Memoirs by retired generals and admirals usually have titles like A Soldier Reports or Command Missions, more simply, Soldier, or even the starkly declarative Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant. Colin Powell has called his book My American Journey, a curiously nonmilitary title, and the marketers at Random House have put on the dust jacket the no less civilian description, "The life story of a young boy from the Bronx who grew up to live the American Dream."

These minor facts illustrate the curious and powerful mixture of simplicity and artistry in the writing of the book, and perhaps in the man as well. The title is, it is fair to say, better suited to a general who wishes to make a political career than would be something like My Life in Uniform. This is not surprising, for the principal character is the most politically adroit general the United States has seen since Dwight D. Eisenhower (whom Powell admires greatly).

Having secured the services of a distinguished collaborator, Joseph E. Persico, himself the author of several excellent books, General Powell paints a self-portrait of the bluff and simple soldier who is also, however, a canny Washington infighter. The way he blends these two characters lends his story much interest--as do the careful interjections of judiciously expressed interest in serving his country further in unnamed higher office.


Powell's life story, impressive as it is, is not a tale of struggle against adversity. Born into a strong middle-class family of Jamaican immigrants, growing up in a relatively safe and cohesive multiethnic neighborhood in the Bronx, Powell attended City College when its standards were still high. He came from a social stratum that supplied, and still supplies, the military with most of its leaders. He entered the U.S. Army at just the point when the color of his skin was no bar to advancement--if anything, as he tacitly admits, rather the reverse. He encountered formal, overt racial discrimination in its last days in the South, but off military bases, not on them. A natural soldier who loved his trade, he did well at each level of command and had opportunities for professional advancement and further education offered to him by an institution that also provided the company of comrades. At no stage in his career did he lack exemplars and patrons who thought well of him and advanced his career accordingly. His private life, one readily sees, has been blessed by an exceptionally strong marriage and family life, the support of a devout Episcopalian faith, and a ready capacity for friendship. Colin Powell did not claw his way to the top in the face of professional or personal hardship; he rose in favorable circumstances by ability and ebullient charm.

None of this detracts from Powell's virtues, which even in a co-authored, carefully drafted book of this kind shine through. His robust sense of the absurd manifests itself in anecdotes told at his own expense. It is difficult to contrive humor, and its continual presence in the book, as in personal encounters with Powell, reflects something essential about the man. More than once Powell refers to his hot temper, and one suspects that his ability to guffaw has neutralized the acid in an anger that, he admits, periodically erupted in shouting at subordinates. Humor bespeaks as well a sense of proportion; it fits with the self-portrait of a man who as a commander wasted little time with the more senseless forms of spit and polish, who tried to wrap up work by 5:30 p.m., and who enjoyed a good party. Indeed, more than once Powell wistfully recalls the days when the army did not regard a drink too many as grounds for the termination of a career. Humor and self-confidence often go together, and the latter characteristic is even more notable than the former. On the night following tense interviews for the White House Fellows program, Powell was partying while his competitors nervously waited for envelopes to be slipped under their doors at Airlie House.


Powell often repeats the injunction, "Don't trust the experts," a sentiment that reflects not merely mistrust of others but confidence in himself. He describes his rethinking of the American defense posture in 1994 as a back-of-the-envelope exercise: "What I was hatching amounted to analysis by instinct. I was not going on intelligence estimates, war games, or computer projections." This self-confidence leads to Powell's third great asset, a natural talent for leadership, developed by the army through simple maxims that all second lieutenants learn but not all take to heart: "Take care of your people," "The boss eats last," and the like. Many of these are included in the book as "Colin Powell's Rules," 13 maxims ("Check small things," "Don't take counsel of your fears or naysayers") that are sound advice if not necessarily profound truths.

Powell is very much a man of the army, not a rebel against it in any way, although uncomfortably aware of some of its vices. He regularly declares his love for it as an institution. He was also a participant in its defining experience of the second half of this century--Vietnam. It is in the chapters discussing that conflict that one can find the key to Powell's views on military power and statecraft; although put eloquently, they are entirely the standard view of rising officers of his generation. Powell served two tours in Vietnam. During his first tour of some ten months in 1963, he spent most of his time as an adviser to a South Vietnamese infantry battalion. From the summer of 1968 through that of 1969, he served as a staff officer in the troubled 23rd Division of My Lai infamy. He was wounded on each tour, once by stepping on a punji stick, a second time in a helicopter crash. Worse than his physical scars was the loss of close friends. He describes with particular keenness his shock and sorrow at the death of an ROTC comrade, Tony Mavroudis. In one of the more moving parts of the book, Powell describes watching a television show almost a year later in which Mavroudis was prominently featured.

