Getting to know GEN Colin L. Powell, USA (Ret.)
“Right now you’re an infantry officer. Take care of those 40 people. If you learn how to do that, then you’re on your way somewhere. If you blow that, you’re not going anywhere.”
– GEN Colin L. Powell, USA (Ret.)
An Interview with the Former Secretary of State
By Sean Markey
Photos by Mark Collier
On November 11, 2014, former U.S. Secretary of State and retired four-star Army General Colin L. Powell visited the Hill to observe Veterans Day, serving as the reviewing officer at a remembrance ceremony on the Upper Parade Ground and delivering the fall 2014 Todd Lecture. Powell, a confidant and advisor to four U.S. presidents, came at the invitation of his friend and former colleague GEN Gordon R. Sullivan ’59.
While young ROTC officers, both men trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, before deploying to Vietnam. Decades later, the two worked together—Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Sullivan as 32nd Chief of Staff of the Army—to restructure America’s armed forces following the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War. The Record sat down with Powell to ask about his Vietnam experience and his current focus on the future of America.
Record: Since leaving public office you have worked to expand educational opportunities for young people. Why is that important to you?
Colin Powell: I’ve had a great career. I want to live in the future, and the future rests with our children. It is very rewarding to take what I’ve done in the past and try to apply it to new generations coming along. I’m very proud to say I have nine elementary and middle schools named after me, also a school at my alma mater. I created a foundation in 1997 called America’s Promise Alliance. The simple premise was, with all that we have in this country—all our wealth, all our time and talent,—why are some kids being left behind? I’ve been focusing on that for years.
We’ve got a great coalition of organizations around the country working with us to become a nation of graduates again. This is especially important in our urban, inner-city areas where the educational experience is not as good—where the youngsters come often from difficult backgrounds and troubled homes. They need help, and we have to be that help or else we lose them. They end up in jail. They drop out. If they drop out, they’re capped off for the rest of their life. I don’t think there’s anything more important that I could be doing with this remaining phase of my life.
Record: What do you see as the main challenges facing our country today, and how we do we address them?
CP: That would probably take the rest of the afternoon to talk about. But I think one of the major problems we’re having in our country right now is decreasing civility in our public discourse, particularly within the Congress. Congress is conflicted. It’s tied up in knots, and this is not serving the country well. People ask me all the time, “Well, what should we do about it?” And my answer is, until we the people start speaking out by voting against those who are not getting the job done, we’re not going to solve the problem with an election in 2014 or 2016. We have other problems—the environment, infrastructure, education, first and foremost. You know, it’s an interconnected world. We have to train our youngsters not for the jobs of the past but the jobs of the future. We’re not doing a good enough job. Those are some of the key ones that I work on and I talk about all the time.
Record: You’ve transcended many racial and class barriers over the course of your career. Were there people or forces in your early life that enabled your success?
CP: Well first and foremost my parents—two little short immigrant people who came here on banana boats from the West Indies. My mother came here in 1924 to Ellis Island. My father came four years earlier to the Port of Philadelphia. They came here not because they didn’t love their home, Jamaica, but [because] they needed economic opportunity. They were the most formative influence on my life. Not just my mother and my father, but the extended family that was here—aunts and uncles and cousins. All of whom made it clear that you are not allowed to drop out in this family. It would be a sin, a crime. We’ll get rid of you and get some other kid. We have expectations for you. We’re poor. We came here. We’re laborers. We expect you to do better. Don’t disappoint us. That is what started it all.
CP: Because it’s important. I’m a venture capitalist at Kleiner Perkins [Caufield & Byers], one of the great venture capital companies, and I’m on the board of several companies. There’s nothing wrong with being in a company that’s creating wealth, as long as we make sure that wealth is used not only for those who earned it, but for those who need it. Those who are blessed with the talent, time, and especially treasure, I think, have an obligation to give back.
Record: Does the U.S. strike the right balance today between military intervention and diplomacy?
CP: Balance to me would be no war and all diplomacy and peace. So I don’t know that you can strike a balance. Unfortunately, the way the world operates is, crises come along, and you have to do something about it when they come along or let it go. Nobody was thinking of balance when suddenly we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, or [when] World War I broke out 100 years ago. And so the real answer to your question is, you have to keep in place a military force capable of defending your interests if called upon. But you also have to invest in diplomacy and foreign assistance and educating our young people. Some of my successors as chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have said our most important foreign policy objective right now is to fix America so that we can continue to be an inspiration for the rest of the world. We show the rest of the world what democracy can do for you.
Record: You served as a young officer in Vietnam. How did that affect you personally, and what were the lessons of that conflict for the nation?
CP: I went over 42 years ago as a young, 26-year-old captain. Thought I was really doing something for the people of Vietnam, democracy, fighting the Cold War, and fighting against communism. But when I went back the second time, about five or six years later, 1968, I could see that we were not just fighting communists. We were fighting people who were nationalists, who believed in their version of what Vietnam should look like. We weren’t going to prevail over them. They were prepared to lose everything, to put every life on the line. We were not prepared to do that, and it really wasn’t in our interest to do that. So I was glad when that war came to an end. What it said to me was, when we get into wars in the future, make sure we have a clear understanding of the nature of the enemy we are fighting—[and of] what are we fighting for. What political objective are we trying to accomplish? And can we accomplish it without war? If the answer is no, we tried, it didn’t work—now you need to use force. Then let’s use it. But don’t use it until you have a clear understanding of what we’re trying to achieve.
Record: This spring Norwich will graduate some 500 seniors, many of whom will enter the military. What is your advice to them?
CP: What I tell young, military people is, you’re not the one in charge of the world. You’re in charge of 40 human beings or a crew of 10 or a crew of 20. You’re in charge of young people who are looking to you for competence [and] moral and physical courage. Physical courage if you have to lead them into battle. Moral courage to give them the will to win. Right now you’re an infantry officer. Take care of those 40 people. If you learn how to do that, then you’re on your way somewhere. If you blow that, you’re not going anywhere.
Record: Today is Veterans Day. How should the 99.5 percent of us who don’t serve in America’s Armed Forces reflect upon those who have and do?
CP: Be thankful that we haven’t needed more than one percent to deal with the conflicts that we’ve had. Be thankful for their service and be appreciative of their sacrifice—those who died, those who have been severely wounded. Don’t go around thinking everybody who’s been in Iraq and Afghanistan has come back and has got something wrong with them. Most of them are coming back and are moving right back into civilian life or staying in the military and pursuing a military career. Many are coming back with grievous wounds. There are a lot of families that are still mourning their loss. There are also many who are suffering from PTSD. We need to take care of them [and] make sure they get the best possible care. But accept them as equals. Don’t patronize them. Don’t even put them on a pedestal or put them in the bottom. They’re now your fellow citizens. Take care of them.
Listen to the full, unabridged audio interview with Gen. Colin L. Powell: