, the Viet Cong would strike suddenly against the advancing government soldiers. Often invisible to Powell and his men, the VC would inflict a few casualties and slip back into the jungles.

In My American Journey, Powell recounted his reaction when he spotted his first dead Viet Cong.

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“He lay on his back, gazing up at us with sightless eyes,” Powell wrote. “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.”
 
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 would cry 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. ...

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at
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