Colin Powell Wasn't Real.
a critical memorial to a very interesting American.
This essay was written at the time of Colin’s passing.
So the first African American secretary of state has just passed away, a man who faced various catastrophes and national security events, only to be struck down (at least in part) by our biggest biosecurity happening in our collective lifetimes.
Now the former chairman of the joint chiefs (not to totally sully the dead) was no saint per se. But surely if anyone came out of the Dubya administration’s cesspit smelling somewhat like a wilting rose, it was Powell. Still, the question of his culpability remains, and of course many would say (myself included) that he was a war criminal like the rest of them, in spite of being made a fool by his own bosses at the time. Dangling that vial of anthrax and lying to the UN about WMDs in Iraq did his legacy no favours. The Iraqis to this day still blame him for his role in their destruction and global destitution.
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I remember seeing him in various recruitment commercials. The US navy one played in the middle of Monday Night RAW with Godsmack’s “Awake” as the commercial track. Quite a cultural time capsule for the early 2000s “war for the homefront” in the middle east. “ACCELERATE YOUR LIFE” the tagline was, vividly replicating the weird mix of early 2000s aggression, empty-headed jingoism/patriotism, and residual optimism from the late 90s.
The end of history was on hiatus, but there was still a hope for it if we just sent enough red-blooded patriots to get rid of funny speaking robe wearers in huts across the globe. However the American security state using such a tagline has more implications at a second glance, and certainly Colin Powell’s public life is a testament to being such a creature of acceleration.
A/CC your life was truer in the 90s and early 2000s than it was for the 2010s, and Powell was a key figure in this transition. You can say history came back in Afghanistan and Iraq just as it left in Kuwait; Colin Powell was a key figure in many of the dazzling and hyper-war spectacles in the 80s and 90s. He was there during the invasion of Panama, the 80s excursion of Dubya Sr. amid numerous vague justifications (which may or may not have been tied to various U.S. nocturnal luminescent operations running drugs in South-Am at the time).
The Anglo-American empire going full GTA Vice City in PCB, militarism meets 80s cocaine cowboy aestheticism. Powell would later regret the operation, but saw it as an opportunity to develop his own “Powell doctrine”, which entailed (ironically enough) only U.S.M. actions if it was in immediate and direct interests of the nation, and possessed a clear strike plan and exit strategy.
Before that, as a young Major, Powell helped cover up the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam. As one albeit dour and “dismantler” type of academic puts it at the Guardian: “Again and again throughout his storied rise, Powell made Faustian bargains, publicly endorsing military excursions, including both Iraq wars, that he privately admitted were risky enterprises” and that “his Blackness never seemed to influence the military or professional decisions Powell made. The price of admission to the “American dream” was conformity and obedience”. Certainly the Bush administration, with its “compassionate conservatism”, sprinkled diversity among various neocon war atrocities.
Then there was the ultimate hyper-real war, Gulf War 1, where the light show of aerial assault and total speed met the spectacle of the CNN 24/7 news cycle. This is where things got rather interesting and cacophonous in Colin Powell’s career. Some are familiar with the Baudrillardian/Virilio analysis of the war as being a sort of postmodern pastiche of warfare, a blitzkrieg of speed and information. As Virilio puts it, from the first moments that stealth fighters flew over Kuwait and Iraq, the enemy's communications hubs were wiped out first, leaving them vulnerable to the most high-tech digital fighting force known to man. It is the transfer and denial of information flows that become the real battle. A passage from a review of Virilio’s “Art and Fear (2002)” in Culture Machine by Prof. Robert S. Oventile is one that I feel must be quoted at length:
“Speed exemplifies what Virilio calls technological warfare’s ‘transpolitical’ dynamics, which escape and nullify traditional political distinctions, including ‘left’ versus ‘right’. In texts written during the last three decades, Virilio argues that contemporary war both defines and threatens human existence. War colonizes society’s various processes. Shunting ‘politics’ aside, war and technology meld to become the engine of a dubious ‘progress’. Rather than tranquil periods punctuated by discrete episodes of conflict, ‘peacetime’ actually constitutes the build-up to the next war. More precisely, a state of ‘pure war’ reigns. No longer alternating with peace, war becomes pure. The social, psychological, and cultural barriers between wartime and peacetime rapidly erode. Committed to war without end, America seems bent on giving Virilio’s notions their exemplary realization”.
