Colin Powell: Soldier, scholar, statesman and gentleman

Getty Images

Gen. Colin Powell was born on April 5. Why that date is important follows shortly. This story begins in the late summer of 1975 and provides some largely unreported insights into what made Powell so great and unique. Then-Lt. Col. Colin Powell (and his wife, Alma) joined the National War College (located in Washington, D.C.) as a student in the bicentennial class of 1976. Even then, it was obvious Powell was destined for four-star rank. 

Earlier that year, I (with my wife, Julian) reported for duty on the college faculty. From that point on, the Powells and the Ullmans would become the closest of friends. Julian’s birthday was also April 5, a date we tried to celebrate jointly ever since. The last dinner was in 2019, before COVID-19 made its tragic mark and ended that occasion. But one birthday celebration stood out.

At Colin’s 50th birthday party in 1987, he was then Lt. Gen. Powell and deputy national security adviser, living in housing at Fort McNair, where the National War College is also situated. The guest list included Vice President George H. W. Bush, Second Lady Barbara Bush and many others, including two Ullmans. When the birthday cake came out, Alma had generously put both Colin’s and Julian’s names on it.

Offering a toast, Colin signaled Julian to join him. With a large arm embracing her, Colin loudly and proudly said, “Julian and I used to sleep together here at Fort McNair.” Realizing not everyone was listening, Powell repeated that sentence with gusto. So shocked, Barbara Bush dropped her drink. The guests no doubt thought Powell had lost his mind. 

With a smile so broad you could have counted all his teeth, Powell then added, “In her husband’s classes.” Not many people were secure enough even to consider that toast 

When thinking about Colin Powell, something General of the Army George Marshall said comes to mind. Marshall’s highest accolade was to declare someone a “soldier, scholar and statesman.” Colin Powell was all three with much room to spare, to which I would add a fourth category of “gentleman.”

Viewing Powell as a soldier, scholar, statesman and gentleman is relevant, extending beyond his breaking many racial barriers and offering perhaps a more intimate picture of his greatness.

As a soldier, Powell distinguished himself both in combat and in wartime generalship. In two tours in Vietnam, his wounds earned him the Purple Heart. For bravery, in addition to other decorations, during his second Vietnam tour, he was awarded the Soldier’s Medal for valor in non-combat conditions, equivalent to the Silver Star, the nation’s third-highest award for courage in battle.   

Once, Major Powell was in a helicopter accompanying his commanding general. The engine failed and the helicopter crashed, exploding in a massive fireball. Despite the intense heat and suffering burns and a broken ankle, Powell still managed to rescue his general from the blazing helicopter.

As a wartime general, Powell oversaw Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-1991, and the most one-sided 100-hour military campaign in history.  

Powell also was one of the most articulate people I have met in the sense that he could convey his thoughts and orders in plain and simple English that was always understood. When asked about his strategy for the Iraq war, he said about the Iraqi army, “We’re going to cut it off and kill it!” That could not have been better stated.

As a scholar, Powell laid out his philosophy for leadership and strategic thinking in his autobiography, “My American Journey,” and later books. 

As a statesman, another relatively unreported incident makes this case rather dramatically. In September 1994, President Clinton asked former President Carter, Senate Armed Service Chairman Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Powell to travel to Haiti to convince or coerce the military junta headed by General Raoul Cedras to stand down, allowing the exiled elected president Jean-Betrand Aristide to return. But Clinton did not inform the delegation about Plan B. 

While the team knew that an invasion was imminent, it did not know that the XVIIIth Airborne Corps would land in precisely 36 hours. In “My American Journey,” perhaps out of modesty and not wishing to upstage President Carter’s role, Powell did not reveal the whole story.

After many hours, negotiations were going nowhere. Powell, sensing that the team’s escort officer from the joint staff was nervously consulting his watch, asked for a short recess. Powell took the general aside and asked what the hell was going on. The general said he was not authorized to pass on that information.

In a few words not suitable for an obituary or tribute, the general told the former chairman that H-Hour for the XVIII Corps was only hours away, and he had orders to evacuate the former president and his colleagues well before then.  

Asking President Carter if he could take the lead, Powell graphically explained what was about to befall the junta unless it accepted the demands imposed on them. Fortunately, Cedras buckled; the Junta agreed; and the XVIIIth Corps landed peacefully. Imagine if the Junta had held firm and kidnapped a former president, senior senator and past chairman of the Joint Chiefs. 

As a gentleman, Powell treated all people with great respect and dignity no matter rank or status, another reason for his immense popularity and the respect he in turn gained from privates to peers, something that no other Joint Chief of Staff chairman achieved. 

In retirement, he was perhaps the nation’s most sought-after public speaker. His ongoing encouragement of younger generations to learn was manifested in the creation of the Colin Powell School for Civil and Global Leadership at his alma mater, the City College on New York, and non-profits he and Alma supported, including America’s Progress and the Boys and Girls Club. About his decision whether to seek the presidency in 1996, the family voted 3-2 against even considering that option. 

One reason he chose not to run had to do with Powell’s sense of dignity. Powell was dismayed by the fawning and groveling needed to gain the nomination, and of course fundraising. Powell was simply incapable of succumbing to what he found a deeply offensive and troubling process. That was confirmed  after he spoke at the 1996 Republican convention. And the two voting yes to at least consider a run were Colin and son Michael. But obviously, that vote was non-binding.

One of Powell’s greatest legacies is his family: Alma, daughters Linda and AnneMarie and son, Michael. When asked who was the most impressive person he had ever met, he unhesitatingly said Alma. She was both his compass and chart.

In James Michener’s “Bridges at Toko-Ri,” a movie about Navy pilots in the Korean War, Frederic March played the admiral in command. Wondering aloud about the heroism of his aviators, many of whom survived World War II only to die in Korea, the admiral brooded: “Where do we get such men?”

No better question applies to the life and legacy of Colin Luther Powell: Where do we get such men?

Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.’s Atlantic Council and the primary author of “shock and awe.” He was Colin Powell’s strategy instructor and adviser at the National War College. His latest book, due out in December, is, “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and that World at Large.” 

Tags 2002 Iraq War authorization Colin Powell Colin Powell death Operation Iraqi Freedom

The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

More National Security News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more

Video

See all Video