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Colin Powell

Interview: Colin Powell
Former Secretary of State, United States of America

May 23, 1998
Jackson Hole, Wyoming

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What do you think are the most important documents of this century?

Colin Powell: The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the First and Second Inaugural Addresses of Thomas Jefferson are my four favorite documents. The Emancipation Proclamation, and following that, the Gettysburg Address, which was essentially a restatement of the Constitution and the Declaration. But coming into this century and broadening it, I would just give you one that you're going to find surprising, and that is the Helsinki Final Act, 1975, which was the Declaration of the Rights of Man. It was as a result of one of these international negotiations. President Ford, in one of the more historic acts of this century, but in one of the more underappreciated acts of this century, going against domestic political opposition, signed the Helsinki Final Act, which essentially said there are universal rights of men and women. In order to get the Soviets to also sign that, we had to make some accommodations with respect to we shouldn't change borders. Some people said, "Aha! You're validating Soviet occupation of the Eastern European countries." Well, they were there. We didn't validate them, we still argued against it. But I believe that getting the Soviets to agree to that was a poison pill that they took that helped bring about the end of the Cold War and the demise of this evil empire. Acknowledging that men and women, no matter where they are, no matter what government they are under, have certain universal rights.

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I go back to the Declaration, because that's where we got it from: "All men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." We sometimes forget the phrase that comes after that: "Governments are instituted among men to secure these rights." That could set me off on a discussion of affirmative action and other things, as well as what happened after the Helsinki Final Act. But the role of government is to secure the universal rights of men and women.

Does that include affirmative action?

Colin Powell: Yes, in my judgment.

The Declaration and the Constitution, which I consider just absolutely marvelous, profound documents. They didn't apply to people who were black, and that's the truth. In fact, the Constitution was used as a means of suppressing blacks. In the Dred Scott Decision, the Supreme Court said that a human being can be property if they're black, and only if they're black. You can't be property if you're white. If you're black, you can be property and returned to an owner. That was done by the Supreme Court as a matter of constitutional law, they based it on the Constitution.

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Plessy vs. Fergusson, in 1896, sanctioned separation on the basis of color. As long as you treat the races equally, then you can separate them. But the whole reason to separate them was to treat them unequally. It essentially validated Jim Crow segregation, disenfranchisement of an entire group of people who were black, giving them no economic opportunity. "Don't educate them. Continue to treat them as tenth class citizens." And it rested on the decision of the Supreme Court of the United States, which was founded on the Constitution. And that continued up to my lifetime.

So in 1963 when I came home from Vietnam, having served my nation, having sworn an oath to the Constitution to serve my nation, I came home and was denied access to restaurants and refused service in hotels and motels. If my skin was white, or if I could shine it up a little more than it is and put a hat on my head so my hair wasn't showing, as long as I could prove I wasn't black, then I was free to enjoy these benefits. The fact that I was a soldier of the nation was irrelevant. And this all rested on the Constitution, according to the courts. And according to some 30-odd presidents, and according to some 180 Congresses. This isn't ancient history to me, this is my lifetime, my generation. I choose not to forget that we have this history. No one loves the Declaration or the Constitution more than me, but you have to see it in its correct perspective. And because it was so misused over those years, and it took us 200 years to get into the spirit that was intended by the Founding Fathers, even though they knew they couldn't do it in practice at that time, even though it took us 200 years, we can't ignore the legacy of that history that is still contaminating the present. I think tools such as affirmative action are useful to help us rub out, sand down this inequity that continues to haunt the present, that came from the past. Some say, "We don't wallow around in old history." Why not? We wallow around in the beauty of the Constitution and the Declaration, that's old history. So let's wallow around in all of it, as did the black people for all those years. Therefore, I think it is appropriate to use tools such as affirmative action and other similar tools.

I consider all of these to be transitional tools and temporary tools, but they're still necessary. And if anyone says they're not necessary then let's go visit some inner cities and look at 100 percent segregated schools in 1998. They're segregated by race and class, and class and race are all mixed up. We've got to get every one of these children educated and into a college. Those who are able to go to college and want to go to college and can qualify for college. This isn't for people who are not qualified. But give them that extra added advantage to get into universities, get them into the middle class and break the cycle, in that family, for that child, forever. That's what will speed things up.

I was told the same thing in 1963 and '64, "We don't need a civil rights law. That's wrong. It's personal property. If they don't want to serve blacks in a restaurant or on a public highway, so what?" So what? Put some shoe polish on your face and see what you think about it! This is a wonderful country. It was unthinkable for me to be Chairman when I came in the army 40 years ago next month. It would have been unthinkable for me to have said, "You're going to be Chairman? Come on!" But it happened. And so, what will happen in one more generation? Maybe we'll get rid of all of these residual problems. But we're not going to get rid of them by just ignoring them or saying, "Gee, just do better," or "It's your fault." We have to do better and to some extent we have to make sure our children don't ignore what their forefathers did to get us to this point. Excellence in performance and high standards are important, but I think it's also appropriate to use tools such as affirmative action to make sure all doors are open.

