Colin Powell titled his memoir "My American Journey." But in many ways, the extraordinary life of the son of Jamaican immigrants was the best of America's journey, too.
He was a decorated war hero and the first Black American to serve as national security adviser, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and secretary of state — the one role in which his reputation was damaged.
"Mine is the story of a Black kid of no early promise from an immigrant family of limited means who was raised in the South Bronx," he wrote in his memoir.
Powell, 84, died Monday from complications from COVID. Although fully vaccinated, he had underlying health conditions, including cancer, that made him more susceptible to the coronavirus.
Powell's service to this country began as a member of the Reserve Officers' Training Corps while he was a student at the City College of New York, beginning a stellar 35-year military career. Two tours in Vietnam earned him the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star Medal, two awards of Purple Hearts and a Soldier's Medal for rescuing comrades from a downed helicopter — on a broken ankle.
It also earned him a sobering view on the use, and misuse, of U.S. military power, which later became informally known as the "Powell Doctrine." Basically stated (as the blunt general often himself was), it called for clear political and military objectives and the use of overwhelming force to achieve them.
This doctrine proved effective in the 1989 invasion of Panama to oust strongman Manuel Noriega and the 1991 invasion of Iraq to oust that country's military from Kuwait, a war that made Powell a household name and a national hero.
But it was another war — the one in Iraq starting in 2003 — that would mar his record. As secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, Powell's political instincts may have been right about invading Iraq, but his political strategy was ineffective against hawkish figures such as former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Still, ever the dutiful soldier, Powell compellingly presented the administration's case about Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction to the U.N. Security Council. The world later learned that it was an argument augmented by faulty, or even manufactured, intelligence, which was partly a product of an administration's zeal for war. Two years later, Powell conceded in an interview that the speech would be a "blot" on his record. He was right.
That honest assessment reflected Powell's character, and was a precursor to more truth-telling, including crossing his Republican Party in 2008 to endorse Democrat Barack Obama, whom he labeled a "transformational figure."
Later, when asked about the Trump administration during a CNN interview, Powell said of the president: "The one word I have to use with respect to what he's doing for the last several years is the word I would never have used before with any of the four presidents I have worked for: He lies."
In 2007, amid a post-government philanthropic career that included the founding of America's Promise, an organization dedicated to helping children and minorities, Powell said, "Let others judge me. All I want to do is judge myself as a successful soldier who served his best."
That's an assessment that we — and likely most Americans, despite these divided times — can agree with.