On November 16, 1968, Major Colin Luther Powell was on his second tour of duty in Vietnam, this time as Deputy Chief of Staff to the Commander of the United States Army Division (also known as the 23rd Infantry Division ). It was mainly a clerical job, but that day Powell was traveling by helicopter with his commanding officer, Major General Charles M. Gettys, to inspect a North Vietnamese camp captured when their helicopter cut down a tree during the landing and crashed.
Powell broke his ankle in the massive crash, but the injury didn’t stop him from rushing back and forth into the wreckage to save the lives of Gettys, his chief of staff and one of the pilots. At one point, Powell ripped parts of the flaming wreckage with his bare hands to free a fellow trapped, knowing the destroyed helicopter could explode at any moment.
Powell received the Soldier’s Medal for his bravery that day, which added to the Bronze Star and two purple hearts he also won on his two tours of Vietnam.
Decades later, Colin Powell would become America’s first black national security adviser, the country’s youngest chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the first black secretary of state. During the Persian Gulf War of 1991, Powell decided not to repeat the costly mistakes of America’s failed Vietnam War and performed an overwhelming show of force now known as the Powell Doctrine.
The qualities that first made Powell such an effective military adviser “blossom” during his service in Vietnam, says Jeffrey J. Matthews, professor of business and leadership at the University of Puget Sound and author of the biography. Colin Powell: Imperfect Patriot.
“Powell’s commanders have consistently commented on his extreme dedication, hard work, commitment and competence both as an officer in the field and as a member of a staff,” says Matthews. “If you want to understand the ultimate importance of Powell, it’s because he used these qualities to become a great supporter, subordinate, and adviser to very powerful military and civilian leaders.”
Powell’s first tour advising South Vietnamese generals
Powell arrived in Vietnam on Christmas Day 1962. It was the first days of US military involvement in the ongoing conflict between the North Vietnamese Communists and the pro-Western government in the South.
In an effort to bolster the South Vietnamese military’s response to guerrilla attacks from the North, President John F. Kennedy sent thousands of “military advisers” to Vietnam from 1961 to 1963. Powell, a captain of the 25-year-old army was among them.
During his year-long tour, Powell served as a tactical advisor to three different South Vietnamese army commanders and he tailored his supporting role to each man’s personality, Matthews writes. When the commander was effective, Powell returned to soldier mode, often personally leading dangerous counterinsurgency raids. But when a Vietnamese commander lacked connections with his men, young Powell stepped in to gain the trust of his 400 soldiers.
“I was meant to be an advisor, not the leader,” Powell wrote in his 1995 memoir. My American background. “Nonetheless, we were both in quiet collusion. Leadership, like nature, abhors a vacuum. And I had been drawn to fill the void.
A loyal and unconditional soldier, Powell did not hesitate to participate alongside the South Vietnamese when they burned enemy villages, killed cattle and burned fields, but he drew the line of mutilating corpses, writes Matthews , prohibiting the practice of cutting off the body of the enemy. coins as trophies.
Powell’s first tour was cut short when he stepped on a North Vietnamese trap called punji tip. The sharpened staff has been smeared with buffalo feces to increase the chances of a deadly infection.
“The special forces medics cut my boot off and they could see my foot was purple at that point,” Powell said later in an interview. “The tip had gone all the way from the bottom to the top, then came back right away, completely infecting the wound.”
My Lai Massacre Second Tour and Cover-Up
Between Powell’s first and second tour of Vietnam, the career soldier enrolled in a series of prestigious officer training programs and repeatedly graduated top of his class. Powell was redeployed to Vietnam in 1968 as the battalion staff officer of the US division stationed at Duc Pho, a Viet Cong stronghold where US soldiers suffered heavy casualties.
Powell quickly impressed his superiors, including Major-General Gettys. After only three months on the job, Powell was promoted from primarily bureaucratic duties to become Gettys Acting Operations and Planning Officer, a job usually reserved for more experienced officers.
“Overnight,” Powell wrote in his memoir, “I went from overseeing eight hundred men to planning war for nearly eighteen thousand soldiers, artillery units, aviation battalions. and a fleet of 450 helicopters. ”
Powell displayed bravery and a sense of duty during the helicopter rescue in November 1968, but he also showed some rare character flaws on his second tour of Vietnam, Matthews says.
Months before Powell was assigned to the U.S. Division, members of the same infantry brigade carried out perhaps the most horrific crime against Vietnamese civilians in the entire war. What became known as the My Lai Massacre resulted in the murder of more than 500 unarmed civilians, including women, children and infants, in the captured village of My Lai. When rumors began to spread about a possible atrocity committed by American soldiers, the military called for an internal investigation and Powell was one of the officers tasked with investigating the charges.
“It was still at the start of the cover-up of what happened by the military, but Powell wrote a pretty straightforward and brilliant outline saying there was no evidence of any massacre,” explains Matthews. “He literally said that relations between American forces and the South Vietnamese people were ‘excellent’, which was hardly the truth.”
Matthews says Powell later admitted that his career ambitions and desire to uphold his reputation as a loyal officer likely influenced his thinking during the war, but he also blamed the atrocities committed by all sides on the dire realities of the war.
From “Vietnam Syndrome” to the Powell Doctrine
Over 58,000 US servicemen died in the decade-long war in Vietnam. After the withdrawal of US troops in 1973, US military leaders were forced to reassess their decision to intervene in the civil wars of other countries. The consensus that emerged became known as the “Vietnam syndrome,” says Christopher O’Sullivan, professor of history at the University of San Francisco and author of Colin Powell: a political biography.
“After Vietnam, the fear was that each deployment would become another Vietnam,” says O’Sullivan. “This had a strong influence on Caspar Weinberger, Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, who wanted to make the criteria for deploying troops much stricter.”
In a 1984 speech, Weinberger outlined what has become the “Weinberger Doctrine,” a six-part test for the use of military force to resolve an international conflict. Powell worked under Weisberger and the two had a “father-son relationship,” says Matthews. They have come to share the same conviction about the use of military force as a last resort. But once military force was required, it would have to be overwhelming and decisive.
“We could not wage another war like Vietnam which had unclear objectives,” says Matthews, “which did not have the full support of the American people and which did not send an overwhelming decisive force when the war broke out. bursts “.
When Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George HW Bush, he honed Weinberger’s principles in the “Powell Doctrine” and deployed it with spectacular effectiveness, first by overthrowing the regime. Manuel Noriega in Panama in 1990, then quickly defeating Saddam Hussein’s forces. in the first Persian Gulf War.
One of the most important lessons Powell learned from Vietnam, Matthews says, was that senior military advisers should stand up and disagree with the president, “which the chairman of the joint chiefs did. not do during the Vietnam War.
In planning the Persian Gulf War, President Bush and his Defense Secretary Dick Cheney wanted to attack almost exclusively with air power, but Powell strongly disagreed.
“Powell said it would be another missed lesson from Vietnam,” Matthews said. “We have to come in with a decisive overwhelming force of ground troops, which they ultimately did. And after the Persian Gulf War, President Bush declared Vietnam Syndrome over.