In the wake of Former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s death, how do we best reflect on the lives of people who committed singular wrongs of enormous proportion? Colin Powell was one of the most extraordinary figures in American history. The son of Jamaican immigrants, he rose through the military to become a decorated general, a trailblazer for Black soldiers & Americans, and eventually to hold the military’s highest position as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A devoted husband and father of three, he lived a remarkable life with a career marked by well executed and significant diplomatic and military endeavors — that is until Iraq.
In 2003, as Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, Powell sat before the still wounded nation and a United Nations in trepidation over proposed military intervention in Iraq. Over an hour-long speech, Powell — a figure revered by Americans for his clarity, accomplishments, and dignity of purpose — paraded false intelligence that sold the country on an ill-conceived endeavor. In the years that followed, the number of weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq held constant at zero, while civilian and military deaths resulting from the conflict climbed to an estimated 400,000 people, a human loss of grossly tragic proportion.
How do we forgive such an action when the consequences are so grave? Can we venture to judge Secretary Powell by the totality or his life before and after Iraq when such a bludgeoning failure exists with it?
Powell was deeply skeptical of the intelligence and scrutinized it for days before giving his speech to the United Nations. In private meetings with the President and Vice President, he expressed these reservations. But despite those reservations, and Powell’s later eagerness to express that he had such, I feel this makes the eventual wrong worse not better. What is the power of Powell’s closed-door conviction when that same conviction was broadcast to mislead the world in favor of the Bush Administration’s belligerence? Everyone is better than the worse thing they’ve ever done. But Powell’s actions were not only an act of wrongdoing, they went against a better judgement he admitted, and later sought to prove, he had at the time.
James Baker, who served as Secretary of State and White House Chief of Staff under Bush Senior, said of Powell’s Iraq War actions, “He’s the one guy who could have perhaps prevented this from happening.” According to testimonials from other involved in the decision, Baker’s presumption is correct.
But also at issue in our reflection on Powell’s life, is the unfair burden of having the power to make errors with such fatal consequences. While the worst mistake a professor or student could make might be neglecting their responsibilities, truancy, or plagiarism, the decisions our world leaders make each day have life or death consequences. While heart surgeons perform thousands of successful and lifesaving procedures, some will inevitably make mistakes that leads to the deaths of patients. Are singular lapses of better judgement – however consequential they may be – enough to critique a lifetime of good simply because the stakes of their decisions are higher? I don’t know the answer to that question, especially in the case of Colin Powell.
Despite an act which I believe to be a betrayal to humanity, he dedicated his life after the fact to atoning for his sin and sought to make the nation he loved a better place. He not only admitted his speech before the UN was wrong, but deeply and sincerely regretted it. He took bold political stances against his party, publicly advocated for the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell which expelled gay service members from the military unless they remained closeted, and endorsed several presidential candidates of the opposite party as his own.
Perhaps the most positive impact of Powell’s life is what he represented to millions of Americans. Congressman Jamaal Bowman, a stalwart progressive and critic of American intervention abroad, received enormous pushback for tweeting that as a black New Yorker he was inspired by Powell’s example. Some progressives argued that Powell’s UN speech was unforgivable, and that Bowman should be ashamed of looking to him as an idol. Bowman wrote, “As a Black man just trying to figure out the world, Colin Powell was an inspiration. He was from NYC, went to City College, and rose to the highest ranks of our nation. Sending love, strength and prayer to the family and friends of Secretary Powell. Rest in power sir.”
Forgiveness requires the bravery to admit wrongdoing, and to repent not with words, but with conviction and action. Colin Powell will not be judged by any singular act of good or wrong, but by the impact of a life that like most, was imperfect. It’s not for us to judge Sec. Powell, that lies with his maker. Regardless of his mistakes, our nation is better for his conviction and his example. That, of all things, will be what is mostly missed.