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So when you were growing up in the South Bronx, you never imagined you'd be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?

Colin Powell: I never dreamed of it.

What were you dreaming of back then? What were your goals?

Colin Powell: It's something of an embarrassing question for me, because I try to reflect back 45 years to those days. I'm not sure I had very clear goals, and they certainly weren't any long-range goals. I was a kid playing in the street. I wanted to grow up and be healthy. I wanted to excel at whatever I did. I wasn't a great student. I hoped I was learning enough in school to make me successful in whatever life held for me. Even when I got into college it wasn't clear what I was doing in college. Going to college was something that was expected in my family.

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I suspect if it hadn't been for my family influence, and pressure of my parents, and the expectation of my parents that I would go to college, I probably wouldn't have gone. But there was that expectation. My sister had gone, the relatives had gone. And so, that got me into college.

How many brothers and sisters did you have?

Colin Powell: I have one sister. She's five-and-a-half years older. When we were growing up, she was sort of the star of the family, I was kind of the runt, the kid who was worried about a lot. Marilyn was always the good one and she did well in school and I didn't, and there was no doubt about where she was going to go, to college. She subsequently went into teaching, had a wonderful 40-year career as a teacher. I was always a question mark in the family.

Where did your parents come from, and how were they important to you?

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Colin Powell: My parents were immigrants, they came from the island of Jamaica in the Caribbean. They came to the United States in the early 1920s. They came separately, didn't know each other there. They came to improve their lot. The economic situation in Jamaica at that time caused a lot of people to come to the United States, looking for a better life.

They met, they fell in love, were married, and then they had two children. My sister Marilyn and, of course, me. They're very important in our lives -- my sister's life and mine -- for the love they gave us, for the structure they provided and just for the inspiration that they gave to us, in the way they lived their lives.

Colin Powell: I've told many, many audiences of both parents and young people, but mostly parents -- children don't listen to what you tell them, they don't listen to the lectures. Well, they listen, patiently. What they really respond to, what they really do, is watch how you live your life, watch how you exercise your values. If they see worth in that, if they see merit in the way you are living your life, that's what influences children. I saw a great merit in the way my parents lived their life, and I never wished to displease them. I always wanted them to be proud of me. The worst days of my life were not when I got a spanking, but when I did something that disappointed my mother and my father.

Were they able to see your great success? Did they live to appreciate that?

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Colin Powell: Not really. My father died a year before I made Brigadier General. So he saw me rise to the rank of Colonel. My mother was at my promotion ceremony to Brigadier General and she was enormously pleased. She died in 1984, before all of the excitement of the last years came about.

What books especially inspired you as a kid? Do you remember any in particular?

Colin Powell: No. You're dragging something out of me that my wife and children go nuts trying to cover up. And that is, I was not a terribly good student. I did not read a great deal when I was a youngster. The streets were a greater attraction to me in New York than was the New York Public Library system, or staying in my room reading anything but comic books.

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I read what I was required to read by the public school system of the City of New York, and children's books. But I didn't really become an avid reader until I was an adult. I initially saw reading as something one had to do. It was only when I became an adult that I realized what a joy there was in reading, in learning, and what knowledge existed in books, and magazines, and newspapers. Now I'm constantly reading.

I understand you spent a lot of time at the Tiffany Theater, as well.

Colin Powell: The old Tiffany Theater was one of those theaters that every inner-city neighborhood had in those days, every few blocks apart. It was the place we all went to on Saturdays. I don't even know if it was open during the rest of the week, but on Saturday it was open for all of us kids.

With your grubby little hand clutching a dirty quarter, and with whatever food was necessary to last you for the rest of the day, you went to the Tiffany, and watched cowboy movie after cowboy movie, and threw things at each other, and generally misbehaved, I expect. It was a lot of fun.

When did you first become interested in a military career?

Colin Powell: It was only once I was in college, about six months into college when I found something that I liked, and that was ROTC, Reserve Officer Training Corps in the military. And I not only liked it, but I was pretty good at it. That's what you really have to look for in life, something that you like, and something that you think you're pretty good at. And if you can put those two things together, then you're on the right track, and just drive on.

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Once you've got something that you like, something you're good at, then do it for all it's worth. Be the very best you can be. Let nothing deter you, let nothing stand in your way, and go for it.

What was it about ROTC that attracted you?

Colin Powell: Perhaps the structure, perhaps the discipline, the sense of camaraderie among a group of young men who were similarly motivated. Maybe it was just the uniform. Who knows? I was only a little over 17 years old at the time.