Powell's tours in Vietnam, although hardly easy, were not unusual for professional infantrymen of his generation, save that he never had a combat command of American forces (although as an adviser he exercised informal command of a South Vietnamese unit). Vietnam molded his views as it did those of so many of his peers--views not merely of that war but on the causes worth fighting and dying for, America's political leadership, and civilian defense officials. The sarcasm with which he describes the naive and undifferentiated anticommunism of the Kennedy years, his loathing of politicians who allowed America's elites to avoid military service, and his contempt for "slide-rule prodigies" mark this section of the book with a deep bitterness: "Elites can become so inbred that they produce hemophiliacs who bleed to death as soon as they are nicked by the real world." This theme--a dichotomy between theorists, politicians, and thinkers on the one hand and men of affairs such as himself, who deal with things in practice, on the other--pervades the book. There are few complimentary references to thinkers as opposed to doers here, and those in the former category are addressed primarily to fellow soldiers.

It is in the context of his discussion of Vietnam that Powell sets forth his uncompromising doctrines on the use of force: "War should be the politics of 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 and win." "Half-hearted warfare for half-baked reasons" was Powell's great fear as a soldier. Powell does not discuss the consequences of this maximalist position for the conduct of American foreign policy, for the assertion of its power in the world. On this score, the views deeply held by the national security adviser to President Reagan and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have remained those of Major Colin Powell, the grieving comrade of Captain Tony Mavroudis.

Throughout his memoir, Powell speaks of his anxiety about being labeled a "political general," and there is something unintentionally comic in his account of his efforts to evade ever-better jobs in Washington. His cycle seems to begin in each case with his pleading not to be given a stellar but desk-bound position in the Washington national security establishment, followed by machinations to get back to the field, delight at his success in so doing, and deep disappointment at being swiftly recalled to higher office from a happy life with fellow soldiers. But one doubts whether anyone can succeed in Washington as spectacularly as Powell has without having not merely a talent but a zest for bureaucratic life.

In truth Powell's career beginnings were those of a foot soldier. Powell's fundamental outlook on military matters--including his disdain for "deep thinkers," "intelligence wizards," and "puffed-up pilots"--are those of the bred-in-the-bones infantryman. His early training and posts--the army's grueling ranger program, a plum instructorship at the infantry school at Fort Benning, command of a brigade in the elite 101st Airborne Division--bespeak a talent for genuine soldiering. Equally revealing is his admiring discussion of his division commander in 1973-74, Major General Hank "Gunfighter" Emerson, a study in leadership under difficult circumstances, of an army inundated with misfits and troublemakers but determined to pull itself out of its Vietnam trough.


Powell's phenomenal popularity with American soldiers, who are good if fallible judges of military leadership, also suggests that part of him is, as advertised, the simple soldier. But there is also clearly a very different side to Powell, that of the superb Washington operator who rose with breathtaking speed from a White House fellowship through positions on the army staff to the very pinnacle of the national security bureaucracy. Here, as in his more conventional military career, he had his mentors and friends who helped him along, and it is instructive to see who they were. Among the earliest was Fred Malek, Deputy Director of the Office of Management and Budget and one of President Nixon's "hatchet men" (as Powell himself puts it). Malek's ambition, of which Powell clearly approved, "was to gain control over the bureaucracy for the White House," not to pursue any particular doctrine or policy. From Malek's maneuvering "emerged one of my rules: you don't know what you can get away with until you try."

In the story of Powell's internship at OMB lie many of the secrets of his later success: an indifference to ideology (Powell describes himself as neither conservative nor liberal) but an overwhelming concern with power, a fascination with the hidden, behind-the-scenes operations of government, a contempt for the inflated egos and naiveté of politically appointed newcomers to Washington. Powell amassed friends during his various tours in the bureaucracy, and almost invariably they are of the Malek type--hard-nosed operators. These fixers do business in private: of those who speak up in big meetings with the boss, Powell writes, "The only ones who spoke at length were those who did not understand the game." Men (and occasionally women) of affairs, Powell's friends shun the press when they can and manipulate its members if they must. They create informal networks that provide information and forewarning about who would like to do what to whom, and they are adepts of the art of petty reward and punishment. Subject matter experts have their place, Powell concedes, "but, above all," he writes of his time in the Reagan White House, "I needed people to help me make the NSC trains run on time." Powell was fascinated by government as a game, learned its rules swiftly, and soon mastered it.

These values also help explain Powell's criteria for judging statesmen. The impression of practicality counts for a great deal. Reagan is valued not so much for the strength and sincerity of his beliefs as for being "the embodiment of his people's down-to-earth character, practicality, and optimism." Pragmatism as the chief standard of judgment occasionally leads Powell astray. Thus former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is "nobody's fool"--which may have been true of the Gorbachev of private negotiations with Ronald Reagan but is certainly untrue of Gorbachev the last of the true believers, who thought it was possible to reform communism without destroying it.