The Powell Doctrine slips into a sort of mythic fable of the postmodern epoch, the total antithesis to total war, yet paradoxically what was adopted in the language and selling points of the surge. Thus Powell himself stood as a waypoint, a marker post between one era and the next. His doctrine stood for war as it was to be conducted at the end of history by the hyper-connected global managerial state. Efficiency, speed, precision of objectives, etc. War not as the primal ritualism of sacrifice, but as an exercise in executive outcomes, police actions that quickly remedy parochial and small-scale inefficiencies within the world picture as a whole. If some Islamists or other dillitants wish to bring back the clash of civilizations, then the global state will surgically remove the threat and carry on, business as usual.
Only this lasted for about a decade give or take, before the real reared its ugly head once more, the forces of history and that clockwork imperial exercise of endless campaigns in some God-forsaken foreign land and all. The Powell Doctrine was no match for a competing brand of postmodern pastiche, the larping of empire’s pasts in endless wars that seemingly have no material benefit or justification besides some nebulous abstractions about school girls and voting. It would not be surprising if we were to discover that a sizable amount of the American population didnt even know there was still a large military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan within the past 10 years, or at least since the waning years of the Obama regime.
Colin Powell will no doubt take up a minor mythical status between two worlds, on the one end, hyper-speed, total war meets the budding utopianism of the digital age. On the other end, a global empire at exhaustion, crawling and plodding and dragging itself through the mundanity of trying to do the impossible: colonize the graveyard of empires.
Everything has become an illusion of security theatre, and for a time Colin Powell was at its epicentre as the court jester. Waving around anthrax and spinning a tale of WMDs was only one public blunder or magic act, what followed after that was a multi-decades clown car pileup. From the financial downturns, to long standing sources of dictatorial stability annihilated or subverted by coalition forces, seemingly as a pointless form of cynical and nihilistic entertainment for the military post-industrial complex. But the tragicomic nature of it all is that the efforts of the anglo-Americans were wasted on people who resented the idea of our values-colonization of them to begin with. To quote a recent article by Pat Buchanan:
“The questions that need answering:
Was not the attempt to transplant Madisonian democracy into the soil of the Middle and Near East a fool's errand from the beginning?
How many other U.S. allies field paper armies, which will collapse, if they do not have the Americans there to do the heavy lifting?
Is what we have on offer -- one man-one vote democracy -- truly appealing in a part of the world where democracy seems to have trouble, from the Maghreb to the Middle East to Central Asia, putting down any deep roots?
The Taliban's God is Allah. The golden calf we had on offer was democracy. In the Hindu Kush, their god has proven stronger”.
The God of democracy failed and simulations upon simulations stack on each other through googolplexes of information to keep its corpse afloat. Perhaps the war on terror coming home while the Talichads have autonomous rule in Afghanistan once more is a fitting conclusion to America’s longest continuous war. Maybe in twenty years or so, the deranged fever dreams of blue anon posters and neocons-to-neoliberals like David French can come to life, and American Right Wing/Trumpian/ *redacted* can resist the leviathan for long enough to enact meaningful autonomous self-rule.
But Virilio is right in this regard when he famously takes up Foucualt’s inversion of the Clauswitz quote. “Politics is War by other means”, and power has seen to it that everything is an ongoing and seemingly never ending war. But these wars are so fast, so reliant upon digital information networks, so “silent, and with quiet weapons' ' that they cross over into a form of never-ending emergency stasis, paradoxically. The war never ends because the exception, the state of emergency never ends. The biosecurity war on the global pestilence, the information and policing war against those radicalized Right Wing *Redacted*. And perhaps there is some cruel irony to the fact that Colin Powell, a man at the edges and borders of so many different security and military theatre acts, meets his end by that one particular global war which has plagued everyday life for the past two years.
Another cruel irony is the official left rehabilitation of his boss George Dubya, from bloodthirsty war criminal to a caring and heartfelt “voice of republican conscience” compared to his orange-hued GOP preceding POTUS. A man who paints terrible and kitschy portraits of refugees. But what consequences are there in this life? Perhaps Powell will be remembered as a defiant and principled voice of dissent, stating that there was no evidence for WMDs, and it was the biggest mistake of his life to go along to get along. But now that his boss is being given a resister blue anon white washing paint job against the evil orange man and his supporters, what legacy can Powell posthumously fall back on? There is no material difference to there being no actual WMDs, the end result would have been the same either way.
And in conclusion, that is the life and tragedy of Colin Powell, an eidolon, some kind of abstraction. A signpost between past and future who played the unholy jester to another future grave plot in the imperial graveyard of history. His act helping further accelerate its decline into that pit. One could only live with such contradictions and shadow puppet games for so long, and perhaps we could even pity such a state, a life torn asunder, ripped apart in multiple directions.
RIP Colin Powell, only History and the eyes of our Lord will have the final verdict on your career in public life.
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