December 17, 2000
Behind Colin Powell's Legend
On Jan. 17, 1963, in South Vietnam's monsoon season, U.S. Army Capt. Colin Powell jumped from a military helicopter into a densely forested combat zone of the A Shau Valley, not far from the Laotian border.
Carrying an M-2 carbine, Capt. Powell was starting his first -- and only -- combat assignment. He was the new adviser to a 400-man unit of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). Across jungle terrain, these South Vietnamese government troops were arrayed against a combined force of North Vietnamese regulars and local anti-government guerrillas known as the Viet Cong.
The 25-year-old Powell was arriving at a pivotal moment in the Vietnam War. To forestall a communist victory, President John F. Kennedy had dispatched teams of Green Beret advisers to assist the ARVN, a force suffering from poor discipline, ineffective tactics and bad morale.
Already, many U.S. advisers, most notably the legendary Col. John Paul Vann, were voicing concerns about the ARVN's brutality toward civilians. Vann feared that the dominant counterinsurgency strategy of destroying rural villages and forcibly relocating inhabitants while hunting down enemy forces was driving the people into the arms of the Viet Cong.
But as Colin Powell arrived, he was untainted by these worries. He was a gung-ho young Army officer with visions of glory. He brimmed with trust in the wisdom of his superiors. Capt. Powell also felt the deepest sympathy for the ARVN troops under his command, but only a cold contempt for the enemy.
Soon after his arrival, Powell and his ARVN unit left for a protracted patrol that fought leeches as well as Viet Cong ambushes. From the soggy jungle brush, the Viet Cong would strike suddenly against the advancing government soldiers. Often invisible to Powell and his men, the VC would inflict a few casualties and slip back into the jungles.
In My American Journey, Powell recounted his reaction when he spotted his first dead Viet Cong. "He lay on his back, gazing up at us with sightless eyes," Powell wrote. "I felt nothing, certainly not sympathy. I had seen too much death and suffering on our side to care anything about what happened on theirs."
While success against the armed enemy was rare, Powell's ARVN unit punished the civilian population systematically. As the soldiers marched through mountainous jungle, they destroyed the food and the homes of the region's Montagnards, who were suspected of sympathizing with the Viet Cong. Old women would cry hysterically as their ancestral homes and worldly possessions were consumed by fire.
"We burned down the thatched huts, starting the blaze with Ronson and Zippo lighters," Powell recalled. "Why were we torching houses and destroying crops? Ho Chi Minh had said the people were like the sea in which his guerrillas swam. ... We tried to solve the problem by making the whole sea uninhabitable. In the hard logic of war, what difference did it make if you shot your enemy or starved him to death?"
For nearly six months, Powell and his ARVN unit slogged through the jungles, searching for Viet Cong and destroying villages.
Then while on one patrol, Powell fell victim to a Viet Cong booby trap. He stepped on a punji stake, a dung-poisoned bamboo spear that had been buried in the ground. The stake pierced Powell's boot and quickly infected the young soldier's right foot. The foot swelled, turned purple and forced his evacuation by helicopter to Hue for treatment.
Although Powell's recovery from the foot infection was swift, his combat days were over. He stayed in Hue, reassigned to the operations staff of ARVN division headquarters. As part of his work, he handled intelligence data and oversaw a local airfield. By late autumn 1963, Powell's first Vietnam tour ended.
On his return to the United States, Powell did not join Vann and other early American advisers in warning the nation about the self-defeating counterinsurgency strategies. In 1963, Vann carried his prescient concerns back to a Pentagon that was not ready to listen to doubters. Then, when his objections fell on deaf ears, Vann resigned his commission and sacrificed a promising military career.
In contrast, Powell recognized that his early service in Vietnam put him on a fast track for military success. He signed up for a nine-month Infantry Officer Advanced Course that trained company commanders. In May 1965, Powell finished third in a class of 200 and was the top-ranked infantryman. A year later, he became an instructor.
In 1966, as the numbers of U.S. servicemen in Vietnam swelled, Powell received a promotion to major, making him a field-grade officer before his 30th birthday. In 1968, Powell continued to impress his superiors by graduating second in his class at Fort Leavenworth's Command and General Staff College, a prestigious school regarded as an essential way station for future Army generals.
Recognizing Powell as an emerging "water-walker" who needed more seasoning in the field, the Army dispatched Powell to a command position back in Vietnam. But on his second tour, Powell would not be slogging through remote jungles. On July 27, 1968, he arrived at an outpost at Duc Pho to serve as an executive officer.
Then, to the north, at the Americal headquarters in Chu Lai, division commander Maj. Gen. Charles Gettys saw a favorable mention of Powell in the Army Times. Gettys plucked Powell from Duc Pho and installed him on the general's own staff at Chu Lai.
Gettys jumped the young major ahead of more senior officers and made him the G-3 officer in charge of operations and planning. The appointment made "me the only major filling that role in Vietnam," Powell wrote in his memoirs.
But history again was awaiting Colin Powell. The Americal Division was already deep into some of the cruelest fighting of the Vietnam War. The "drain-the-sea" strategy that Powell had witnessed near the Laotian border continued to lead American forces into harsh treatment of Vietnamese civilians.
Though it was still a secret when Powell arrived at Chu Lai, Americal troops had committed an act that would stain forever the reputation of the U.S. Army. As Major Powell settled into his new assignment, a scandal was waiting to unfold.
