Colin Powell, American Patriot
The great American and extraordinary military leader I knew.
Everybody knows the story of Colin Powell. He was an American Patriot who fought for and with his fellow Americans, who loved our country, and who selflessly served the United States until the day he died. In this, he exemplified everything that is good and right about our nation.
I won’t repeat his list of lifelong accomplishments and challenges. All that has been and is being covered extensively. It’s now part of our history. Clearly, he was a remarkable man and American Patriot for the ages. So if I might, please allow me to share with you a little about the Colin Powell I knew personally for many years. Perhaps it will add to his legacy.
In 1989, I was a young Army Colonel having entered the Army in 1969 through ROTC at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Miraculously, and somewhat by happenstance, I was positioned as General Norman Schwarzkopf’s personal Executive Officer/Executive Assistant at the military’s Central Command (CENTCOM), which is responsible for all U.S. military operations in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
Then, as today, CENTCOM was deeply engaged in many planning and operational activities across the region. On behalf of my boss, I communicated and coordinated with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his office daily for almost three years. The Chairman was Colin Luther Powell, a black four-star General appointed by President George H.W. Bush. General Powell had just completed two years as National Security Advisor for President Ronald Reagan.
Colin Powell had entered the Army through ROTC, much as I had, at a college in New York City. I knew I could learn much from this guy.
Then it happened. On 2 August, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened to invade Saudi Arabia, the keeper of the world’s vast oil supplies. America and our allies had to act. From the President and the Secretary of Defense and through the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS), the mission to repel Iraq from Kuwait came to CENTCOM and its boss, General Schwarzkopf. We were going to war. Desert Shield and Desert Storm are now part of history too.
In all this and from his perch as the CJCS, General Powell was an incredible strategist, pure operational artist, and ruthless tactician — everything a country could ask for in a senior General. It was jaw-dropping. While my then-boss Norman Schwarzkopf was himself magnificent and richly deserved all the accolades he has been given, the master behind the scenes was Colin Powell. Simply remarkable.
Here are the lessons he stamped vividly on me. Lessons he also left for America’s future political and military leaders if they’ll just listen.
Generalship Lesson 1: Develop a Grand Strategy to get the big picture right. From the outset of all the “what-to-do meetings” in Washington and later in Riyad, Saudi Arabia, everyone, including the President, searched for the right strategic outcome if we went to war. What should victory look like? In the end, it was Colin Powell who asserted correctly that we needed to position and use overwhelming force to quickly defeat the Iraqi military, destroy its elite Republican Guard armor formations, and drive Iraq from Kuwait. And, crucially, we should not continue the operation deep into Iraq to overthrow the Iraq regime. As bad as they were, as a Sunni Arab government they were deep enemies of Shia Persian Iran, and this competitive balance should be maintained. Colin Powell won that argument, and he was right. (Regrettably, a decade later as George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, he would make a strategic blunder and support the ill-advised invasion of Iraq. For some reason, his Desert Storm strategic understanding did not fully carry over into the chaotic post-9/11 environment.)
Generalship Lesson 2: Quickly make friends of your inherent enemies and bring them into alliances to add to the force while neutralizing their potential opposition. In this Powell was brilliant. Not many remember, but the United States persuaded both Egypt and Syria to contribute substantial close combat ground forces to the Desert Storm operation to fight against a traditional Arab friend, Iraq. There were even Mujahadin forces from Afghanistan helping us in the fight. While many had a role, this success was General Powell’s legacy of military statesmanship. I wish we had learned it regarding Russia as we look at our new developing enemy, China. Why has America made an enemy of Russia?
Generalship Lesson 3: Craft a bold Operational Plan to take advantage of the enemy’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Every potential enemy has vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Schwarzkopf could see them all and he was key in putting together the Desert Storm punishing air and naval campaigns preliminary to the ground war. And in the ground war, there was the famous left hook driving U.S. forces into the exposed flank of the Iraqi Army. But it was Colin Powell who looked at Schwarzkopf’s initial plan and pressed Schwarzkopf to make it bolder and more aggressive. Unknown to most, the depth and magnitude of the historically bold and effective left hook was pretty much all Powell. It was masterful.
Generalship Lesson 4: Execute the tactical fight ruthlessly. At every turn, General Powell pressed General Schwarzkopf to destroy the enemy on the ground, in the air, and on the sea, as well as its ability to generate future forces. Powell’s every communication and phone call had one singular message — dominate and destroy the enemy or don’t go to war. End the fight on our terms with no exceptions.
That’s the Colin Powell I knew. As a Colonel, I got to know him well for three years and learned lessons from him regarding military planning, training, diplomacy, deployments, war, and peace. He was the best and I could detect no flaws. While I suppose, in the later years of his career, he made some mistakes as the Beltway and un-American northeastern corridor influencers pressed him from all sides, none of that can detract from the greatness I observed. The lessons of Grand Strategy and Military Operations an ROTC cadet passed on to this ROTC cadet are lessons for the ages and for all time.
Thank you, General Powell, for having made your life’s presence in America. We are a better country for it and for the citizenship lessons you have left us to study, learn from, and emulate. If anyone desires to become a true American, look at the life of one Colin Luther Powell. It is there where you will find your answers. Those lessons are America, and they are for the ages. Godspeed, Sir.
(Please join with us and lower your flags in honor or Secretary Powell until after sunset on Friday, 22 October 2021.)
B.B. Bell, General, U.S. Army (Ret.), is a member of the Patriot Post’s National Advisory Committee. He served in uniform for almost four decades, including extended deployments overseas in both peace and war.
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