I also grew up during a period of war. World War II occupied several years of my life. And as I entered my teenage years, the Korean War came along. So, by the time I was 17 years old, I'd seen about seven or eight years of war. As any young child would, I studied the tanks, and the planes and the guns. There was a fascination with all that. And I suspect that also moved me in the direction. But I think it was the structure, the discipline, the sense of camaraderie, the sense of adventure associated with being in the military.

How did your service in Vietnam affect you, personally and professionally?

Colin Powell: I went to Vietnam as a professional soldier.

Colin Powell: When I got orders to Vietnam in the summer of 1962 I was excited and very happy. I'd been selected by my government to go to a combat zone and to serve a purpose that was noble. And we were fighting communism and we were going to try to help the South Vietnamese protect themselves from communism and defend their way of life, let them make their own choice as to how they should be governed. And so, it was a very noble undertaking and it was wrapped in the mystique of the Kennedy era. And I was one of the first group of advisors, actually the second group of advisors to go in, about 15,000 of us at that time. And so, for a young 25 year-old infantry captain this was it, this was the thing to do.

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And so I went and did my job and I did it for a year. I came back after a year to rejoin a family that I really didn't know, a son I'd never seen who was born while I was gone, and a wife who I'd known for nine months and been away from for a year. And going back to that, but also going back with a little bit of concern about Vietnam. Because I couldn't see that we'd made much progress in the year I was there, tromping through the jungles. And the enemy seemed to have the initiative and the advantage.

I came back thinking, "This is a very big problem, and it's going to take a lot more than what we're doing. And it's not clear that the South Vietnamese are really up to the task, or really represent the kind of government that we should be that anxious to defend." They had a lot of work to do, to prove themselves to their own people. And to prove themselves worthy of the kind of support that we were increasingly giving them.

You were wounded on that first tour, weren't you?

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Colin Powell: Yes. There was a punji stick on my first tour. I was a young infantry captain, as I mentioned, and I was going through the jungle with my Vietnamese battalion, just myself, one other American and four Vietnamese soldiers and we essentially lived in the jungle. And we were heading to the Special Forces camp, American Special Forces camp one day to come out for a little while.

The Vietcong, the communist enemy, would place these traps, nothing more than a hole in the ground, a couple of feet deep with bamboo spikes planted in them, just like out of a Tarzan movie. They would cover the spikes with a little bit of buffalo dung, making sure they were quite infectious, and then just put something over it to cover its presence. Usually we knew how to spot these, but that day I just didn't. I stepped off the side of the trail, and stepped into it. My right foot went down into it and one of the spikes caught the edge of my foot. The sole of my boot missed it and it caught the instep, went all the way through. Of course, I felt it rather immediately and jerked my foot out, which pulled it right back out.

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It was so quick, I didn't realize how injured I was. I just knew that I'd punctured my foot. I didn't realize how serious it was, so I didn't want to say anything. We just kept marching towards the Special Force camp. In about 15 minutes I realized that I had done something real bad. In about 30 minutes I was having difficulty walking and had to use a stick. Fortunately, we were close to the camp and I was able to get there. The Special Forces medics cut my boot off and they could see my foot was purple by then. The spike had gone all the way through, from the bottom to the top, and then come right back out, totally infecting the wound as it made the wound.

They got me out of there and I went to division headquarters; there was a doctor there. It wasn't anything that required anesthesia, they used a rather straightforward method of disinfectant. They put a cloth through the bottom of my foot. Used a probe to push it through the top, put antibiotics over it and cleaned it out, kind of like a shoe shine rag, which was not a terribly pleasant experience. When they had a clean section in there, they just cut off both sides and left it in there for about a week to fight the infection. A week later I was pretty much okay.

Between tours in Vietnam you were stationed at Fort Benning, where you experienced segregation in a very real sense. Could you share some of those terrible reminiscences? What was not open to you?

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Colin Powell: It was more disappointing than terrifying. Fort Benning is a large Army installation in Columbus, Georgia. In those days, the '50s, and well into the early '60s, until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, and the Voting Rights Act of '65, it was in the heart of the segregated south. On base it was wonderful. You could go anywhere, live anywhere, do anything you wished to do. But as soon as you went over the hill, and down into Columbus, Georgia, it was a totally segregated existence.

The story I've told many times is of coming home from Vietnam in 1963, having been away for an entire year, and my wife had had a son while I was away. I was busy trying to get a home ready for my family in the area. I couldn't get on base yet, the housing wasn't available. So I found a place in Phoenix City, Alabama, which was not a great place to live as a black in those days.

Colin Powell: One night after working on the house, I tried to buy a hamburger at a drive-in place in Columbus. I knew I couldn't go in, I didn't try to go in, I just tried to order it on the little speaker box for it to be brought out. The young lady came out to take my order, the way it was done in those days, and she looked in the car and she asked me if I was Puerto Rican, and I said "No." And then she asked me if I was an African student studying at the Infantry School. I said, "No, I'm not an African student studying at the Infantry School, I'm an American." And she said, "I'm terribly sorry, but I can't bring it out to the car, you'll have to get out and go around to the back." And I said, "Thank you very much, no thanks," and I drove off.

