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Colin Powell: A Profile

TUESDAY 15th October 2002
He is the first African-American Secretary of State. He has an immigrant background, a Bronx childhood, a record of Vietnam heroics and a towering presence on the world stage. General Colin Powell is, to his countrymen, a totem of all that is achievable in their land of the free.

Powell Doctrine

The world's most famous soldier was born to Jamaican parents in Harlem, New York, and grew up in the multi-ethnic Bronx. He failed to shine at school, but found his vocation in the Officer Training Corps.

Armed with a degree in geology, Colin Powell embarked on a military career. He called the army his "natural habitat", and two tours of Vietnam defined his ideas on war. What has become known as the Powell Doctrine is his belief that battles are "the politics of last resort".

Vietnam

He was awarded a Purple Heart for valour after he pulled fellow men from a helicopter wreckage. But, as official custodian of the US war journals, he also courted controversy when his accounts failed to mention the American massacre of civilians at My Lai.

Of Colin Powell's 35 years in the army, most were, in fact, spent in the power-broking Petri dish of Washington.

White House

Only recently a confirmed Republican, Powell served under three presidents as National Security Adviser and, during the Clinton administration, was appointed to the country's most senior military position, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell was the first black person to hold the office.

Friends wanted Powell to run for the White House in 1996, but this tried and tested warrior didn't have the hunger for the unique political battle. He also listened to the security concerns of his wife Alma, who said, "It only takes one nut."

Decisions

Instead, as Secretary of State, he now ponders whether to send US troops into the type of combat he has witnessed first hand. Although he proved the architect of America's 1992 victory in the Gulf, Powell's reticence to fight even then ruffled the feathers of colleagues.

UN ambassador Madeleine Albright asked him, "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?"

For General Colin Powell, this most military of politicians who has watched men die, the answer was, and remains, simple. "American GIs are not toy soldiers to be moved around on some global game board."