Colin Powell

A young Colin Powell as an ROTC cadet at the City College of New York (1957)

Most people know Colin Powell as one of the TV generals during the Persian Gulf War. Or an ever-present military official in the highest circles of power. Or the Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, who gave a speech at the United Nations that would bookend his legacy.

I knew that guy too. A soldier who loved the operational Army but kept finding himself back in the White House. Duty called, and he was good at it.

But what many people don’t know is how dedicated Colin Powell was to his alma mater, the City College of New York (CCNY) – the “Harvard on the Hudson.”

One of the main reasons I chose to go to City College was Colin Powell. He helped establish a new center there that fostered leadership training and provided scholarships for students. I was fresh out of the Army and wanted to be a part of it.

The first time I met General Powell was at an event at CCNY. He was on campus to announce a donation to the college that would pay for the ‘unmet needs’ of student veterans. It was also an opportunity for Powell to get in the media and discuss his thoughts on the burgeoning “Post-9/11 GI Bill.” There was a debate in Washington at the time over how a new GI Bill might affect retention. My role was to give a short speech on ‘what it’s like’ being a student veteran. Colin Powell would introduce me.

Before the event, a quick meeting was arranged between the speakers in a backroom. As I walked in, I saw General Powell, reading over news articles online discussing the debate. He was on. He was working. Somebody mentioned the retention issue. Powell dismissed it, loudly, as nonsense.

He knew he had an important role to play. He understood that he had the power to move the debate, to move the dial. Well placed words and we’re that much closer.

He greeted me by speaking my name loudly like we had known each other forever. This is the first time we met. He seemed to know me. We talked about the Army. We talked about the 82nd Airborne Division. We talked about Iraq.

Minutes later, we were in the hall giving speeches.

He talked about City College. He talked about education. He thanked the donor.

And then he made a sharp statement about the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Nothing crazy, just expressing how he believed the retention issue would not be an issue at all.

Camera flashes and scribbled notes in pads.

Those words became the headlines the next day. He moved the dial.

Then I got up to give my short speech.

The thing I remember most about that speech is how General Powell watched. He was interested in what I had to say. And when I made a dry joke about not being able to put words together with more than two syllables (due to being an infantryman), he laughed loudly.

He was still a soldier.

But what I saw in action was something akin to magic. An innate sense of the local, the foreign, and the temperature in Washington – all at once. He knew exactly what to say and when to say it. This was an ability that came through hard work and experience. From City College to the Army to Vietnam to Washington.

A temperance forged over time.

I saw it again, years later, at the ceremony that welcomed ROTC back to City College after being booted from campus over forty years prior.

Then Gen. Powell, the guest of honor, was called to the stage.

He thanked the Color Guard. He spoke briefly on how important and how formative ROTC was to him. And then he began to wrap up his remarks.

He took a deep pause.

“Military service is honorable,” Powell said. “We may disagree with the politics or the policies of it all, but military service is honorable.”

As I wrote at the time:

Over the years, I imagine that Gen. Powell has thought long and hard about military service – with all its trappings – and how that service can be reconciled with our democracy. His war was Vietnam, and his school was City College. His formative years were spent at City College at what was once one of the largest ROTC programs in the country. His alma mater would later boot the program off campus. No longer welcome. He must have felt betrayed.

Somehow, he had to reconcile this all in his mind. Military service is honorable. That is where that reconciliation ended.

But he wasn’t done. Had he just delivered the line he needed, the one that puts everyone at ease, he would have done his duty.

He went on:

More poignantly, and in a barely quivering tone, Gen. Powell said that as proud as he was at this achievement, seeing ROTC return to City College, he only wishes his City College ROTC buddies who never made it back from Vietnam were there to see it.

It was interesting to see a man whose influence stretched much further than the rice paddies of Vietnam, go back there for a moment. I could tell that he meant what he said. And I was reminded that Gen. Powell is still a soldier.

