Colin Powell didn't sign up with four stars in mind. The New York City native and son of Jamaican immigrants had a much simpler objective.
"I came in the Army to be a good soldier. And what I've tried to do every day of my 35-plus years in services is to be a good soldier every day, and let the Army decide how far they wanted me to go."
As it turned out, the Army wanted him to go very far. And Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush needed him to serve further still. Today, at 80 years old and "retired," Powell is still finding ways to serve.
The first (and so far only) African-American to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first African-American to serve as secretary of state, recently shared insights from his incredible career as part of Military Times' Black Military History Month.
The following are highlights from the exclusive interview, edited for space and clarity:
Q. To start, we wanted to hear about your experience in Vietnam, specifically serving as an adviser.
A. I arrived in Vietnam on Christmas Eve in 1962, and I was assigned to be an adviser to a South Vietnamese battalion. I learned a lot about survival out in the forest. It wasn't really a jungle. It was a forest. And I learned a lot about what it is to work with other nationalities, and to not have language exchanges with them, because very few of them spoke English.
Q. It's very common in today's military to go out and work with partner nations. And as you mentioned, you don't speak the same language. Can you offer some advice for service members in that position?
A. Well, you always have to try to put yourself in their position – not see everything through your eyes, but get on the other side and look back at yourself, so that you're reflecting their culture and their beliefs. Really, that was the lesson I learned in Vietnam.
Eating rice 21 times a week put me into their culture fully. Just staying up with them and letting them know I was just like them. We all slept on the ground together, and we all trenched up and down those mountains together. And they accepted me as one of them, and I was proud to be one of them.
Q. Can you talk about your time during the Nixon administration? You were a White House fellow.
A. I was very privileged as a military officer to have been selected to be a White House fellow. You work somewhere within the administration. In my case, it was the administration of President Richard Nixon in his second term as president. And I worked in the Office of Management and Budget in the White House. I came away from that with having had an enormous exposure to how the federal government works.
Beyond that, though, I also traveled and I went to both Russia and China that year. I came back from that having the experiences with the people who were supposed to be our enemies, and could be our enemies if war came. I came away from that with a better understanding of the Soviet Union and a better understanding of the strength that we have in the West.
And it was my experience in the Soviet Union, I think that it allowed me to be a better counterpart to my Russian colleagues. Because they knew I had been in Russia, and I had not only studied how to fight a war if a war came, but how to work for peace. And to make sure that peace came, and not a war.
Q. What can you say to those in uniform today, who read the headlines about Russia and China and who may be anxious about what the future may bring?
A. My feelings about Russia and China were shaped in my White House fellow days and throughout my military and diplomatic career as national security adviser and secretary of state. I think that we have to be on guard with these two countries. But at the same time, I don't think they are seeking war. But they are acting in ways that are not always in our interest.
I think that it is important to make sure that you reach out and keep in close contact with both countries. Understand what they're trying to do. I found that I could work very pleasantly with both my Chinese colleagues and my now Russian — no longer Soviet — my Russian colleagues on the basis of respect, and mutual understanding. And interests that sometimes diverged. But I don't think either of those countries is looking for a war with the United States of America.
Q. Can we talk about Desert Storm? I'm curious what kind of lessons you reflect on today.
A. Desert Storm, I think was a very successful operation. And the reason it was so successful is that the first President Bush gave us a very clear mission. And it was a mission that was blessed by Congress. Because it was a clear mission, we could get wide support from around the world. And the mission was to eject the Iraqi army from Kuwait and restore the legitimate government of Kuwait to Kuwait City. And we put 500,000 troops into that operation and another 200,000 allied troops joined us.
It was the only time in my career or in, frankly, most of American military history, where a chairman can say to the president of the United States, I guarantee the outcome. And the reason I could guarantee that outcome is that the president gave us everything we asked for. In a relatively short period of time, the Iraqi army was no longer in Kuwait, and the government had been restored.