Putting his credence first in his own direct observation of men and women, Powell occasionally undervalues more remote, historical, or abstract consideration of people and places. During his tenure both in the field and in government, Powell had brushes with controversy numerous times but on each occasion managed to keep a buffer of open space between himself and scandal. He touches on the My Lai massacre, which occurred a few months before he came to the American division and was investigated while he was its operations officer--but only glancingly. He expresses admiration for former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger but carefully establishes distance between himself and the Iran-contra affair. He picks his way delicately around his opposition (which he minimizes) in the fall of 1990 to the impending Persian Gulf War and is not fully forthcoming on what he did and did not recommend regarding the ill-fated Somalia intervention, a misadventure that he blames chiefly on the United Nations and his civilian superiors.

The case of the 1991 Bob Woodward book, The Commanders, is revealing. When the book appeared, it revealed the depth of Powell's opposition the previous fall to launching a war against Saddam Hussein. It is abundantly clear that during the fall crisis, Powell directly and perhaps indirectly communicated his opposition to Woodward.

There is an obvious issue of propriety here. Should the country's senior general, under any circumstances, convey to a journalist the essence of discussions among the president's most intimate advisers? Should he, moreover, while still in uniform, express to someone other than his superiors the opposition to the president's policy that the Woodward book reveals and later accounts have only reinforced? Powell does not directly address these issues, save to reaffirm in a general way the merits of a policy of extreme caution in the use of force.


As chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his final position, Powell left four legacies to the defense establishment, all of which he discusses in his memoir. The first was the codification of "jointness" as a central feature of American military planning and organization. The first chairman to exploit fully the powers assigned to that office by the Goldwater-Nichols Reorganization Act of 1986, Powell whittled away the powers of the service chiefs, steadily increasing his own power and that of the joint staff. He moved meetings with his fellow generals to his office, away from the "tank," the formal meeting room customarily used, and barred staff officers and note-taking, a procedure that he concedes will do historians little good. Powell claims that this move actually increased the clout of the service chiefs, which is highly unlikely. He pushed his discretionary power as far as it could legally go, establishing the precedent for an increasingly powerful chairman as the single senior military adviser to the secretary of defense and the president.

The conservative vision of jointness that Powell embraced marks the armed forces to this day: it is military orthodoxy. It is, once again, very much the view of an army officer, in which all the services work together to pave the way for the decisive introduction of ground forces. It is a vision of harmonization rather than competition (although the latter has had healthy as well as perverse results in American military history). It is deeply skeptical of single-service military operations, and even more so of single-service dominance in some military fields. Powell's intense antipathy toward the more passionate advocates of air warfare (particularly before the Gulf War but again in the Bosnia debate) reflects his infantryman's desire to have all services and branches eventually combine to put the soldier with the bayonet on a vital piece of ground--and his doubt that anything else can really work.

A second and more short-lived Powell legacy was the base force concept, a 1990 plan for a 25 percent reduction in the size of the American military and a consolidation of some of its major commands. As Powell concedes, in this endeavor he worked in tandem with the civilian-run policy operation in the Defense Department. As uncomfortable as his military colleagues may have been at the time with the base force, however, it has proved not nearly radical enough. It outran the resources that either the Bush or Clinton administrations were willing to provide. More important, it did not envisage a radical restructuring of the military but rather a moderate shrinkage and consolidation.

Powell's third legacy is the doctrine of overwhelming force. As military assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, Powell had reservations about the publicity given Weinberger's six controversial and extremely confining conditions for the use of American military power. But he concludes that they were a practical guide, which he applied in giving advice to presidents. He calls them a Clausewitzian statement on the use of military power--an assertion that the Prussian general would have found odd because the Weinberger rules insist on a clarity that Clausewitz knew to be virtually impossible in politics. Nor would Clausewitz have agreed with Weinberger and Powell's view that war should be strictly a last resort. As the author of On War pointed out, if one truly believed that, one would never use force at all, since the option of surrender always exists.

The doctrine of overwhelming force shaped Powell's advice during the gulf crisis and war and led to his hesitancy in Somalia and outright opposition to the use of American military power in the former Yugoslavia. Again, the Vietnam experience--reinforced by the tragic deaths of 241 marines in Lebanon a decade later--informs Powell's judgments. All too often, he believes, American decision-makers wish to involve the military in scrapes involving age-old feuds and antagonisms. The result, however, is a military posture that is prepared only for all-or-nothing operations, likely to provide civilian leaders with only the harshest of military choices, or indeed none at all.