That wasn't terrifying, it was just deeply, deeply hurtful and disappointing.

What affect did that experience have on your own resolve to achieve?

Colin Powell: If anything, it encouraged me, motivated me, caused me to find ways to demonstrate to people who held such beliefs that their beliefs had to be incorrect, had to be a lie.

Colin Powell: There's a great story from the Civil War, where a Confederate general is writing to the Confederate government in Richmond, and it has to do with the issue of allowing blacks to serve in the Confederate army, or conscripting them for the Confederate army. And this Confederate general writes to Jefferson Davis and he says, "Don't let this happen. Whatever you do, don't let this happen. Because if blacks can wear a uniform with brass buttons, and a belt with a brass buckle, and if they can go and serve and lay down their lives, they are the equal to us. And if that is the case, the whole theory of the Confederacy is a lie. So whatever you do, don't let black men serve." The history of the black experience in the United States military for 300 years is a repetition of that. Black men were always willing to serve, as were black women, in the hope that their service as equals, willing to lay down their lives, and fight for what their country believed in, would transfer over into civilian life. They were disappointed for most of our history. But with each conflict, things got a little bit better, until we finally reached the period where a black man, or a black woman, can rise to the top. So the answer to your question is, yes, it motivated me to fight back and to prove that if I'm your equal in performance, then segregation has to be a lie.

What other experiences do you recall that were important to you in Vietnam? Especially the second tour of duty.

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Colin Powell: I remember crashing in a helicopter and getting all wrapped around trees in the jungle. That's certainly memorable. I was the operations officer of an infantry division, the American Division, and one day we were out with the commanding general and the chief of staff going to visit a unit that had just discovered a North Vietnamese arms cache. It was in the deep, triple-canopy jungle, near the Laotian border. The only way to get into the site was to fly over the canopy and look for the opening that had been cut by the troops who were in the jungle. They had cut a hole just big enough for a helicopter to literally come down through the opening like an elevator.

We were hovering over this opening as the pilot examined it, an then he started his descent. He was the commanding general's pilot, and he hadn't been into places like this as often as some of the other pilots, who might have been less experienced, but who had more experience in going up and down in this canopy. For whatever reason, as he started down, he lost a little bit of control and...

Colin Powell: The helicopter shifted to the right and then it shifted to the left, and to this day, sitting in the left-hand seat in the rear I could see the blade hit the tree, and suddenly go from moving very rapidly -- which is what keeps you in the air -- to stopping instantly, which converts you from a helicopter into a falling object, more like a rock. And so, we fell about a hundred feet or so and hit hard. Stumps all over the place, and the helicopter started breaking apart, engine coming down through the passenger compartment, engine still turning, broken blades spinning, cockpit area crashed, or smashed up, and the danger of a fire.

Colin Powell: I knew I was hurt, but not too badly, so I unbuckled, ran out, looked back and saw that the general was still inside. Went in and helped him out, helped some others out. And then it started to smoke, but it wasn't burning. And then I and another young soldier went back and I thought the pilot was seriously injured, his back was. The general's aide was in the middle of the passenger compartment and the whole engine had come down through the passenger compartment and smashed his head into the radio console and I thought he was dead, because he had an engine on his head. But when I went back in to start pulling the body out, it was clear that his -- I heard a noise, a slight movement, so he was alive.

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His helmet had been smashed, but it had protected him enough from fatal injury. So we got him out and he was walking around about two days later. That was memorable, you don't forget that too often. I broke my ankle and some other things, but they were minor.

Aside from that vivid experience, how was your second tour in Vietnam different from the first?

Colin Powell: When I went back some five years later, a lot had changed. I had served with South Vietnamese soldiers. But it was now an American war and we were bringing all of American technology to bear. And I was now a major, not a captain, a little more senior. I'd also seen some terrible things happen in my own country in that five-year period. The assassination of President Kennedy, the death of Martin Luther King, riots, church bombings during the civil rights revolution.

And 1968 was a terrible time in this country. A president who said he wasn't going to run again, and the war had turned sour. And when I got back and spent another year there we were applying American fire power and technology, but it wasn't clear that we had moved any further along in recapturing the initiative or persuading the North Vietnamese that this is not a course they should pursue.

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They were determined to pursue it to the end and they would spend whatever number of lives it took to win. And it was a war they'd been fighting for 40 years, they understood what they were about, and they were prepared to make the supreme sacrifice. We no longer clearly understood what we were about, and we were losing hundreds of young men a week, but it was not clear that we were in it to prevail, or we could prevail.

That was pretty much known by 1968/'69, and I came home in '69, but it took us several more years to create the circumstances that we could get out and turn it over to the South Vietnamese.

