Legacy of Lessons: Life Lessons of General Colin Powell


Colin Powell was born on April 5th, 1937. He was the son of Jamaican immigrants and a resident of the Bronx, far from the halls of power that he would eventually grace. For more than four decades, Colin Powell would be a fixture of American military and foreign policy, serving as a national security advisor, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State. This paper examines his career, starting from his time in Vietnam to his tenure at the State Department, and looks at the lessons that current and future foreign policymakers can learn from the life and career of General Colin Powell.



On October 18th, 2021, Former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell died due to complications from COVID-19. Gen. Powell was a major figure in the U.S. national security and foreign policy arenas for nearly three decades. Powell started out as a soldier, fighting in the Vietnam War. He eventually held several positions in the Executive Branch, and in 1989 he was promoted to a four-star General and shortly thereafter made Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. During his tenure, he oversaw several military operations, most famously Operation Desert Storm. After retiring from the military, Powell became active in Republican politics, and in 2001 he was appointed as Secretary of State. In that role, Powell was involved in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th attacks and the subsequent War on Terror. As foreign policymakers look back on Colin Powell’s legacy, they can learn important lessons in service, resilience, and leadership that can be applied to current foreign policy issues. 


In the Jungle:

Colin Luther Powell received his commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army on June 9th, 1958. He completed his training at Fort Benning, Georgia, and after completion, he was sent to West Germany. After a few years in Germany and stateside, Powell received his first deployment to a warzone. He arrived in South Vietnam in December of 1962, specifically in the A Shau Valley. His mission was to serve as an advisor to the South Vietnamese army. Six months into his deployment, he stepped on what is referred to as a punji stick trap. The poison on the stick went through his foot, causing tremendous swelling. After sustaining this injury, for which he received a Purple Heart award, he was placed in an administrative role for the remainder of his tour.

This first tour was not the last time Powell would be sent to the jungle. In 1968, after completing more schooling stateside and becoming a Major, Powell was sent back. At this point, the mission had changed. The U.S. was no longer just advising their enemy, but directly fighting the Vietcong. In November of ’68, Powell was riding in a helicopter with several other army officers that went down due to a mechanical issue. Powell escaped and returned to the crashed helicopter to rescue his commanding officer Major General Charles Gettys. Major Powell was awarded the Soldier’s Medal for his heroic actions. In 1969, he was assigned to the American Division Headquarters. While there, Powell was a part of the investigation that uncovered the My Lai massacre. This was an incident where troops led by Lt. William Calley killed more than two hundred innocent civilians, including women, children, and the elderly. The event sparked outrage back home, and the U.S. Army tried numerous men for war crimes related to the massacre. Powell would later highlight the instance as a reminder of the importance of having well-trained troops with high moral character.

Powell’s time in Vietnam taught him two lessons: one military and one political. The military lesson that Powell adopted post-Vietnam was to go in heavy, win quickly, and get out. Writing in the 1990s, Powell’s former boss at the Pentagon, Caspar Weinberger, stated, “the general believes that ‘you go in with overwhelming force, you go in very quickly, and once it’s over you get out. That is a refreshing change from the Vietnam era.’” Powell, who was involved in the planning of a battalion division, saw the lack of forces that America had in Vietnam and the pressing need for more. Powell witnessed the disastrous effects of staying around Vietnam. This military lesson dovetails into the political lesson: know why you are fighting, and make sure the people support it. In his autobiography, published in 1995, Powell wrote:

War should be politics’ last resort. And when we go to war, we should have a purpose that our people understand and support; we should mobilize the country’s resources to fulfill that mission and then go in to win. In Vietnam, we had entered into a halfhearted half-war, with much of the nation opposed or indifferent, while a small fraction carried the burden.

Powell’s view in this regard is very Aristotelian in approach: you need the right number of men, at the right time, for the right purpose, for the right ends. Powell was not interested in fighting wars just for the sake of war. He took away from the Vietnam war the need for political unity on the war front. Wars are something that the United States must go all-in on, or not at all. If America does go to war, it needs to be a decisive, clear-cut victory. These lessons would later be summarized in an unofficial term: the Powell Doctrine. 


Welcome to Washington: 

After completing his time in Vietnam, Powell went back to school and received his M.B.A. from George Washington University. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, he would serve in various military and executive branch positions. That list includes a position at the Office of Management and Budget, battalion commander in South Korea, Colonel and commander of 2nd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, senior military assistant to the secretary of defense, deputy national security advisor, and national security advisor. This exhaustive experience in the military and executive branch gave Powell numerous opportunities to impact policy. This time serving led Powell to experience a variety of situations that would later benefit him. For example, during his time as assistant to Secretary of Defense Weinberger, the Soviets shot down a commercial aircraft carrying 269 passengers. Powell was the first person to brief the secretary on the matter and witnessed the fallout. Powell watched as the Soviets deflected blame and tried to cover up their mistake. Through this event and his career, Powell would learn that you should never let “your judgments run ahead of your facts” and that “it is best to get facts out as soon as possible… untidy truths are better than smoothed lies.” He would use these lessons about war, public support, judgment, and truth in the most impressive stages of his career. 