On May 16, 1968, a bloodied unit of the Americal division stormed into a hamlet known as My Lai 4. With military helicopters circling overhead, revenge-seeking American soldiers rousted Vietnamese civilians -- mostly old men, women and children -- from their thatched huts and herded them into the village's irrigation ditches.
As the round-up continued, some Americans raped the girls. Then, under orders from junior officers on the ground, soldiers began emptying their M-16s into the terrified peasants. Some parents used their bodies futilely to shield their children from the bullets. Soldiers stepped among the corpses to finish off the wounded.
The slaughter raged for four hours. A total of 347 Vietnamese, including babies, died in the carnage. But there also were American heroes that day in My Lai. Some soldiers refused to obey the direct orders to kill and some risked their lives to save civilians from the murderous fire.
A pilot named Hugh Clowers Thompson Jr. from Stone Mountain, Ga., was furious at the killings he saw happening on the ground. He landed his helicopter between one group of fleeing civilians and American soldiers in pursuit.
Thompson ordered his helicopter door gunner to shoot the Americans if they tried to harm the Vietnamese. After a tense confrontation, the soldiers backed off. Later, two of Thompson's men climbed into one ditch filled with corpses and pulled out a three-year-old boy whom they flew to safety.
Several months later, the Americal's brutality would become a moral test for Major Powell, too.
A letter had been written by a young specialist fourth class named Tom Glen, who had served in an Americal mortar platoon and was nearing the end of his Army tour. In the letter to Gen. Creighton Abrams, the commander of all U.S. forces in Vietnam, Glen accused the Americal division of routine brutality against civilians.
Glen's letter was forwarded to the Americal headquarters at Chu Lai where it landed on Major Powell's desk.
"The average GI's attitude toward and treatment of the Vietnamese people all too often is a complete denial of all our country is attempting to accomplish in the realm of human relations," Glen wrote.
"Far beyond merely dismissing the Vietnamese as 'slopes' or 'gooks,' in both deed and thought, too many American soldiers seem to discount their very humanity; and with this attitude inflict upon the Vietnamese citizenry humiliations, both psychological and physical, that can have only a debilitating effect upon efforts to unify the people in loyalty to the Saigon government, particularly when such acts are carried out at unit levels and thereby acquire the aspect of sanctioned policy."
Glen's letter contended that many Vietnamese were fleeing from Americans who “for mere pleasure, fire indiscriminately into Vietnamese homes and without provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves.” Gratuitous cruelty was also being inflicted on Viet Cong suspects, Glen reported.
“Fired with an emotionalism that belies unconscionable hatred, and armed with a vocabulary consisting of 'You VC,' soldiers commonly 'interrogate' by means of torture that has been presented as the particular habit of the enemy. Severe beatings and torture at knife point are usual means of questioning captives or of convincing a suspect that he is, indeed, a Viet Cong. ...
“It would indeed be terrible to find it necessary to believe that an American soldier that harbors such racial intolerance and disregard for justice and human feeling is a prototype of all American national character; yet the frequency of such soldiers lends credulity to such beliefs. ...
“What has been outlined here I have seen not only in my own unit, but also in others we have worked with, and I fear it is universal. If this is indeed the case, it is a problem which cannot be overlooked, but can through a more firm implementation of the codes of MACV (Military Assistance Command Vietnam) and the Geneva Conventions, perhaps be eradicated."
In 1995, when we questioned Glen about his letter, he said he had heard second-hand about the My Lai massacre, though he did not mention it specifically. The massacre was just one part of the abusive pattern that had become routine in the division, he said.
The letter's troubling allegations were not well received at Americal headquarters.
Major Powell undertook the assignment to review Glen's letter, but did so without questioning Glen or assigning anyone else to talk with him. Powell simply accepted a claim from Glen's superior officer that Glen was not close enough to the front lines to know what he was writing about, an assertion Glen denies.
After that cursory investigation, Powell drafted a response on Dec. 13, 1968. He admitted to no pattern of wrongdoing. Powell claimed that U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were taught to treat Vietnamese courteously and respectfully. The Americal troops also had gone through an hour-long course on how to treat prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, Powell noted.
"There may be isolated cases of mistreatment of civilians and POWs," Powell wrote in 1968. But "this by no means reflects the general attitude throughout the Division." Indeed, Powell's memo faulted Glen for not complaining earlier and for failing to be more specific in his letter.
"In direct refutation of this [Glen's] portrayal," Powell concluded, "is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent."
Powell's findings, of course, were false, though they were exactly what his superiors wanted to hear.
It would take another Americal hero, an infantryman named Ron Ridenhour, to piece together the truth about the atrocity at My Lai. After returning to the United States, Ridenhour interviewed Americal comrades who had participated in the massacre.
On his own, Ridenhour compiled this shocking information into a report and forwarded it to the Army inspector general. The IG's office conducted an aggressive official investigation, in marked contrast to Powell's review.
Confirming Ridenhour's report, the Army finally faced the horrible truth. Courts martial were held against officers and enlisted men who were implicated in the murder of the My Lai civilians.
But Powell's peripheral role in the My Lai cover-up did not slow his climb up the Army's ladder. After the scandal broke, Powell pleaded ignorance about the actual My Lai massacre.
Luckily for Powell, Glen's letter also disappeared into the National Archives -- to be unearthed only years later by British journalists Michael Bilton and Kevin Sims for their book, Four Hours in My Lai.