Colin Powell, a major actor in the theatre of war

Colin Powell
Colin Powell (Photo credit: Mary Altaffer)

If I were writing the script for the movie Leaving Afghanistan, which would be duly attributed ‘based on a true story’, in the closing scenes I would have Colin Powell, sitting alone, out of his US Army general’s uniform, watching live coverage of the debacle around the US military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. He would watch gravely as two people fell from a US Air Force cargo plane after it took off from Kabul Airport, which would fade (I don’t know the technical film terms) into a shot of people jumping from the burning Twin Towers in New York on 11 September 2001. Powell would mumble to himself “I did the right thing, Lord knows we did the right thing”, then it would cut to his death announcement.

Somewhere in the film would be Powell’s infamous presentation to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003, pressing for its sanction of an American-led invasion of Iraq, in which he precisely and passionately presented a plethora of pathologically propelled pejoratives (lies to support a colonialist obsession with violence, in plainer speak) about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities.

Powell, the former chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, would not be the star of the film, which will never be made anyway (certainly not in the way I have penned it) to open on the Palace Amusement Circuit, so we can celebrate a Jamaican connection to global-scale events. Maybe it would turn out a bit like Ben Johnson, who was Canadian when he ran a world record 9.79 seconds for the men’s 100 metres at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 but was transformed to Jamaican-born when the drug test results came back with high steroid levels. But, whatever the scale of his presence in Leaving Afghanistan, in real life Colin Powell was a major actor in the theatre of war.

Military persons use the term theatre of war in a different way from what is proposed here. The online version of the Collins Dictionary defines it as “the area of air, sea and land that is directly involved in war”. When I use the term I am talking about the presentation of real wars as films, where fact and fiction are liberally intertwined, and the media reporting of wars in real-time, in which fact and fiction can be liberally intertwined. For those of us who encountered the Rambo series starring Sylvester Stallone and the Missing in Action series starring Chuck Norris as youngsters in the 1980s, we had no idea that the US had lost the Vietnam War. A helicopter featured heavily in one of the Rambo films, but the infamous Saigon rooftop chopper evacuations of the US Embassy in 1975 did not make the script. Inevitably, there have been comparisons between those scenes of desperation for airlift and Kabul in 2021.

In the 1990s, we were entertained by the Patriot missiles in one escalation of the Israel-Palestine conflict in our theatre of war. How pretty those green trails were as they lit up the night sky, like single colour fireworks. There was the first Gulf War under Bush the elder, but it was the second one in the 2000s, post 11/9, under his dense shrub of a son that really put war on our TV screens, with embedded reporters alternately sombre and breathless with excitement as they reported the scale of the destruction. And, the now deceased four-star general, Colin Powell, had a lot to do with that TV series, which came to an end this year, after a run that seemed as long as Dallas and Dynasty.

Even before it closed on the silver screen, I have avoided films about the US military misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, when I do start a US movie and find out that it centres on a soldier who has returned from tours of duty those countries, I stopped immediately. The revision of history at the core of Rambo and Missing in Action worked in an era of limited knowledge. At that time to have a landline telephone in your home was the privilege of a few. To not have a banger instead of a smartphone now can raise thoughts of scamming. The access to information that the Internet provides comes with the opportunity to disentangle fact from fiction, the latter as applicable to the convenient editing of news reports as it is to films.

In his 2003 UN Security Council, the late Colin Powell was more than an actor in the modern theatre of war. He was an editor and director – and a damned good one at that. And since he would have had something to do with allocating military spending, we can add co-producer to his involvement. So, General Powell got to see all but his final scene in the real-life war film he was integral to. What more can a dedicated theatre of war practitioner ask for?

Mel Cooke covered Jamaican entertainment as a print journalist for almost two decades, overlapping with his MPhil research on dancehall and experiential marketing with the Institute of Caribbean Studies, UWI, Mona, where he is now working on a PhD while lecturing in the Bachelor of Arts, Communication Arts and Technology (BACAT) programme at the University of Technology, Jamaica (UTech, Ja.).

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