Earlier last week on October 18, Colin Powell, former US secretary of state, passed away after succumbing to complications from Covid-19. According to his obituary in The Guardian General Powell “rose higher in public office than any previous black American” and is remembered by many in the United States as a “trailblazer and role model” who set an example for all Americans. Former US president Barack Obama tweeted that “Michelle and I will always look to him as an example of what America – and Americans – can and should be”. So, if General Powell was such an exemplary man by popular account why is his death surrounded by words such as a “complicated legacy?”

Colin Powell was without a doubt a highly influential man; he has been credited with influencing “American foreign policy in the last years of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st and his endorsement of Barack Obama in the final weeks of the 2008 presidency helped shape the result of the election. This influence, however, has not always yielded the results one might expect from someone who is being lauded as a role model. While those in America remember Powell fondly, elsewhere in the world his death has not sparked the same feelings. The role he played in the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 led to many blaming him for the subsequent death and suffering and as such any conversation about his legacy is incomplete without mentioning those that he hurt.

A speech from Powell in February 2003 at the United Nations is considered a pivotal moment for what happened in Iraq. He tried to convince the world that a war in Iraq was needed by citing what was later proven to be false intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. His words were crucial in selling the war to the American public, a war that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and displaced many others. What is even more concerning is that Powell was privately opposed to the war and yet ended up becoming a vocal supporter in the public sphere. Maryam, a 51-year-old Iraqi writer and mother of two told the Associated Press that “he lied, and we are the ones who got stuck with never-ending wars”. Today the war may be a memory for most but for many in Iraq, its horrors are persistent to this day. The sharp rise in birth defects in the city of Fallujah since the US invasion serve as one of the reminders of how Iraq is suffering to this day.

Powell’s role in propagating US imperialism is not limited to this one incident that he has admitted to being a “blot” on his record, he would later still claim that “on balance” the US “had a lot of success” in Iraq. His legacy of causing suffering abroad to protect the interests of the United States stretches as far back as the Vietnam War. On 16 March 1968 American troops marched into a Vietnamese village and brutally murdered around 347 to 504 civilians. The event would become known as the My Lai massacre and is largely regarded as a war crime by the international community, a crime that Powell helped cover-up at the time. In 1989 Powell oversaw the US invasion of Panama, the operation was paramount in developing the Powell doctrine, the idea that the “US only go to war to protect strategic interests and once engaged, must have a decisive plan for winning and a clear exit strategy”. This doctrine would later come into play during the first Iraq war, a swift operation that lasted only two months but relied on the heavy bombing that caused thousands of civilian deaths.

It is apparent that during his lengthy career Powell has directly or indirectly contributed to the suffering of many and to ignore that pain in the name of respect and politeness after his death would be a grave injustice. Mirroring a similar rhetoric American academic and television personality Marc Lamont Hill tweeted that telling the victims of these wars to be silent is “morally grotesque”. Not only is silence at this point morally questionable but it only serves to further cover up the crimes of American imperialism. Colin Powell may have shown remorse over his actions, or he could have felt that as a black man in America he had no choice but to follow the status quo but neither of these things can erase his actions. To achieve what he did in a country that is seldom kind to its African American population is certainly exemplary, but it is not enough to overlook his role in the often violent and imperialist endeavors of the United States and his legacy must reflect these actions.

  • Saleha Noor

    Saleha is currently completing her undergraduate in Asian and International Studies from the City University of Hong Kong. As someone who is highly opinionated and believes that words can be extremely powerful she spends most of her time writing about everything from politics to fashion.