In the Chair:

  In 1989, President George Bush appointed Colin Powell as the 12th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell became the youngest person and the first African-American to hold the position. Powell jumped right into the job as a situation in Panama was unfolding. A group of rebels had begun a revolution against Manuel Noriega, an oppressive tyrant. The rebels turned to the U.S. for help. Many in the Bush administration, including the President himself, were convinced that the United States needed to act, but Powell was not convinced yet. His concerns were later justified after the revolt failed. Throughout his four years as Chairman, Powell would continuously have to watch over Panama.

Powell’s tenure as Chairman is most famously known for the successful Operation Desert Storm. Desert Storm was launched because of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait led by dictator Saddam Hussein. Bush and Powell had given Saddam ample time to retreat from Kuwait, yet he refused, so in early 1991, the U.S. and its allies invaded. It took just six weeks of aerial attacks and four days of a ground invasion to push back the Iraqi forces. This war was a clear victory for the United States, and it propelled Powell to even greater heights in the eyes of the public. Powell and his fellow generals took part in the victory parades around the country. This was the first absolute victory that the nation enjoyed since World War II, and Colin Powell was at the center, orchestrating and planning it all

Powell’s second term as Chairman overlapped with a presidential election.  Though much thought went into adding him to the ticket in 1992, this did not come to pass. While he still carried on the tremendous job of Chairman, political forces were moving and shifting. In the ’92 election, Governor Bill Clinton was elected President, which would mark the first time in his career that Powell would work directly for a democrat. Among the issues that the two of them worked on were the tensions in Somalia and Bolivia. Despite coming from a lineage of republicans, Powell was willing to serve the President and follow through with his commission. Powell did what he had done his whole career: give facts and sound advice and follow the orders of the commander and chief. In the Summer of 1993 and after 35 years of service in the Army, General Colin Powell retired. He began his autobiography, entered the speaking circuit, and joined several private and diplomatic organizations and missions.


One Last Posting:

Even after retirement, Colin Powell remained visible within politics. While refusing to run for President himself, he never ruled out the possibility of serving the country again. In 2001, he got that chance once more. George Bush Jr. had been elected President and was looking for someone with credibility on the world stage. He officially nominated Powell to be Secretary of State in December of 2000, and he was confirmed on January 22, 2001. 

Whether a fair judgment or not, Powell’s tenure is evaluated based on his decision to invade Iraq in 2003. After September 11th, the Bush Administration had invaded Afghanistan in an effort to hunt down Osama Bin Laden. Some in the administration, namely Vice President Cheney (who had been Secretary of Defense during Powell’s chairmanship) and Secretary Rumsfeld tried to draw a line between Iraq and their old foe, Saddam Hussein. The intelligence was spotty and not clear. Powell was not nearly as war-hawkish as Cheney and Rumsfeld and held serious doubts about the invasion. In fact, he allegedly told President Bush, “If you break it, you own it.” He did agree to go before the United Nations in 2003 and make the case for the invasion of Iraq. In the speech, Powell said that “Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources.” He laid out that Hussein already had taken steps to acquire weapons of mass destruction, that he was actively trying to hide it from the international community, and that he was in league with Al-Qaeda. After the subsequent invasion, which was propelled by Powell’s speech, these allegations and charges were proven false.

This failure hurt Powell, not politically but personally and morally.  He would later call it a “painful” blot on his record. This is another important lesson to learn from Powell: sometimes a leader will be wrong. And when he is wrong, a good one will own up to his mistakes. One could imagine that in that interview, Powell was thinking of the Soviets’ shooting down the commercial jet. Not wanting to make the same mistakes that they did, Powell later in life owned up to his mistake and faults.



What can current foreign policymakers learn from Colin Powell? They can learn important lessons on service, leadership, and convictions. Current and future leaders can look at the Powell Doctrine for a clear path to victory in military conflicts. Individuals who deal directly with the American people and the media can learn about the importance of being honest with the public, telling them the facts as they are. He provides leaders with lessons on judgment and character: always apply sound analysis; do not rush to conclusions; gather information and never act rashly. Powell would also add that if one makes a mistake, he has a moral imperative to take responsibility and admit that he was wrong. Finally, all Americans can learn about service and patriotism, for despite the partisan system, the nation needs to work together on all issues, especially national security. One’s allegiance should be to the nation, not the letter next to his name. Powell’s legacy is the lessons that he taught the nation, those lessons of service, resilience, and leadership. 



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