Colin Powell by Jeffrey J. Matthews

In 2014, Americans were asked to name the most admired person in the country. Colin Powell, then ten years removed from public life, made the top of the list. Powell is both an anachronism to the civilian military leadership of Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall and a sui generis military officer, having served as the first African American National Security Adviser, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretary of State.

Jeffrey Matthews’ Colin Powell: Imperfect Patriot (University of Notre Dame Press, 416 pp., $35) is a thorough biography of Powell under the guise of leadership studies. Matthews, a professor of U.S. history and leadership at the University of Puget Sound, wrote about his subject in a previous book, The Art of Command: Military Leadership from George Washington to Colin Powell.

To Matthews, Powell was the “consummate follower” and an “exemplary subordinate,” traits that led to his rise from an aimless immigrant who barely graduated college to the pinnacle of American military and political power. Relying on government documents and first-hand accounts, including a four-hour interview with Powell, Matthews presents a chronological appraisal of Powell’s life that is comprehensively researched and readable.

Matthews praises many of Powell’s positive attributes, especially his undeniable charisma, executive skills, and personal courage. But this is no hagiography. “Too often,” Matthews writes, “successful and patriotic military officers such as Powell have prioritized career ambition, excessive obedience, and blind loyalty over independent critical reasoning and ethical principles.”

The scandals that Powell was directly or indirectly involved with—the cover-up of the My Lai massacre, the Iran-Contra affair, and his United Nations speech that led to the invasion of Iraq—form the crux of Matthews’ assessment of Powell. Matthews uses a degree of presentism, explaining events not as they occurred, but based on information now available, in recounting these episodes in Powell’s life.

This leads him to some harsh and hyperbolic accusations. Matthew accuses Powell, for example, of “clear obstruction of justice” and a “dereliction of duty” in the Iran-Contra affair. But the independent counsel who investigated found Powell’s testimony as merely inconsistent and not worthy of prosecution. As in other parts of the book, Matthews does not offer his thoughts on how Powell should have acted.

Though clearly written and easily accessible, the leadership nomenclature with which the book is written sometimes leads to tenuous connections. As a ROTC cadet, Matthews posits that Powell was recognized as an agreeable follower, which made him a mentor to other cadets. But people can recognize the difference between sycophancy and cordiality; his fellow cadets did not look to him as a leader because he was the consummate follower.

Powell arrived in Vietnam as an adviser in late 1962. He left in July 1963 with a Bronze Star and Purple Heart. He returned for a second tour in 1968, earning valorous distinction in rescuing others after his helicopter crashed. Powell’s connection to the My Lai massacre is tenuous, as he was not assigned to the Americal Division until three months after the atrocity. Matthews provides no new evidence that Powell had contemporaneous direct (or even indirect) knowledge of the massacre. Powell displayed bravery and leadership during his two tours in the Vietnam War, although he has acknowledged his failings about being unreflective about the role of America in the controversial conflict.

Colin Powell during his first Vietnam War tour in 1963

Matthews’ assessment of Powell’s Vietnam War service is more exacting: “The Vietnam experience revealed the limits of Powell’s professional development,” Matthews writes, “his unquestioning acceptance of orders, his unswerving allegiance to higher-ranking officers, his utilitarian ethics, and his overriding ambition to advance in rank.”

Douglas MacArthur believed that President Truman’s orders on the Korean War were dangerously wrong. Dwight Eisenhower openly criticized President Roosevelt’s decision to focus on North Africa and postpone an invasion of Europe. One led, one followed. The distinction may be fine, but Matthews’ book does not examine the difference between independent followership and feckless enabling—or the distinction between decisive leadership and rogue initiative.

His subtitle, “Imperfect Patriot” seems especially trite, as America could use Powell’s imperfection right now.

—Daniel R. Hart