He could “walk with kings – nor lose the common touch.”

And he had an incredible ability to boil down a thing to its most basic and recognizable concept – one that appealed to everyone. And then deliver a sentence or a line or an idea that makes headlines the next day.

It’s an incredible ability and one that could easily be taken advantage of.

It’s nearly impossible to make it through a career as storied as Powell’s and come out unscarred.

He almost did it.

And unlike so many these days, he wasn’t “unapologetic” about it in some odd pantomime of toughness. He took actions, he reflected and thought critically about them, and when convinced, changed his mind.

He was constantly growing. He was willing to grow.

His death is a true loss. But his life and example is one that will inspire men and women inside and out of the military for generations.

“It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning.”

General Colin Powell

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Smear War

It’s coming.

Faster and faster.

When you combine our open society, the deluge of information that exists about us and that is already out there – whether we like it or not – and good old-fashioned hacking, we have to get ready for smear war.

Add the weaponization of benign activity/information, a little AI and micro-targeting, and we’ve reached nightmare territory.

Our administrative systems and standard operating procedures are not suited for it. We will be paralyzed.

It’s not new. It’s been done before.

In the next “hot war,” it won’t be loudspeaker operations claiming the “statue of liberty is kaput.” It will be messages directly to your phone about your “sick” dog back home. Along with an AI-generated picture.

There is a way to defend against it. And it’s not hard to do, but it’s easy to mess up.

Patience and trust.

Patience. What looks like an emergency right now will likely dissipate with a little time. Don’t take rash action.

As Colin Powell famously said, “It ain’t as bad as you think. It’ll look better in the morning.”

Trust. We know this is coming, so we have to be ready. When it happens inside of your organization, you have to extend trust. It has to flow up and down.

This takes courage. Courage to push back against the aggressive calls to “do something.”

Be patient. Trust your team.

Don’t scratch the itch.

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Information Warfare Leadership: Less Don Draper, more Colin Powell

I shared this great article from Matt Armstrong yesterday:

Matt, who has been researching and working in this field for decades, focuses his attention not on the tools of “information warfare” but on the policies and goals that drive it. His analysis (and I’m in agreement here) argues that it’s not about “crafting combinations of nouns and verbs for some medium,” but instead about crafting the right policy and setting a course for others to follow.

Much of the discourse on information warfare/political warfare is centered on mediums, means, and platforms. That misses the point. As Matt writes, this stuff changes all the time and there are plenty of experts out there that now how to use it.

When dealing with massive bueracracies, it is critical to staff key positions with effective managers and leaders – not flashy pitch-men or media stars.

The article focuses on the post of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and the fact that since 1999, the position has been vacant for 41% of the time. While I’m not an expert on the workings at State, if it’s similar to the military, we know that there’s a sense of “that’s not my real boss” when a position is held by a temporary (often junior) place-holder.

And that place-holder doesn’t carry the same weight in the rooms where decisions get made.

What should this leader look like? Matt writes:

In my opinion, the right person for the job is a leader, manager, facilitator, and integrator with experience in government and at least practical awareness of the realities of foreign policy on the ground abroad. A focus on platforms – an expert in social or broadcast media, for example – is wrong, not just because every “market” is different but because there are professionals within the department (the number of which must increase) and agency partners, in addition to ready access to the private sector, to advise or handle the specifics of how to engage.

W(h)ither R: a marquee failure of leadership in foreign policy – MountainRunner.us

I joked on Twitter that this person would be more Colin Powell than Don Draper. Colin Powell, although well-known as a military leader, was actually most effective as a Washington-insider. He spent most of the last decade and a half in and around the White House. He understood how the system worked, and people trusted him. Even as Secretary of State, he admitted in his most recent book that he often felt like he needed to stay in Washintgon (as opposed to constantly traveling) to make sure he could get things done.

My sense is that many folks think we need Don Draper in this position. A flashy ad-man who understands the media and can brief well. Don Draper needs to be way further down on the food chain – making ads.

