General Colin Powell has achieved well beyond his distinguished 35 years in the military. Not only was he the first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first Black Secretary of State, he was at one point a legitimate Republican political candidate. Powell is part of the proud history of Black veterans we honor today, on Veteran’s Day and he’ll spend this day speaking to vets at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.
This is also the 20th anniversary of the Vietnam Women’s Memorial, the statue of two nurses holding a wounded GI that is near the Vietnam memorial. Powell spoke at the groundbreaking for that statue, and is back today to commemorate its 20 years. As for the Vietnam War, which plunged the nation into an unpopular, unwinnable war and cost thousands of American lives, people still have a hard time understanding why Americans went over there.
General Powell, now 76, was one of them and he shared his perspective this morning on the Tom Joyner Morning Show. He did two tours in Vietnam.
“When I went in, almost 50 years ago Christmas Day of 1962 as a young captain, I thought we were doing the right thing. We were trying to keep a legitimate government from being overthrown by those in the North, who thought they had the right to do so. It started out nobly. President Kennedy thought he was doing the right thing. And then it sort of slipped away from us when we realized it was going to take a much greater effort. And by the mid-60’s, it became more difficult than we ever anticipated and it became unclear that we could prevail. It also became clear that it was not just Communism we were fighting.” These people were nationalists and prepared to pay any cost it required for them to prevail.
President Nixon came in and decided that we should turn the war over to the South Vietnamese and then leave. Congress pulled the funding away and it was over by 1975. It was a tough one for us who were there and had a lot of lasting aftereffects. For example, we went to all all-volunteer force after the draft. The American people did not want to face that situation again. It turned out the all-volunteer force is a great force and is doing great work around the world today.”
Powell says comparisons to Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t accurate, although intervening in those conflicts has also become unpopular with Americans.
“We went into Afghanistan because we’d been attacked from Afghanistan. That’s where Al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden had their homes and their headquarters. We gave the Afghan government, the Taliban, at that time, time to get rid of Osama Bin Laden and turn him over and we chose not to, so we had to go in and take him out. We tried to give the Afghans an opportunity to build democracy and a better system of government and they’re working at it but we’re coming out of Afghanistan next year.
In Iraq, you can argue whether we should have gone in, but at the time the intelligence community was telling all of us that weapons of mass destruction were there and were a problem. We got rid of them and I think we made mistakes after seizing Baghdad not to understand that if you break it, you own it. If you take out a government, you are the government until you can establish a new government under the control of its own citizens.
We did that and we left Iraq. It’s now up to the Iraqis if they want to live under a democratic system where all part of the country are represented fairly or if they want to have a civil war. And that’s not something the United States can deal with. They have to deal with that.”
As Veteran’s Day is a time to celebrate those who have served their country, Powell says the day should be more than just a day off of work. It’s a time when you can truly honor the soldiers who have made sacrifices for their country and who serve proudly to keep all of us safe.
“Say ‘Hello’ to them, thank them about their service and ask them about their service. Where did you serve? What did you see? Are you doing OK? Do you have a job? Is there anything I can do to help you get a job? In your community, reach out to veterans. If a veteran moves into your neighborhood that has come back home, can you help them adjust to being back home?
Help them babysit; get them a job. Include them in your activities. They want to be welcomed back into their communities. They want to believe that they will be assisted by their fellow citizens in reintegrating back into American society. We should be so proud of them because they are volunteers. They serve the nation when the nation calls on them.”