The first canto of T.S. Eliot’s visionary poem “The Hollow Men” reads as follows:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us—if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.
The image of the “hollow man”–a soulless mannequin leading against other soulless mannequins, all with heads filled with straw–flashed into my mind today when I read of Colin Powell’s exposed email denunciation of presidential candidate Donald Trump as a “national disgrace.” For good measure, Powell also has made highly critical remarks about Hillary Clinton.
But my subject here is neither Trump nor Clinton. They are not relevant; this article is not about them. This is about Powell and his own moral failings.
For Powell to be calling anyone a national disgrace, or do be doing anything other than hiding his face from public view for the rest of his life, strikes me as quite ironic. For this was the man who willingly lent his name and his prestige (it did exist at one time) to the launching of one of the most catastrophic wars in US history. The Iraq invasion, as we all know, utterly destroyed an entire nation, caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, as well as uncounted billions of dollars in damage.
Powell’s hypocrisy would be breathtaking, were it not so routine a feature of America’s leadership element. In the unfolding years after 2003–once it became clear what the neocon Iraq project had actually produced–Powell has tried to wrap himself in the mantle of victim. He has played a very clever game of “accepting” some of the blame himself, and suggesting that he was lied to by others.
These attempts to rehabilitate himself ring hollow. As Secretary of State at the time, Powell was well aware what was underway in the secret meetings of the George Bush administration. He knew that his president was determined to go to war, based on the guidance and advice of a clique of “neoconservatives” who made no secret of their imperialistic designs. It was common knowledge.
Powell is no fool. He was familiar with the corridors of power and knew how the game of power was played. He was a clever, intelligent man who had risen to the very top of the US Army’s leadership cadre. He knew the way the prevailing winds were blowing, and wanted to remain part of the team. He could have resigned at any time if he thought his country was embarking on a fatal project. Yet he did nothing. He went along for the ride, because it was the easy thing to do.
His sin was a complete lack of moral courage. This is his sin. I say so.
Stripped of all the panache, the talk shows, the interviews, the mealy-mouthed mea culpas, and all the rest, he is no better than the other Hollow Men, among them George Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney. They all knew what they were doing. And all of them will have the verdict of history to contend with. Powell, of course, does not like to be confronted with his past opinions.
Let us examine just what Colin Powell told the world in 2003. His statements have been documented by journalist Johnathan Schwartz, and are worth quoting here below in some detail. Because I don’t believe that Colin Powell was an innocent, helpless victim, grievously wronged by malicious intelligence collectors who gave him bad information. I don’t believe that for an instant, and neither should any other thinking person. He was an essential part of the leadership element that launched an illegal, disastrous, and unnecessary war.
On that February 5 in front of the UN Security Council, was Colin Powell certain what he was saying was accurate? He certainly was:
POWELL: My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.
Later, regarding whether Iraq had reconstituted a nuclear weapons program, he said:
POWELL: [T]here is no doubt in my mind…
That’s in public. What about in private? According to Larry Wilkerson, Powell’s chief of staff, here’s what Powell was thinking at the time:
WILKERSON: [Powell] had walked into my office musing and he said words to the effect of, I wonder how we’ll all feel if we put half a million troops in Iraq and march from one end of the country to the other and find nothing.
Schwartz continues with more revelations here:
Powell played an intercept of a conversation between Iraqi army officers about the UN inspections. However, when he translated what they were saying, he knowingly embellished it, turning it from evidence Iraq was complying with U.N. resolutions to evidence Iraq was violating them. This appears in Bob Woodward’s book, Plan of Attack:
[Powell] had decided to add his personal interpretation of the intercepts to the rehearsed script, taking them substantially further and casting them in the most negative light…Concerning the intercept about inspecting for the possibility of “forbidden ammo,” Powell took the interpretation further: “Clean out all of the areas… Make sure there is nothing there.” None of this was in the intercept.
Here’s the conversation as Powell presented it at the UN. As Woodward reported, the underlined sentences were simply added by Powell:
POWELL: “They’re inspecting the ammunition you have, yes.’’
“For the possibility there are forbidden ammo.”
“For the possibility there is by chance forbidden ammo?’’
“And we sent you a message yesterday to clean out all of the areas, the scrap areas, the abandoned areas. Make sure there is nothing there.‘’
Powell then explained:
This is all part of a system of hiding things and moving things out of the way and making sure they have left nothing behind.
“And we sent you a message to inspect the scrap areas and the abandoned areas.”
And it’s no surprise the Iraqi said this. Here’s what the Duelfer report found about what was going on within the Iraqi government just before the January 30th intercepted conversation:
The NMD director met with Republican Guard military leaders on 25 January 2003 and advised them they were to sign documents saying that there was no WMD in their units, according to a former Iraqi senior officer.Husam Amin told them that the government would hold them responsible if UNMOVIC found any WMD in their units or areas, or if there was anything that cast doubt on Iraq’s cooperation with UNMOVIC. Commanders established committees to ensure their units retained no evidence of old WMD.
Again: Powell took evidence of the Iraqis doing what they were supposed to do — i.e., searching their gigantic ammunition dumps to make sure they weren’t accidentally holding onto banned chemical weapons — and doctored it to make it look as if Iraq were hiding banned weapons.
Critical information was also omitted:
Powell’s presentation left out extremely important information, as here:
POWELL: Iraq’s record on chemical weapons is replete with lies. It took years for Iraq to finally admit that it had produced four tons of the deadly nerve agent, VX. A single drop of VX on the skin will kill in minutes. Four tons.
The admission only came out after inspectors collected documentation as a result of the defection of Hussein Kamal, Saddam Hussein’s late son-in-law.
As far as this went, this was accurate. However, Kamel, the head of Iraq’s WMD programs, defected in 1995. Iraq had produced this VX before the Gulf War, in 1991 — and according to Kamel, Iraq had secretly destroyed it soon after the war. Then they lied about ever producing it (until his defection). But according to Kamel, they weren’t lying when they said they no longer had it.
Indeed, in the UN’s notes from Kamel’s debriefing, he says Iraq had no remaining WMD of any kind:
KAMEL: All chemical weapons were destroyed. I ordered destruction of all chemical weapons. All weapons — biological, chemical, missiles, nuclear were destroyed.
And if that weren’t enough, Kamel also said this in an interview on CNN:
SADLER: Can you state here and now — does Iraq still to this day hold weapons of mass destruction?
KAMEL: No. Iraq does not possess any weapons of mass destruction. I am being completely honest about this.
But in 1996 Kamel returned to Iraq, where he was killed by Saddam’s regime. Thus the U.S. could safely take a witness who truthfully had said Iraq had no remaining banned weapons, and pretend his testimony indicated the exact opposite.
If there ever were an honest reckoning, Powell would be held to account for his role in the Iraq War. He is not a victim. He was not deceived. He chose to be one of the gang, to sign along for the ride. And once it became clear that the entire project was a fraud, he tried to wash his hands of it. I don’t buy his act. He’s a hollow man, along with all the others.
Maybe he should reflect on his own shortcomings and moral failings before berating other public figures as “national disgraces.”
Moral courage is an essential part of living. Colin Powell failed due to a lack of moral courage at a critical moment in his life. Don’t be like him: learn now how to use moral courage to your own advantage by looking at my book On Duties.