Remembering Colin Powell

By Justin HAGER

General Colin Powell, one of the most towering figures of recent American political life, died on Monday at the age of 84 due to complications from COVID-19. He was fully vaccinated but also suffered from multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that weakens the immune system and puts people at greater risk of contracting opportunistic viral infections like COVID and increases the likelihood of severe symptoms.

Depending on a person’s age, identity and level of political engagement, the name Colin Powell may mean a lot of different things. A monumental figure in American foreign and domestic policy for nearly 40 years, Powell’s legacy runs the gamut from a pioneer who broke the color barrier in the U.S. military, defense and political establishments to decorated veteran of the Vietnam War and hero of the Gulf War against the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait to a warhawk whose incorrect 2003 testimony about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction led to an eight-year conflict that claimed the lives of 4,500 American troops, 17,000 allied Iraqi security forces and at least 150,000 civilians – testimony for which he later apologized. Regardless of which perspective is most salient to a person, Gen. Powell left an undeniable mark on American history.

The son of Jamaican immigrants, Powell served two tours of duty in Vietnam and rose to the highest ranks of the U.S. Defense establishment, becoming a four-star general at a time when Black people, let alone first-generation Black people, were still having many of their basic legal rights debated. Under President Ronald Reagan, he became the first Black person to serve as national security advisor. President George H.W. Bush appointed him the first Black chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a position he performed so well in and was so trusted in that President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, kept him in the role. And in 2001, President George W. Bush named him the first Black Secretary of State.

Local veteran Mike Baldwin, a fellow Vietnam veteran, former post commander for the VFW, and 2012 California Assembly Veteran of the Year honoree, said that Powell lived up to the U.S. Army motto of “This we’ll defend,” saying, “Colin Powell was an outstanding officer in the U.S. Army and earned many awards in combat. He will truly be missed.”

But beyond the bullet point accomplishments of his resume and the list of “first black person to ____,” Powell was also groundbreaking in his commitment to his personal values and willingness to speak out against his own friends and political allies when he believed they were in opposition to his values. Having once been considered the GOP candidate most likely to unseat then-President Bill Clinton, Powell shocked political pundits when he declined the opportunity to run, stating that a political life “requires a calling that I do not yet hear… . For me to pretend otherwise would not be honest to myself, it would not be honest to the American people, and I would break that bond of trust.” A decade later, he made waves once again by publicly endorsing Democrat Barack Obama over Republican and fellow-veteran John McCain in the 2008 Presidential race. He would go on to endorse Democratic nominees in the next three Presidential cycles, and publicly left the Republican Party following the January 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Perhaps more than anything, however, Powell will be remembered for his commitment to his family. Lynn McGinnis, a veteran, retired history/civics teacher at Rosemont Middle School, and former post commander of the American Legion Post 288 said, “I will always remember Gen. Colin Powell as a man who wanted to be remembered as a husband, father and grandfather. I agree with Gen. Powell that ‘the American family is the foundation what makes our country exceptional.’”