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‘Don’t feel sorry for me,’ General Powell said as the end approached

By Bob Woodward, Washington Post, October 18, 2021

As death approached, Colin L. Powell was still in fighting form.

“I’ve got multiple myeloma cancer, and I’ve got Parkinson’s disease. But otherwise I’m fine,” he said in a July interview.

And he rejected expressions of sorrow at his condition.

“Don’t feel sorry for me, for God’s sakes! I’m [84] years old,” said Powell, who died Monday. “I haven’t lost a day of life fighting these two diseases. I’m in good shape.”

Over 32 years beginning in 1989, after the U.S. invasion of Panama, I conducted about 50 interviews with Powell, who was the first Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the first Black secretary of state. The last interview was a phone call, three months ago on July 12, for 42 minutes and recorded with Powell’s agreement.

Of his visits to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, he said, “I have to get all kinds of exams and I’m a former chairman, so they don’t want to lose me, so they make me come there all the time. I’ve taken lots of exams and I get there on my own. I drive up in my Corvette, get out of the Corvette and go into the hospital. I also go to a clinic to get the blood tests taken. I don’t advertise it but most of my friends know it.”

We quickly switched to defense issues and foreign policy. I asked him about President Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops completely from Afghanistan.

“I thought we had to get out of there eventually,” Powell said. “[We] can’t beat these guys. Well, let’s get it over with. Afghanistan, you’re never going to win. Afghans are going to win.

“They have hundreds willing to fight and die for this country of theirs. That’s why I don’t have any problem with us getting out of there. We can’t go from 100,000 [U.S. troops] down to a few hundred and think that’ll prevail.”

At one point during our phone call, Alma Powell, his wife, called to him.

“Hang on a minute,” he told me. “I’m on the phone, Alma!” he said, shouting back to her, and then in a whisper he added, “She never liked me talking to you, but here we are.”

In Powell’s memoir, “My American Journey,” he recounted how he and I had talked in 1989. He wrote in his book that my story in The Washington Post the next day “was not inaccurate, but neither was it helpful.”

He added, “I continued dealing with Woodward, though Alma warned me to handle with care.”

His thoughts on Afghanistan were among several ruminations on current foreign policy issues.

“How does anybody think that North Korea would find a way to attack us without us destroying them the next morning,” he said, “How can anyone think equally of Iran. Iran and North Korea cannot be our enemies because they cannot stand the results of such a conflict. We’re going to be terrified of these people? No. Would they dare?”

“But sometimes you get a leader who’s suicidal,” I said.

“True. True . . . The Chinese are not going to let us start a war with North Korea. They love North Korea. They want North Korea. I don’t. North Korea doesn’t bother me. Let the little jerk [Kim Jong Un] have his parades and what not. He’ll never try to attack us because he knows it would be assisted suicide.”

“And I felt the same way about Iran. I felt the same way for the most part about Russia. They can’t afford it. They’ve got [145] million people. We’ve got 330 million people.”

We returned to one of the defining moments in his life and discussed how the Persian Gulf War had taken only 42 days. The ground war component lasted only four days before President George H.W. Bush declared a cease-fire. The U.S. and coalition forces overran Kuwait and southern Iraq, destroyed Saddam Hussein’s army, routed the Iraqi Republican Guard, dictated the terms of peace and killed tens of thousands of Iraqis. Kuwait was liberated. American casualties were 137 killed in action and seven missing in action.

“That’s close to it,” Powell said. “Had another couple hundred killed in accidents.”

Overall, given the low American casualties, he said of the war, “I’m so proud of that I can’t see straight.”

Powell continued, “Before the ground war started, I went to a White House meeting and pulled [Secretary of Defense Richard B.] Cheney and the president aside. And I said, ‘You know, I got to tell you about something, the ground [war] is about to start.’

“ ‘And I need to warn you a little bit, that when we lose an airplane, it crashes and I lose one guy. If they hit a tank, you’ll see four burning guys come out of it and you will see terrible things in ground war that you will never see in air war. So be prepared for that and be prepared to respond to it and defend us when we’re in ground war.’ I didn’t know it was going to be as easy as it was or as well-prepared as it was. And they took that seriously.”

Iraq War role was a stain on Powell’s record — one he openly said he regretted

I mentioned that in a journalism class I teach, one of the students asked, “What does the truth accomplish?”

“This is scary,” Powell said. “You just scared the hell out of me if this is what our kids are saying and thinking. Where are they getting it from? Media?”

President Donald Trump was not reelected, he noted, “but Trump refuses to acknowledge that he wasn’t reelected. He has people who go along with him on that.”

What about the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol?

“It was awful. He was going in there to overturn the government.”

I asked Powell, “Who was the greatest man, woman or person you have ever known? Not . . . a leader, not necessarily, but the inner person. You know, the moral compass, the sense of propriety, the sense of the truth matters. Who is that in all of your life? Who?”

“It’s Alma Powell,” he said immediately. “She was with me the whole time. We’ve been married 58 years. And she put up with a lot. She took care of the kids when I was, you know, running around. And she was always there for me and she’d tell me, ‘That’s not a good idea.’ She was usually right.”

Claire McMullen contributed to this report.

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