In the aftermath of Glenn Beck’s Washington rally, I’ve drawn a picture of what “restoring honor” in this country might actually mean, using the example of Colin Powell. The column, as harsh as it may seem, isn’t intended to sit in judgment of Powell; that’s a matter between him and his Maker. What he did, however, was public, and the consequences likewise. Moreover, Powell admitted, in a 2005 interview with Barbara Walters, that his performance at the UN was a “blot” on his record, adding that “It was painful. It’s painful now.” Clearly, the enormity of the wrong he committed was far more than a “blot,” and it had far greater consequences than marring his personnel record.
“Honor” is about measuring oneself against a code of conduct. This column goes beyond that to portray a man confronting his own conscience. In delivering “his” speech on Glenn Beck’s show, I’ve tried to imagine myself in Powell’s place: a man with intelligence and a conscience confronting the wasteland of his own history.
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Fox TV host Glenn Beck declared himself “overwhelmed” today by the response to his giant rally calling for the restoration of America’s honor. His show is already booked through the end of 2011 with Bush administration officials, members of Congress from both parties, executives from major investment firms and pharmaceutical companies, people from the young Obama administration, and other media figures--all eager, Beck said, to confess their roles in tarnishing the nation’s image.
A vast nationwide audience was held rapt by Beck’s first guest, Colin Powell. Appearing thin and worn, the former Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and four-star general launched the effort to recapture the nation’s honor.
“Thank you for giving me the opportunity to begin the restoration process,” Powell began. “As a man with a long military career, and as a soldier who has been awarded at one time or another a Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, a Soldier’s Medal, the Distinguished Service Medal, as well as numerous others, I, more than most, might be expected to understand honor--what it consists of, what it means to the individual and to the country he serves, and what a high price one may have to pay to retain it.”
He paused, removed his glasses, and wiped them. “I have learned that price dearly,” he went on, “because I sold my honor so cheaply--for the title of Secretary of State, for the advancement of my son’s career, for a future of well-paid sinecures on corporate boards, and out of a misguided loyalty to the administration I was a part of.
“I went before the UN Security Council, on February 5, 2003, and with the eyes of the world upon me, made perhaps the most dishonorable speech in the troubled annals of American history.
“It was dishonorable because it was a panoply of lies, from beginning to end. It was dishonorable because it betrayed every man and woman serving in our armed forces, dispatching them to fight, suffer, or die under the illusion that they were defending their families and country. It was dishonorable because it was the major factor in selling an unjust war of aggression to a skeptical American public. It was dishonorable because it irrevocably destroyed our country’s claim to history’s moral high ground.
“I said, before the UN, that ‘there can be no doubt that Saddam Hussein has biological weapons and the capability to rapidly produce many, many more.’ That was a lie, designed to frighten my country into war. I said that I had no doubt that Saddam Hussein was gathering materials to produce nuclear weapons. That too was a lie, designed to justify a war. I listed seventeen indictments in my speech. Every one was a lie, intended to propel us into war.
“In another time, and in another culture,” Powell said, “a man who has so dishonored himself and his country would have simply thrown himself on his sword. In my own way, I have been doing that since I left office. I am doing it tonight.
“There is no way I can make amends for the suffering and devastation I helped create. Since my retirement, I spend part of each day visiting VA hospitals, and every depressed, suicidal veteran; every amputee; every brain-damaged victim, is seared into my soul. I also do my best to visit and comfort the families of more than four thousand men and women in our armed forces whose lives have been needlessly wasted in Iraq. When I am met with the tears of mothers and fathers, of wives and husbands; when I see the broken lives of families; when I look into the uncomprehending eyes of orphans, I think of myself delivering the words that set the horrific machinery of war in motion.
“But the scale of the suffering caused by the war is beyond any human comprehension, and far beyond anything for which I can make amends. At least 1.6 million Iraqis have been set adrift as refugees, struggling to survive. Six hundred thousand civilians have died from illnesses or injuries attributable to the war and occupation. One fourth of all Iraqi children are chronically undernourished, and two thirds of them have unsafe drinking water.”
He faltered. “I’m sorry,” he said. “This is so hard.” He took a deep breath and then continued. “The Iraqi health care system, their educational system, their transportation system, their water and electrical supply--all the necessities to keep a modern society viable--have been turned into ruins.
“Shias and Sunnis who once lived together as neighbors and friends have been cast as bitter enemies, murdering and torturing one another, setting off waves of ethnic cleansing. The Iraqi countryside is strewn with fragments of depleted uranium from armor-piercing shells. Generations of Iraqis will suffer the agonies of cancers caused by their radiation.
“We have plundered the resources of our own country to pillage another. We have cheated our youth of education, our elderly of retirement security, our sick of needed care, and our citizens of fundamental rights--all to pursue an unnecessary, useless war.
“That is our world now, and I bear its full weight on my shoulders. Restoring our nation’s honor will be a task for real heroes. It will be a colossal task, and it may take decades. It will demand that we tell the truth, that we confront ourselves at our weakest and worst. We must take responsibility for our acts. We must make what reparations we are able. Tonight is only a beginning.”
Finally, the old general began to weep, tears running freely down his cheeks. “My guilt,” he said, “is more than I can bear.”
Following the show, Beck was quoted as saying that “This wasn’t quite the direction I had in mind. But the ratings have been terrific!”
© Tony Russell, 2010