Colin Powell: And then I think in one of the sad chapters of American history, having promised the South Vietnamese that we would come to their assistance with more weapons and ammunition if they needed it, the United States Congress finally abandoned them. That went against our word. Whether they would have prevailed even if we hadn't abandoned them is, I think questionable. I think they would probably have lost anyway, but I wish they had not lost on the heels of an American abandonment. So it was a very dismal period. And when it was all over, I was still a professional soldier, now a lieutenant colonel. And we were in an army that had been seen as the loser in this war. We were shaken to our core. We had lost a generation of leaders. We'd had the scandal of My Lai. We had racial relations. The American people said, "We want out of the draft. We no longer want to have a draft." In fact, they were separating themselves from the army. "You just go out and recruit and that's what you get. But no more draft." So we ended the draft. There was an estrangement between the American people and its military. But I was a professional soldier, and so it was my job to work in that world and try to fix it, repair it. And one of the things I'm proudest of in my life is that over the next 15, 17 years, working with great leaders and finally with the new political leadership that came in with the Reagan Administration -- political leaders who told us to be proud of ourselves once again and gave us the resources to really finish the transition to a modern, powerful army -- we became a force that the nation once again was proud of. And we saw the result of that in Desert Storm.

How do you come to grips with something like that? You are a professional soldier, it's always been a source of pride to serve in the American armed forces, and yet, yes, Vietnam was this watershed, this estrangement. How did you deal with that?

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Colin Powell: Well, we just dealt with it. We just said, "We will not allow ourselves to be broken. We will not allow ourselves to be abandoned by the people. We will demonstrate our worthiness. We will go back to our traditions. We will go back to our history, we'll gain inspiration from our past, and we will reshape ourselves for a new future."

We got rid of some of the touchy-feely things that we were experimenting with and we went back to discipline, structure. You are serving the nation, even though sometimes the nation doesn't appreciate it, that's all right. They will when the next conflict comes along. We just went back to basics: structure, discipline, patriotism, pride. Developed the best equipment in the world. Showed our troops that if they go into battle they'll be taken care of and their leaders won't abandon them.

A whole generation of senior officers came up, including me, General Schwarzkopf and many others, who having gone through Vietnam were committed to the proposition that if we ever have to face something like that again, as the senior officers it is our responsibility to work with our political leaders and if necessary push our political leaders to make sure that they understand what they're getting into, and have they made the right political decisions? And they're the ones to determine, you know, what the right political decisions are.

But we felt it was our responsibility to lay out the consequences of the use of military force. And I think all that came together in the Bush Administration -- the Reagan and Bush Administrations -- but especially in the Bush Administration.

When we faced conflicts in Panama and in Desert Storm and in the Gulf War, where President Bush and his political leaders working with him, Secretary Baker -- Jim Baker -- and Secretary Dick Cheney, came up with clear political guidance and then supervised us very carefully. It wasn't just, "Okay, here's the guidance, you military folks just tell us what you need and you get it." We had to explain to our political leaders and justify to our political leaders what we needed and why we were going to do things the way we recommended to them. And they challenged us, made sure that they were satisfied that we had thought it all through and then they let us do the job. They turned us loose. That was quite a renaissance.

It really began after Panama. In Panama they saw a professional army at work again. It was a short conflict. We restored a democratically elected president and got rid of a tyrant. People saw that said, "Look at that. That's pretty good." A year-and-a-half later we did Desert Storm and they saw it again and there was a great outpouring of support. People were surprised, frankly.

You've stated that you would like to see some of the spirit of togetherness and family that you feel in the military right now spread to the rest of the population.

Colin Powell: I talk about family a great deal. There's nothing like going out to a military unit, whether it's Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, or Coast Guard, and seeing young men and women, usually in their late teens or early twenties, working together. And the closer they are to danger, the more closely they work together, and the more they become a family. Because they recognize that, if my life depends on you, all I care about is your ability to perform, and your willingness to sacrifice for me.

When you finally get up into the front lines, or into the cockpits of our fighter planes and somebody is flying wing for somebody else, that's all that counts. I don't care what color you are. I don't care where your parents come from. Can you perform? I will take care of you, you will take care of me, we will sacrifice for one another. That's what keeps a military unit bonded together, it isn't discipline.

Discipline isn't what causes men to go into the face of enemy fire, it's counting on one another, and serving one another, and loving one another as family members. We saw that again in Desert Storm. It was a real hit for the nation to see these young folks out in the desert. They're not supposed to be like this, they're supposed to be druggies, they're supposed to be troublesome, they're supposed to be violence-prone, they're supposed to be uneducable. And here they were in the desert, smart as tacks, patriotic, clean, drug-free, working together in teams, as family members.

I'm so proud of that, that I say to many audiences, you've got to capture that somehow. I know that the inner city of Los Angeles or New York is not an infantry battalion. But somehow, the lessons of an infantry battalion have to be brought back to the nation.

It's very interesting also that it was a volunteer army.