Powell's final legacy is his imprint on civil-military relations in the government. Powell repeatedly expresses a sincere commitment to the principle of civilian control of the military. Yet if he is to be faulted, it is for repeatedly pushing the margins of military autonomy. By deciding to remain in uniform while serving as national security adviser, he blurred the roles of soldier and policy-maker. In his memoir he acknowledges that before being appointed he thought it improper to mix the two, but he does not tell us why he changed his mind. After Weinberger, who gave the uniformed military an exceptionally free hand and was its most articulate defender in the public realm, Powell's relationship with his civilian superiors was edgy. Although his memoir evinces considerable respect and even cautious affection for his toughest and ablest boss, Dick Cheney, it also indicates considerable tension and even a streak of animosity. Powell makes a point of reminding the reader that Cheney evaded military service in Vietnam and notes the acid, if private, response of the air force chief of staff, General Larry Welch, when he was dressed down by Cheney early on: "I have been shot at by professionals." Significantly, his final tribute to Cheney, at the latter's farewell dinner, is that "he learned that America's armed forces are a human organism that must be cared for, that hurts, that must be trained, that bleeds, and that must always be tended to. Dick Cheney had tended to us." Powell formally acknowledged the secretary of defense as his superior, and in a crunch acted accordingly, but this statement reveals a strangely limited conception of the proper role of the secretary as the civilian in charge of nurturing the military, not molding, driving, or controlling it.

Powell's discussion of the Clinton administration is not adversarial so much as patronizing and, on occasion, contemptuous. From the way former Defense Secretary Les Aspin dressed to his seminar style of management, from the naive conception of the use of force held by Madeleine Albright, ambassador to the United Nations, to the insulting conduct of White House staffers toward general officers, Powell spares few scornful details. Yet he acknowledges having been offered the position of secretary of state, speculates that he might have been offered secretary of defense (legally problematic, it should be noted), and recounts with little embarrassment the president's consultation with him on the matter of his superior's selection and performance. There is little said here about the willingness of military officers to mock the president in private and even in public, or about the unseemliness of a commander in chief forced to negotiate with his own generals on military personnel policy. In Powell's telling, it is the job of civilians to tend the military--a theme that runs counter to one of Powell's earliest and most deeply felt lessons, "Don't be afraid to challenge the pros, even in their own backyard."

The final chapter of My American Journey offers Powell's vision of his future and his politics. It is a thin and disappointing effort, perhaps because it is so carefully contrived. Powell, who at this point has informed his readers that he has voted for Kennedy, Johnson, and (once) Carter, yet also for Reagan and Bush, but is impatient with both parties, could plausibly emerge from this discussion as a Republican, Democrat, or independent. His political views are vaguely centrist. He recounts the story of a soldier interviewed during Desert Storm who expressed confidence in the outcome of the impending war because his comrades were "his family," and concludes, "We have to start thinking of America as a family." Yet surely the bonds of comradeship felt by young men in cohesive military units on the eve of battle are very different from the relations of citizens in a complex federal republic designed by its founders on the premise that the nature of human beings is, at least in part, "vindictive, ambitious, and rapacious."

Powell expresses a special admiration for Eisenhower, "a war hero who did not have to bark or rattle sabers to gain respect and exercise command, a president who did not stampede his nation into every world trouble spot, a man who understood both the use of power and the value of restraint and who had the secure character to exercise whichever was appropriate." It is difficult to reconcile this judgment with what one expects Powell would have to say about Eisenhower's doctrine of massive nuclear retaliation (which entailed less spending on the army, it should be noted), the invasion of Lebanon, and CIA operations against the Guatemalan government. Still, the personal parallels are evident and have been invoked by many of candidate Powell's would-be supporters, who suggest that his coyness about the presidency neatly and wisely parallels that of his illustrious predecessor.

Before accepting that view without reservation, however, one must note the differences between the men. It is no adverse reflection on Powell to say that Eisenhower the soldier undertook far greater burdens, met more demanding challenges, and ran greater risks. Perhaps his finest moment came on the evening before D-Day, when he drafted for release in the event the invasion failed a press statement accepting complete personal responsibility. Eisenhower became president at a time of tremendous international challenges to the United States, when the dominant fact of the nation's life was the Cold War. He was a foreign and defense policy president, and had to be, and yet he served at a time characterized by far more certainty--about the fundamental facts of the international scene and about the structure of civil society--than our own. Powell is a different man, and, more important, these are different times. He might or might not make a fine president, but to ascribe qualification for that office to him by analogy is to err. The record of generals as presidents is uneven at best. In choosing to pursue that path, this cautious soldier would be making a choice fraught with vastly more uncertainty than any he has made since leading South Vietnamese soldiers down jungle paths three decades ago.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • Eliot A. Cohen is Professor of Strategic Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, The Johns Hopkins University.
  • More By Eliot A. Cohen