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If you like Colin Powell's story, you might also like:
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George Bush,
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Mikhail Gorbachev,
Daniel Inouye,
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Colin Powell can also be seen and heard in our Podcast Center

Colin Powell also appears in the videos:
President George Bush: Lessons of Leadership,
What is a Leader?

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Colin Powell in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Justice & the Citizen
Black History Month

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Colin Powell
Colin Powell
Profile of Colin Powell Biography of Colin Powell Interview with Colin Powell Colin Powell Photo Gallery

Colin Powell Interview (page: 8 / 9)

Former Secretary of State, United States of America

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  Colin Powell

What was the toughest part of your job as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs?

Colin Powell: Making a recommendation to the President to use military force, knowing that he will act on your advice, and that people will die -- both the young men and women you send in to do it, and the young men and women that they will kill on the other side. In the hours before you provide the advice, you are constantly searching your mind. "What did I forget? Is there something I could have done differently. Is there some way to get out of this? Is there some other way to do this? Have I got the right plan? Is it all glued together?"

Colin Powell Interview Photo
Then you give your advice, you give your recommendation, and you spend the next several hours saying, "What did I forget? What could I have done differently? Is this going to work? Am I sure I was right?" You're never totally sure, but you did the best you can. And then you wait, and you wait, and you sit in that command center, as I did the night we invaded Panama, watching as the paratroopers and rangers jumped. Sweating out icing conditions at our air fields, and our planes having difficulty taking off.

You wait to hear the first reports of the battle. And you wait to hear what you know is going to happen, the first casualty numbers start to come in: Four KA, then it's six, then it's eight, then it's ten killed in action. Then it's 12, then it's 15, it's 20. I didn't think casualties would be high in Panama, I was expecting a 22. Just a mental note, there's no analysis, it's what I thought, and it came out about 24. Same thing with Desert Storm. You just sit and wait for the first report that somebody's been shot down. Does he make it? Does he get his ejection seat activated?

Or terrible moments when one of our C-130 airplanes get shot down. That's a slow, low-flying four-engine prop plane that has guns in it. It's a gun ship, and it literally flies at a slight bank and shoots down on the enemy. It's a very vulnerable airplane, but it's pretty good when it's used correctly. The best way to use it is at night, because it's very vulnerable in the day. You form a pattern after a while the enemy can watch. So one morning I got a report that a C-130 had stayed on station after dawn and got caught. When you have one of those shot down, it isn't a single pilot, it's about 20 guys. So wham, 20 guys are gone.

That just kicks you. And you say, "What were they doing up there after dawn?" And you start to go through the recriminations. We know better. Or the Iraqis get a lucky strike with a Scud, and of all the places a Scud could hit -- in the middle of the Saudi desert, an empty parking lot, maybe it hits a single jeep and kills one person -- but suddenly a Scud comes in (a very inaccurate weapon), the Patriots don't throw it off course or knock it down. And where does it hit? It hits right in the barracks complex. New troops just arrived, all jammed up in a single place. And you lose several dozen, all at once. And there's nothing you could have done about it. That's hard, and you know those things are going to happen. Or you get a call one morning that...

Colin Powell: We bombed a complex overnight, an Iraqi bunker that we thought was a command and control bunker. Turned out it was a command and control bunker, it was a military installation. But what we didn't know was they packed it with civilians. Maybe the civilians went there for protection, but it was the worst place to go for protection. We weren't bombing their neighborhoods, we were bombing their bunkers. But that's where 300 civilians were. So there you are, faced with, "You terrible people! You've killed several hundred innocent civilians!"

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

And you have to work your way through that and not get thrown off your game plan. You have to make adjustments. But it's those kinds of life and death problems that come along that are the most difficult to deal with. And the ones that you think about the most. But you can't linger on them, because there's a new life and death problem the next moment.

What's most satisfying about the job, most rewarding?

Colin Powell: Accomplishing a mission in the way that you had hoped to accomplish it. It satisfies the objectives that the President had established, and it went well. There's both the exhilaration of success and victory, but also, for a professional soldier, there's a sense of satisfaction that all of your 30-odd years of training have brought you to this point.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or General Schwarzkopf's job, is not an entry level position. You have 33 years of experience and you're supposed to know what you're doing. And when it goes well, when it works right, then you have a validation of what you've done for your whole professional life. It's the Super Bowl. I hate to give it a sports analogy, but to some extent it's the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize. It's the capstone of your professional life. So there's a great deal of satisfaction when you do it well, but never without feelings for those who were lost. You've heard the old expression, "It's a good thing war is so terrible, or we might enjoy it too much." And that's pretty true.

Colin Powell: The other day I was giving a speech in Phoenix and just before the speech there was a reception and people were patting me on the back, "Oh gee, you're terrific." You're this, you're that. "Desert Storm was great!" and you know, "Thank you very much." And a woman came up and identified herself and said that she'd lost her brother in Desert Storm, and so we talked about that. And she just kept looking in my eyes and I kept saying, you know, "He served proudly. I knew the unit he was in, although I didn't know him. And I'm sorry he was lost, I wish we didn't lose anybody, but that's what war's about." And she understood and she started crying and I started tearing up and we hugged a bit. And so, you know, if I could bring any one of those soldiers back I would, but I can't.

Wars are to be avoided, but when they have to be fought, fight them well and get them over with quickly. With all the exhilaration and joy that comes from victory and success, don't ever forget the price that was paid for it.

What are you most proud of, General, that you've accomplished in this career?

Colin Powell: Proud that I believe I have the respect of my fellow soldiers. And by soldiers, I mean all the members of the armed forces that I served with.

Colin Powell: No medal, no nice introduction, no awards could substitute just for the knowledge I have that I'm reasonably well respected by my fellow soldiers. If I didn't have that, I would have considered this to be a busted career.

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This page last revised on May 15, 2012 14:45 EDT
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