Colin Powell and Lessons of My Lai

“You don’t know what you can get away with until you try.”—Colin Powell

In an Aug. 28 editorial, The New York Times applauded a belated “note of personal regret” from former Lt. William Calley for his role in the massacre of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1968. But neither the Times nor any other leading US news outlet has ever suggested that remorse might also be due from Colin Powell, who as a young Army major helped cover up the crime.

Powell’s role in rebuffing an early appeal from a GI for an investigation of Americal Division abuses of Vietnamese — encompassing My Lai — was an important early marker in Powell’s career as he climbed the ladder of Pentagon and Washington success by never standing up for a principle that made a superior uncomfortable.

That pattern continued through the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s and culminated in the deadly falsehoods that Powell presented to the United Nations in 2003 justifying the invasion of Iraq.

For his part, Calley told a Kiwanis Club gathering in Columbus, Georgia, that “there is not a day that goes by that I do not feel remorse for what happened that day in My Lai. … I feel remorse for the Vietnamese who were killed, for their families, for the American soldiers involved and their families.”

Calley’s remorse may be decades overdue but at least he has paid a price for his role as the senior officer on the ground during the massacre. By contrast, Powell, who helped keep the slaughter under wraps several months after the fact, has enjoyed a long career of endless praise as an American hero.

In view of Calley’s recent remorse and the Times editorial, we are republishing below a part of a series on Powell’s real record that I co-authored with Norman Solomon in 1996. The story deals with Powell’s two tours in Vietnam. (For more details on Powell’s biography, see the book, Neck Deep.)

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