My American Journey
“Old soldiers never die,” General Douglas MacArthur once observed. He claimed that they simply fade away, but few eminent soldiers have slipped into oblivion without first leaving posterity a detailed memoir of their accomplishments under arms. The idea of writing down one’s military triumphs is at least as old as the time of the Romans, when an upstart field commander and political aspirant named Julius Caesar composed an account memorialized for more than two millennia under the title The Conquest of Gaul.
The twentieth century has seen a plethora of military autobiographies. General John J. Pershing’s My Experiences in the World War (1931), General (later President) Dwight Eisenhower’s Crusade in Europe (1948), General Omar Bradley’s A Soldier’s Story (1951) and A General’s Life: An Autobiography (1983), General Douglas MacArthur’s A Soldier Speaks (1965), and General William Westmoreland’s A Soldier Reports (1976) are but a few of the hundreds of accounts detailing grand strategy and critical decision making in America’s most important conflicts during the century, explaining how the authors rose to the positions of prominence they occupied in these conflagrations. Even the 1991 Gulf War, that hundred-hour skirmish in which U.S. forces demolished and demoralized the forces of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, has provided the stimulus for a sparkling and politically charged account by the leader of American forces in the Persian Gulf, General Norman Schwarzkopf. The fiery commander’s autobiography, It Doesn’t Take a Hero (1992), spent some time on the best-seller list and earned for its author a handsome sum in advances and royalties.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Colin Powell should take time after his retirement from a thirty-five-year career in uniform to record his memories and offer some wisdom gained from a variety of assignments that culminated in a four-year term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Perhaps it is even more appropriate for Powell to do so, since his career may be more unusual and significant than those of any of the men who have risen to the top of the military profession in the twentieth century. Powell’s life story could have been written by Horatio Alger: The son of immigrant parents grows up in a working-class neighborhood in an ethnic section of New York, attends the city college, gets a commission through the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC), excels in his military assignments, is picked from the ranks for political assignments in which he influences the fate of the nation, ends up holding the highest military post in the nation, and finds himself solicited by both political parties and a number of outside groups to run for the nation’s highest elected office, president of the United States. This bare outline of Powell’s career seems remarkable enough, but it is even more notable when one considers the additional hurdle that he had to jump. Colin Powell is an African American—and no African American (excepting Martin Luther King, Jr.) has achieved such widespread popularity and influence across all segments of American society.
The son of Jamaican immigrants, Powell grew up in New York City, attending public schools, where his undistinguished academic career hardly suggested the success and fame he would achieve. The defining experience for him occurred as a result of his decision to enroll in the ROTC program at New York University (NYU). Cadet Powell joined the Pershing Rifles, an elite drill unit; there the young man found comrades for life and developed pride in wearing the uniform and being part of the defense establishment. For a decade after graduation he led the life of a typical junior officer: a troop assignment in Germany (where he met Sergeant Elvis Presley), some staff duty, and in 1962 orders to Vietnam. After a year as an adviser, he returned for a year-long course at the Infantry School in Georgia, then joined the staff there. Another tour in Vietnam was followed by orders back to the United States.
The second defining point in Powell’s career came in 1972, when he was selected as a White House Fellow. Joining an elite group of rising stars from all walks of American life, he chose to spend his year-long fellowship at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), where he went to work for the organization’s deputy, Frank Carlucci. That job brought him to the attention of the OMB director, Caspar Weinberger. Powell went back to army service after his year in the political arena, but the men for...
(The entire section is 1883 words.)