On Colin Powell

I never expected to start my week writing about Colin Powell. I know he meant a lot to a lot of people I respect, which might make the week to come nearly unbearable. It also makes the option of saying nothing feel like cowardice.

Powell’s name appears three times in my book I Ain’t Marching Anymore. Never positively.

He first appears in a vignette about My Lai whistleblower Thomas Glenton, “who’d first tried the chain of command and been blown off by Major Colin Powell.”

Another time we see Powell being confronted about Gulf War Syndrome, by veteran (and author ) Charles Sheehan Miles, during a 1995 book tour. And I described a similar confrontation from personal experience.

 The narrative came from personal memory, supplemented by news clips and interviews with Daniel Fahey and my old friend Sam Diener, who,  like me, was  on staff at the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO).

On September 26, 1995, San Francisco’s heat had finally broken, just in time for the arrival of General Colin Powell.

Hundreds crowded the sidewalk in front of A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books, waiting for the man some hoped might soon be president. The line snaked past San Francisco’s Opera House and spilled onto Van Ness Street, waiting for the general who had just won a war. 

Daniel Fahey, a former Navy lieutenant, wasn’t surprised by the crowd, or the number of TV cameras. This line was quiet, well dressed. Most carried umbrellas against the light rain.

The TV cameras stopped for one second, zooming in on a heavyset man with an umbrella as blue as his eyes and a controversial sign: COLIN POWELL: A BLACK BIGOT. The cameras moved on: this was San Francisco, where you  could might expect a protest at the way the military treated gay soldiers, however offensively phrased.

Fahey was also here to protest, but not about that. Trying to keep a low profile, he shadowed a small group walking beside the line, some extending flyers headlined NOT A HERO! The flyer contained a list of quotes from Powell’s new memoir, including a line about witnessing war crimes in Vietnam from a helicopter. (The book doesn’t mention Powell’s 1968 memo in which he told a whistleblower that there was no My Lai massacre, as far as he could see.)

The crowd ignored the protesters. “I live in Hayward and had to get up at 5 a.m. to get here,” twenty-year-old Patrick Healy told the San Francisco Examiner. “I wanted to be here because I think Powell’s a great man. And even though I’m an independent, I will vote for him.”

Sam Diener, a ponytailed young man holding out NOT A HERO! flyers, smiled as people refused the flyers. Fahey walked quietly beside him, hands empty. Powell had been revered both in Fahey’s ROTC program at Notre Dame and aboard his ship, the USS Arkansas (CGN-41). But by the time he shipped for the Gulf in 1991, Fahey was secretly on the other team, waiting for approval of his conscientious-objector discharge.

Now, four years later, Fahey worked for a social-service agency called Swords to Plowshares, founded by Vietnam veterans. He served on the board of the group that had helped him get out, the 45-year-old Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors (CCCO), whose staff wrote the Powell flyer. But Fahey also knew that the last thing his city-funded agency wanted was to alienate America’s most famous veteran.

Finally, the line snaked downstairs into the bookstore itself. The CCCO group shifted gears, toward Powell’s press conference in a room a few floors above. Sam Diener grinned when a gray-haired man in a wheelchair arrived, yelling “He’s a liar!” The crowd stepped back before the shout: “150,000 people. Dead. Does he tell you that?”

Diener turned to face the man, others following discreetly behind. “Mr. Kovic,” he said softly. “It’s so good to see you here.”

Fahey was soon gone. His lunch hour was over, office hours loomed. No time to confront the man so recently his general.

I was one of those passing out those flyers, and had in fact helped Sam write it, having been hired by CCCO a few months earlier.

I think often of that day in San Francisco; CCCO’s board of directors had decided not to endorse protesting Powell, given his popularity among people of color (though our only Black board member, Tamara Jenkins, wanted to do it, urging the board to “speak truth to power”). So, Sam, Dan, and I constituted the entirety of that ad hoc “Coalition Against Bigotry and Violence.” It was the day I first met Ron Kovic, and would remember his powerful voice long after.

In some ways, the mid-1990s’ multiple moods and double messages bear a political resemblance to our current hour; just trade Mitch McConnell for Newt Gingrich. I dread the prospect of both holding forth about Powell this week, from tonight’s cable news up until his funeral.

And with that I’ll leave the floor to those who are entitled to speak.