Colin Powell: All volunteers. And every one of them doing it willingly, every one of them proud, nobody there against their will.

You have expressed so much faith in the American people. Coming from the background that you just described at Fort Benning, it is especially touching that you have such a powerful faith. Where does that faith come from?

Colin Powell: It is a very powerful faith. It just comes from many, many years of watching this country deal with problems. Watching this country go through crisis after crisis. And always being amazed at the resilience that comes out of the heartland of the country, out of the people of the United States. I'm always of the view that no matter what crisis we are going through, whether it's a political crisis, or an economic crisis, in due course, either through an election, or through some other manifestation, the American people make their will known. That will is almost universally a will based on what's right, based on honesty, based on goodness. So, I am as corny as you can be on that subject. But it is the deepest element of my national faith.

You're talking to a young man or woman who is kind of interested in the military, not sure. What advice could you give to such a young person? What are the qualities that make for a fine military career?

Colin Powell: You have to be willing to work very hard. It is not a soft life, it's a difficult life. It's a life of sacrifice, it's a life of service. That's why we call it service. You have to be ready for that. You have to be prepared to subject yourself to discipline and a certain structure, unlike anything in civilian life. Make sure you're ready for that. You've got to like it. You simply have to love being a soldier, or a sailor, or an airman, or marine.

If you're not sure, go ahead and try it for a while. It's a volunteer organization; you can get out. Many young people do get out. In fact, most of them do get out. The surprising thing is that as they get close to getting out, when they know they're getting out, they start counting the days down. "Oh, I'm out of here, I'm out of here, I'm out of here." But then they get out, and six months or a year later, they remember their military experience with great fondness, most of them.

One of the nicest parts of my job is hearing from veterans of the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, World War II, occasionally even an old World War I veteran. They always tell me about their outfit or their general or, "I was with Patton." They have very powerful memories and pleasant memories of their experience in the military.

Colin Powell: I encourage people, if you're not sure what you want to do, and you're interested in things military, go try it for a few years, it will grow you up. And then you can stay, or you can get on with a new phase of your life. But you'll be ready for that new phase of your life in a better way, I think, if you've had the military experience.

Lots of people in Congress right now and elsewhere are coming to us saying, "You've got to do something. You've got to get all these kids off the street. Take them into the Army, open CCC camps," do this and do that, in order to give young people the structure, the sense of service, so they can go on and be good citizens in other fields and endeavors.

Does that make sense to you?

Colin Powell: To some extent. I'm also a great constitutionalist. I believe that the military exists to protect the nation against enemies, foreign and domestic, to fight wars, and not be a social service agency. I'm a little concerned that there are those who, having failed to deal with the problem in our communities by community leadership, are going to try to put the problem squarely on the backs of the military. I'm not sure that's the proper role for the military in a democratic society.

Let me ask you about some of the other qualities that you think go into your job. What role does your gut play, your instinct, when you're making monumental decisions?

Colin Powell: You're really going for the secrets now.

Colin Powell: One of my little rules is, you get all the facts you can. You get all of the analysis you can. You grind it up in your mental computer and then, when you have all the facts available to you, go with your instinct. I go with my instinct a great deal, but it is not just snap-go. You have to learn the technique of informing your instinct, of educating that little place down in your stomach where instinct resides, so that it is not blind instinct, but informed instinct. Built into each of us is a little calculator that can make judgments that will never appear on a piece of paper. And sometimes you just know something's right -- you can't prove it to anybody -- or you know something's wrong. Little ethical circuit breakers you carry around inside of you, or little right and wrong circuit breakers you carry around inside of you. So, I go with my instinct a great deal.

What about being a team player? That seems very important.

Colin Powell: In my view it is extremely important. A team means up, down and sideways. I'm a great believer in loyalty to the person I work for. If you take the King's shilling, you do the King's work. And so, loyalty upward is a very important trait for me. Loyalty downward, to those who are doing it for you. And loyalty to the people you're working side by side with.

What about luck, has that played any part in your career?

Colin Powell: Sure. But I don't view luck as being a completely random event.

Colin Powell: Luck tends to come to people who are prepared. You're lucky you got the job? No, you're not. You're lucky that somebody knew how good you were. You were lucky that somebody became aware of the talent you offered to the position, that's the luck. The luck isn't you got it because you were unprepared, or unqualified. Luck has played an important role in my life over the years, but luck won't do it by itself.

Did you find there were skills you'd learned on the battlefield that helped you out in Washington?