But the best part from my perspective is the way in which the American people saw this operation. And they had been told that tens of thousands might be killed. They were worried about this volunteer army that had never been in this level of combat before. And they were absolutely joyful at the results. And they threw parades for our troops. And it just refreshed my memory that a classic military theory says, make sure you know what you're getting into.
And then, when you've decided on that political objective, then you put decisive force in to achieve it. And that's what we did in Desert Storm. Some people argue that we ended the war too soon. And there others who say we should have gone to Baghdad. We didn't end it too soon. We ended it when the president wanted to end it, because we were killing people that didn't need to be killed, because the mission had really been accomplished. And we didn't want to inflict too many casualties on our own troops, and especially also on the other side.
So I think it was a great success. But the biggest thing was the American people just absolutely fell in love with their armed forces once again.
Q. Can you talk about your tenure as secretary of state?
A. I was very proud to be appointed as secretary of state and in that first year of course, we had 9/11. And I was in Peru that day. I wasn't in Washington. And I'll never forget the handwritten note by my assistant saying that a plane had hit one tower, and we thought it was a small plane. And it looked like an accident. And it was like, 10 minutes later, he came in with another note saying a plane had hit the other tower, and I immediately knew it was a terrorist attack.
I told my plane to get ready, my pilots to get ready. We had to fly back to Washington as soon as possible. It was a long flight, but when I got back, I immediately joined the president. After a lot of discussion, we realized we had to respond to this attack in a forceful way. And that's what we did.
At first, we did it in Afghanistan. And eliminated that threat —chased Osama bin Laden out of the country, and his people. And the leadership, the Taliban leadership of the country, would not cooperate with that. So we took out that government as well. … Osama bin Laden has gone to his great reward in the sky. And we still have an issue with the Taliban, who are trying to take over the country again. So you always have to be careful. Be careful when you enter a conflict like this that you have, not necessarily a clear path to the end, but you have some sense of when it will all come to an end.
One of the challenges facing our young men and women now is that this conflict in there and in Iraq, both them have been going on for, like, 15 or 16 years with a volunteer force that represents a small part of the American population — 1 percent. And they're the ones who have to keep going back and keep going back. And we are asking an awful lot of our young men and women in uniform, and a lot of their families. And it is also very expensive.
So I think one of the challenges coming up for the new administration is how to find a solution to these problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, and really turn it over to the people. And to the their governments while at the same time providing assistance aid so they can do what is necessary to provide peace and security for their people.
Q. We write about this — where the cities, for example, that were once overtaken by U.S. troops, have fallen again. You know, from an emotional standpoint for some of these troops, it's been hard to rectify that in their minds. What would you say to them directly, those who are having trouble?
A. Well, I would say that we are enormously proud of their willingness to serve repeated tours in these places. And don't feel in any way that your service is unrewarded, or your service has no value to it. And it's very much rewarded and respected by the American people, and it has value. Al-Qaida, ISIS, cannot be allowed to prevail, or else we will be chasing the world back to the bad period of constant conflict. And so, it's important that we understand their service is necessary and valuable.
But it places an enormous demand upon them and of their families. And that sacrifice is greatly appreciated by those of us who used to be uniform, and I think all of the American people.
Q. February is Black History Month.
A. I'm glad that we celebrate Black History Month, but we also have to remember that black history is really a part of American history. And it's not separate, and it is all one history. That's the message we're communicating in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture's facility [Editor's note: Powell is a member of the Smithsonian museum's council]. It shows you what blacks have been able to accomplish. And it also describes and shows some of the terrible situations blacks had to go through to get where we are today. But it does it in the context of being part of American history.
I've always gone in my life as a soldier who happens to be black, but I would not ever call myself a black soldier, or a black general, or a black secretary of state. I was very proud of my race and I never failed to give credit to those soldiers and statesman who went before me, and kind of paved the way for me. But at the same time, I don't want someone to think, well, it's a black secretary, is there a white secretary somewhere. No, there's not. There's only one. And so, I've always seen myself first and foremost as an American and as a leader of all of the people. And a representative of all of the people of the United States, and I happen to be black.