It’s exciting to be living in a time where information warfare/political warfare is gaining attention, but I can imagine this can be frustrating to those who have been deep in the research and work for decades. Too much attention on the tools – the nouns and verbs – and not enough attention on the staffing and strategy.

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Gen. Powell: “Military Service is honorable.”

Amazing photo of the JROTC Color Guard on the stage in the Great Hall. Photo by New York Times photographer Damon Winters.
Amazing photo of the JROTC Color Guard on the stage in the Great Hall. Photo by New York Times photographer Damon Winters.

Returning to City College for the ceremony welcoming back ROTC was beautiful and surreal. It was strange to walk in the Great Hall and see so many military men and women criss-crossing the floor in sharp uniforms, and I had to remind myself at times that I was one of them. I felt uncomfortable like one would when inviting two friends to dinner that you know don’t get along, but are forced to be cordial. I studied the faces of faculty members whom I knew were at best, skeptical of this endeavor.

The ceremony began with a the posting of the colors. The Francis Lewis High School JROTC Color Guard did the honors and looked superb.

The President of City College, Lisa Staino-Coico began speaking, then CUNY’s Chancellor, Matthew Goldstein, followed by the ROTC Cadet Commander, Major General Smith, all discussing how great it is that ROTC is returning and thanking those who had a role in bringing it back.

Then Gen. Powell, the guest of honor, was called to the stage.

He thanked the Color Guard. He spoke briefly on how important and how formative ROTC was to him. And then he began to wrap up his remarks.

He took a deep pause.

“Military service is honorable,” Powell said. “We may disagree with the politics or the policies of it all, but military service is honorable.” (Jeff Mays, DNAinfo)

That, I believe was Gen. Powell’s way of addressing the lingering apprehension among those who believe ROTC does not belong on campus.

Military service, is honorable.

Over the years, I imagine that Gen. Powell has thought long and hard about military service – with all its trappings – and how that service can be reconciled with our democracy. His war was Vietnam, and his school was City College. His formative years were spent at City College at what was once one of the largest ROTC programs in the country. His alma mater would later boot the program off campus. No longer welcome. He must have felt betrayed.

Somehow, he had to reconcile this all in his mind. Military service is honorable. That is where that reconciliation ended.

And I agree.

More poignantly, and in a barely quivering tone, Gen. Powell said that as proud as he was at this achievement, seeing ROTC return to City College, he only wishes his City College ROTC buddies who never made it back from Vietnam were there to see it. It was interesting to see a man whose influence stretched much further than the rice paddies of Vietnam, go back there for a moment. I could tell that he meant what he said. And I was reminded that Gen. Powell is still a soldier.

The ceremony concluded with us singing the Army Song in the Great Hall.

Media:
After Decades, Boots Are Back on Campus (New York Times)
R.O.T.C. Returns to New York’s City College More Than Four Decades After Removal (New York Times, At War Blog)
ROTC Returns to CUNY (CUNY Press Release)
CUNY brings back long-lost ROTC program (New York Post)
Colin Powell Helps City College Re-Launch ROTC Program (DNAinfo)
Army ROTC returns to City College of New York (Army Press Release)

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ROTC back at CUNY after more than 40 years

A young Colin Powell as an ROTC cadet at the City College of New York (1957)
A young Colin Powell as an ROTC cadet at the City College of New York (1957)

While doing some research for an earlier post, I learned that Army ROTC is headed back to the City University of New York (CUNY) and specifically the City College of New York (CCNY), my alma mater. I had heard through the grapevine that this was in the works, but nothing was officially official. It won’t start until the fall, but it looks like the cat’s out of the bag.

I know a lot of people were involved in making this happen, and maybe when ROTC officially opens at CCNY I’ll write a longer piece on how it all went down. For now, I’m just happy to know that it is actually happening. CUNY, CCNY, and the Army will all be better for it.

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