Remembering Colin Powell: Mensch of the Military


Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell talks to editors and reporters of USA Today in 2004. Photo: H. Darr Beiser-USA TODAY NETWORK

ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Colin Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrant parents who rose to the very top in military leadership and diplomacy, died Monday of complications from COVID-19. His passing leaves a huge void that will be almost impossible to fill.

General Powell became the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first of his race to serve as national security adviser and Secretary of State. He served his beloved country with unexcelled competency, wisdom and enlightened leadership.

So numerous were his accomplishments that he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom—twice, and well-earned.

To all of Powell’s accolades, I would add one more:  Mensch of the Military.

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Powell served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs during Operation Desert Storm, during the term of President George H.W. Bush, which reversed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s annexation of Kuwait, and left Saddam in power.  Powell later justified Bush’s decision to topple Saddam, based on what turned out to be faulty CIA intelligence indicating Saddam possessed weapons of mass destruction.  Powell repeatedly expressed deep regret for his testimony justifying the invasion.  He was also involved in the war in Afghanistan.

While he was fundamentally opposed to war, he created the Powell Doctrine: once you go to war, use overwhelming force so as to minimize casualties. He also cautioned against protracted efforts at “nation-building,” which utterly failed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Powell had a lifetime closeness to the American Jewish community and the State of Israel.  In his 1995 memoir,

Powell recalled learning Yiddish from the Jewish residents in his Bronx neighborhood.  He described those Jewish moms as an added support system during his formative years.

Powell had a strong, but not totally uncritical stance on Israel.  He did a stint as the special envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process based on a fast track to a two-state solution, but his efforts were thwarted by terrorist attacks from Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Israeli leaders and Jewish organizations were united in their praise of Powell—warrior, statesman and a unique Mensch of the Military.

I heard Powell in person in two talks in the St. Louis Speakers Series at Powell Hall.  He received multiple standing ovations for his wide-ranging and cogent analysis of the world situation.

Powell’s wife Alma convinced him not to run for President in 1996, so we will never know how he would handle the ultimate American job as Commander-in-Chief of his beloved nation.  Based on his past performance, it would probably be exemplary and the crowning of a remarkable career of service and sacrifice.

May Colin Powell’s memory be for a blessing, and may he rest in peace.

Robert A. Cohn is Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of the Jewish Light.