Colin Powell: Well, Washington is a battlefield in and all its own. As you become more senior in the military, you really do have to have an understanding - to be successful - of how the political process works and how to deal with public relations, and how to convey the story of the armed forces to the American people. The political process and the media are two things you really do have to master. Not because you want to be a spinmeister, but because the political process is how the country runs, that's how democracies run. So you have to know how to go up and testify on Capitol Hill and satisfy members of the House and Senate as to how you're planning to spend the money which the Constitution gives them the authority to appropriate every year. You've got to do it every year, whether you like it or not. You have to expect to be punched around a little bit, challenged. You have to expect people will want to spend less money than you want. And you have to expect to hear parochial constituent interest from individual congressman, because that's why they were elected, to represent parochial constituent interests. And that's all part of the process. You have to understand that the media is out to find anything about you that you don't want them to know. That's their role in the democracy. They are the fourth estate. And your responsibility is to tell the American people as much as you can about what you're doing with their sons and daughters and their money. But you're also supposed to protect their sons and daughters, and so there may be things you don't want to tell the media. And so there's this great contest that takes place, but it's a healthy contest. Any senior general or admiral who doesn't understand that you have to do this isn't going to be very successful. You can't just rant and rave at the political process, or be mad because The Washington Post or The New York Times said something unpleasant about you that day. You've just got to keep doing your job to the best of your ability. To some extent, it's war in a different way. Politics is war, without bullets and shells -- usually.

You've talked about some of the ills in society that trouble you, particularly homelessness, poverty, lack of education, racism. What specific things can young people do to try and eradicate some of those horrors?

Colin Powell Interview Photo
Colin Powell: First and foremost for young people is to commit themselves to something, and to realize there is an alternative to going down the negative path. You don't have to do drugs. I don't care what your friends are doing. I don't care what your older brother might have done. I don't care where you came from. I don't care about the fact that you had a broken family, or this was wrong in your life, or that was wrong in your life. I don't care about any of that.

You are a human being, with a brain and conscience of your own. You know what's right or wrong. And you have to do the best you can with what you have. So, don't let any of these negative elements in your background be an excuse.

You can climb out of it; other people have climbed out of it. And therefore, commit yourself to climbing out of it. Set a goal for yourself. Don't make it, "I'm going to be a general," or "I'm going to be the President of the United States." I'm going to finish school. I am going to get through this week without doing drugs. I don't care what my buddy down the street tries to make me do, it isn't going to happen. I am not going to get involved in violence. I am not going to allow peer pressure to force me to do something that those little fuses in my stomach tell me I should not be doing.

A lot of young people seem to feel a lack of control of their lives. And that's one of the reasons that they get into these desperate situations. They feel that they're somehow out of control.

Colin Powell: We do need to help them. It isn't just a matter of, you're on your own, young man/young lady. We need to give young people structure in their lives, discipline, give them a life space, put boundaries on them. And those boundaries, hopefully, will come from parents; or at least one parent, if both parents are not there.

Colin Powell Interview Photo
They also have to come from school, they have to come from churches, they have to come from the community in general. There can be no organized behavior, there can be no progress without structure to the environment. It worked for my kids, and we're working on a grandson now. As they start to get about, they want to know where the boundaries are. They want to know when they run into a wall.

Set the four walls up, and there will be a joy for everybody inside those four walls. When they don't know where the walls are, and they're constantly testing, you've got a problem, you've got an out-of-control situation. I think that applies not only to infants, but to all young people, until that point in their life where they can set their own walls up.

I've started to dedicate large parts of my time to working on the problems of America's young people. It has become my goal in life. Most of them are doing just fine, but we have millions of them who are not. We have millions of them who wonder if they'll ever survive past the age of 18 without having a bullet put in their back.

I've been to places in America, in one city in particular, where a teacher was telling me that the children come back on Monday morning weighing less than they did when they went home on Friday afternoon. They don't get proper nutrition, there's nobody really taking care of them. So there's a hole in their life for two days until they come back to school and start eating again. And that's in America.

Colin Powell Interview Photo
There are a lot of children in need, so I've started to work on that with the United Negro College Fund and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, I'm on the boards of those and a number of others. But the principal activity is through the chairmanship of America's Promise, the Alliance for Youth, where we're making promises to young people, we're creating alliances between the government, the private sector, the public sector to bring more resources in the lives of these children who are sometimes without hope. More mentors, safer places for them to learn and grow. Give them all a healthy start in life with vaccinations and proper nutrition and education against drugs and cigarettes.

A marketable skill for a youngster is as the economy goes upscale and the skill level goes upscale as the result of the information and technology revolutions. And finally, we're also trying to persuade youngsters to serve their community, and to begin that service as early as possible. Put service to others into their heart as a virtue.

So, America's Promise is taking most of my time. And we've got the symbol of this little red wagon that you see here, which we picked as a perfect symbol of a nostalgic childhood. Every boy and girl ought to have a little red wagon that can pull along a kid brother, a kid sister, a heavy load, a dream. A little red wagon that one day could be a rocket ship, or another day it could be an ocean liner, but it's there to help you make your way through life. And it comes with a nice long black handle, so that an adult can reach down, grab it and help you. That's the symbol of America's Promise. I'm trying to make sure that every child in America has a little red wagon.

I was just reading about America's Promise and there was a line in there that struck me, something about the era of the big citizen just beginning. What do you mean by that?

Colin Powell: We can't just sit around waiting for government to solve some of these intractable social problems that we've had for years. Government has a role to play. It is time for all of us to live up more fully to the concept of citizenship. And for those of us who as citizens of this nation have been blessed with treasure, and wealth, and good position, and comfortable homes, and all the blessings of this land, to be a good citizen, to be a big citizen, requires you to do more in the way of sharing with those who are in need. So that a family that has three wonderful children ought to try to see if they could find three hours a week to share that life with a kid in need who doesn't have a mentor, who doesn't get to play in Little League and do the other things that we take for granted. Somebody in that family who might go tutor a school on an afternoon off from a job, and we're encouraging corporations to give them that afternoon off. And so that's what we mean by big citizenship.

Get involved with your local Boys and Girls Club, your scouting program, your YMCA program, your tutoring program, your mentoring program. Give more money to charities of your choice. But do more to share what you have gained from this country with others. Do it in a way where you're actually giving up something of yourself. What you usually get back in return is very, very warm and very, very rewarding. You feel good about what you've done, it makes you a better person. That's what the era of big citizenship is all about.

Your own career seems to have been an extraordinarily smooth path to the position you're in today, but I'm sure there were some disappointments along the way -- setbacks.

Colin Powell: No one has a perfect Army career that goes up non-stop without plateaus or even downturns.

Colin Powell: I've had problems in my career, I've had downturns. I've had people who thought I wasn't very good, and said so in writing. I've had assignments that didn't come along when I thought they should have come along. There have been several times in my career where I thought I had reached as high a level as I was going to reach, and had started to make alternative plans, when suddenly luck came along, and things changed, and so it just kept going.

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!"
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.

Desert Storm must have been a great feeling of victory for you. When did it seem to you that we were more or less home free, as it were?

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Colin Powell: Once we really started the second phase of the build-up, I never had any doubt about the outcome. It was clear that we would be successful, and be successful more rapidly and with fewer casualties than all of the so-called experts on television and in the press were saying.

My two concerns were: I didn't know how rapidly we could bring it to a conclusion, and I wasn't sure what the casualty level would be, because I didn't know whether they would use chemicals, or whether we would have some bad luck someplace along the line. My two greatest concerns were the length of the war, and the number of casualties.

I'm very happy that the war ended quickly. The casualty level was much lower than even I thought, and I had about the lowest estimate of everybody and, of course, much, much lower than all of the experts who like to appear on television with great regularity.

Colin Powell: One of the great joys for me now is to go to a public place and run into a parent, and the parent will stop me and say hello. And they'll invariably say (if it's appropriate), "My son was in Desert Storm." And then I always have to pause for a moment, and then I usually say, "Is he all right?" And the answer almost always is, thankfully, "Yes, he's all right. Thank you for bringing him home safely."

Norm, I'm sure, gets the same thing.

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We did something unique, in addition to doing well in Desert Storm. And we have to remember, we did win. Notwithstanding all the second guessing, the Iraqi army is not in Kuwait, although I'm sure some book will come out claiming it is still in Kuwait, but it isn't.

It was so successful it gave us the opportunity to reach back and get our Vietnam buddies and bring them into it. And in the parades, and in all the celebrations last year, we made a particular point to include our Vietnam buddies, because the leaders of Desert Shield and Storm were all Vietnam veterans. That was a great joy. I'm very happy that that conflict ended quickly, and with very few casualties. But for those parents who did lose children, the casualty level was too high.

There's a quote by Thucydides that you appreciate very much: "Of all manifestations of power, restraint impresses men most."

Colin Powell: One of the great strengths of America, and the reason we are held in such high regard throughout the world, is that people trust our power, and they trust the way in which we use our power. The more powerful you are, the more people want to trust you with that power. They would hate to not trust you with that power.

In 1996, there you were speaking to the Republican National Convention, what was that like for you?

Colin Powell Interview Photo
Colin Powell: It was a pretty exciting moment, pretty challenging moment. I had made it clear that I wasn't interested in a political career, but I wanted to be active in the discussion and debate of issues in the country. People came to me, asking me my opinion on various issues. I identified myself as a Republican who was very conservative fiscally and with matters of foreign policy and national defense, but who was quite moderate to liberal on a number of the social issues of the day. So I was going into a convention where I was received as a popular former general, but I was also going into a convention that collectively was far more conservative politically than I was.

What I had to do was to create and deliver a speech that talked to the aspirations of all Americans. That told people why I was a Republican, but also told them what my strong views were on some of these social issues that I have differences of opinion on with respect to the party platform. It was a speech that took me a lot of time to craft and put together. I'd never stood before a political convention in my life, and never stood before an audience like that before. Once I had it set in my own mind, I just went out there and delivered it. And it went pretty well.

Thank you very much, General. It's been an honor talking to you.

You're very welcome.




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