U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell makes a statement to the media after a meeting at U.N. headquarters, Thursday, Aug. 21, 2003. Powell, former Joint Chiefs chairman and secretary of state, has died from COVID-19 complications. In an announcement on social media Monday, Oct. 18, 2021 the family said Powell had been fully vaccinated. He was 84. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, file)

By Wayne Dawkins

In August 1989, I sat in a secure room of the New York Hilton Towers with the newly appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking uniformed U.S. military leader.

The appointee and I had a few things in common. We were native New Yorkers of Jamaican heritage. So, I could not resist asking him a personal question.

General, how is your first name really pronounced, Colin or Colin ?

Colin Powell told me actually it was the first option, but since official Washington type-people insisted on calling him the latter, he let it go and accepted their name change.

We chuckled about that inside anecdote. 

I told Powell that he looked like family; he favored my maternal family side uncles, Lloyd, Fred and Hector, all of them wise, wryly humorous men. I’ve tried to model Powell and my kin’s strain of Black masculinity, understated yet unapologetic.

I am fondly and reverently remembering Colin Powell, 84, who died Monday. Though fully vaccinated for covid-19, his immune system was weakened because of cancer and Parkinson’s disease. 

The old soldier lost this battle. Or did he?

“Don’t feel sorry for me, for God’s sakes,” Powell told author and Washington Post writer Bob Woodward in July. “I’m 84 years old. I haven’t lost a day of life fighting these two diseases. I’m in good shape.”

I had that private meeting with Powell three decades ago because of the journalist privilege given me to record history-in-progress. I was tasked to introduce the first African-American leader of the U.S. military to my peers at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in New York.

Powell’s other first, as noted in appreciation pieces in the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, was that he was, and still is, the youngest joint chief in U.S. history. 

Furthermore, Powell was the standard for serving multiple presidents, Republicans and Democrats, as a trusted adviser and confidante. Powell was so beloved he earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom twice.

The Powell Doctrine is his legacy. He is a towering patriot and warrior who was wounded twice in the Vietnam War, the second time while rescuing teammates despite a broken foot. The Powell Doctrine is to avoid armed conflicts, but if necessary, demolish the enemy with overwhelming force. 

That was the case when Powell stage crafted the first and brief – 42 days, 137 American battlefield casualties – Gulf War against Iraq. 

The second war against Iraq was different. 

Powell at that time advanced to secretary of state, again making history as the first Black person in that role. A war hawks among his White House peers beat drums to attack Iraq post 9/11, Powell was skeptical. 

He famously advised President George W. Bush, “You break it , you own it.”

But Powell faltered. Loyal to a fault and credible to many, he argued persuasively in 2003 that Iraq should be invaded for possessing weapons of mass destruction. 

Powell turned out to be dead wrong. The weapons did not exist. Powell attached his credibility to single source information that turned out to be bogus. 

He acknowledged the mistake would be a “blot” on his record.

Powell’s place in history will be fine because he is respected, admired, and his integrity is beyond reproach. 

“Plenty of people thought he should run for president , and they tried over and over to get him to do so,” wrote Gerald Seib in the Wall Street Journal, “but he never found a wholly comfortable spot for himself in the stratified and polarized political system that emerged during his lifetime. He was too conservative – politically and personally – for today’s version of the Democratic Party yet couldn’t embrace the nationalistic and isolationist tendencies that can be seen in today’s Republican Party.”

Leaders must endure mistakes. Consider George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, or Martin Luther King Jr. To accomplish great things, they all made tactical mistakes, however their wins overshadowed the losses. 

Colin Powell’s service to humanity is in the league with these giants. May he rest In Peace.

Wayne Dawkins is a writer, and a professor of professional practice at Morgan State University School of Global Journalism and Communication.

The writer is a professor of professional practice at Morgan State University School of Global Journalism and Communication. 

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