Colin Powell’s legacy of war crimes and lies

The secretary of state, secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld and president George Bush Jr were among the architects of the so-called war on terror that killed almost a million people.

The news of the death of Colin Powell, former United States secretary of state in George Bush Jr’s first presidential term, has reignited debates about his legacy. Despite even some progressive lawmakers attempting to gloss over the bitter truths about him with eulogies about his patriotism, Powell’s role as one of the leading architects of the US global campaigns of killings and war crimes following the September 11 attacks cannot be denied. As CODEPINK said, his only legacy is one of lies.      

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Powell was the first Black secretary of state. Before becoming a politician, he served in the US military for decades. He was also the chairperson of the joint chiefs of staff during the administration of George HW Bush. Throughout his long public career, he remained a Republican and despite having disagreements with the neoconservative school, he loyally served the party whenever asked and played an active role in the destruction of countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. 

From My Lai to Iraq    

Powell’s presentation at the United Nations Security Council on 5 February 2003, claiming that Saddam Hussein had developed weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) including biological weapons, led to a disastrous war. It was an illegal war as per international law that killed almost a million Iraqis and created decades of instability, giving birth to groups such as the Islamic State. This was the epitome of his career of lies and the best known one among several.

Though in later interviews with media channels, Powell tried to shift blame on the failure of US secret agencies, enough public evidence exists to prove his complicity and lies about Iraq possessing WMDs. He was also aware of the repercussions of this lie, as he later admitted in an interview. However, it was not the first such lie he told. His habit of lying to serve US imperial goals dates back at least to the Vietnam war.  

During the Vietnam war, Powell was part of an investigation into allegations of his colleagues burning Vietnamese villages and killing hundreds of innocent civilians at My Lai in March 1968. He denied the incident, also lying about his own role in it. When the truth later came out, he tried to justify the killings by saying that “such things happen in war”. There are several claims of his involvement in incidents of war crimes during the Vietnam war. 

28 May 2021: Colin Powell on stage at the National Memorial Day Concert in Washington, DC. (Photograph by Paul Morigi/ Getty Images for Capital Concerts)

My Lai was not the only major lie Powell told before his Iraq WMDs claim. In fact, the list of his lies is long, including his dubious role in the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy implemented by the Bill Clinton administration that curtailed the rights of gay and lesbian Americans who were serving in or trying to join the army. 

Post the first Gulf war, when the US had imposed no-fly zones in Iraq, Powell outright denied the fact that American fighter planes had bombed a factory producing baby formula. At the time, he was known to have said that the factory was producing biological weapons. It is now well known that more than a decade of sanctions and no-fly zones over Iraq, first implemented under the watch of Powell as chairperson of the joint chiefs of staff, led to countless Iraqi children dying without food and medicines. 

A war criminal 

Powell sold and whitewashed US crimes against humanity. When the so-called progressive politicians in the US are calling him a patriot and a hero, it appears they are trying to return the favour for him serving the US imperial projects from which they have all benefitted. Nevertheless, no amount of eulogies can whitewash the deeds of Powell and as Vijay Prashad wrote, “war criminal is chiselled on his tombstone”.

Azadeh Shahshahani’s simple words after the death of Donald Rumsfeld, Powell’s co-conspirator in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, earlier this year may be remembered as people still refuse to adopt the right course when it comes to war criminals: “US politicians from both the parties have a habit of bestowing accolades and kind words on officials who deserve nothing of the sort. Instead of heaping praise on war criminals, we should hold them to account while they are still alive.”

This article was first published in Peoples Dispatch.

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