Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell

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Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell by Karen DeYoung New York: Alfred Knopf, 2006. 610 pp. $17.95 paperback

Washington Post reporter Karen DeYoung covers the arc of Colin Powell's military and political career in this well-researched 600-page biography. The son of Caribbean immigrants who would serve two tours in the Vietnam War, be chosen National Security Advisor (1987-1989), rise to the rank of four-star general in the United States Army (1989), become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-1993), and serve as secretary of state (2000-2004) during President George W. Bush's first term is widely considered one of the most highly regarded military figures of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Of the three books that I have read about Colin Powell, I found Soldier the most informative and, to some extent, most compelling. Of course, DeYoung had the benefit of both Powell's autobiography, My American Journey (1996), and Howard Means' Powell: Soldier/ Citizen/ Statesman (1992)- two works that undoubtedly served as the foundation on which DeYoung's work was built. Consequently, DeYoung's book goes beyond both Means' and Powell's texts, but not as much as I would have liked. DeYoung's account of Powell's childhood is, for the most part, ground that has been plowed over and again. There is some fresh material, though, that expounds on the strong ties between the U.S. Powell clan and those who live in Jamaica, the birthplace of his father and mother. We see that Powell's Jamaican relatives are as proud of him as he is of them. Although not prominently featured in the book, Powell's pride in his Caribbean heritage is clear. The writer also makes clear that while the Powell story is a great American tale, his is not a Horatio Alger fable. From day one, Powell had the benefit of strong and loving parents, and his extended family provided a solid support network. This upbringing would form the basis of Powell's constitution that would mesh nicely with the military life he would eventually lead. Although neither of Powell's parents was college educated, they emphasized getting a good education. Not surprisingly, the Powell children were expected to go to college. While Powell was by no means an honors student, at the working class City College of New York he would find his life's purpose.

One of the more interesting parts of the book is the few pages devoted to Powell meeting his wife Alma and their courtship, which eventually led to a long and prosperous marriage. Although Powell and Alma were the same age, Alma remembered how fresh faced he looked when he first arrived to take her out. Embarrassed by what she erroneously perceived as an age gap, she hurried to scrub off the make-up that she had applied to make herself appear too sophisticated for her blind date. Although brief, the story is rich and gives the reader insight into some of the intimate goings-on in the life of Colin Powell, who by his mid-20s had a clear sense of what he wanted and with whom he would embark on the long, arduous journey that is the life of a career solider. Although Alma was not out in front, she was the bedrock of his career.

One of the many areas in which this book is lacking is the attention given to Colin's mother. While there is some discussion of her, the author does not offer the same kind of visual image of her as is provided for Luther Powell. The elder Powell is depicted in bold relief while Colin's mother is given short shrift. Moreover, the writer missed an opportunity to talk about how the deaths of both Powell's father and mother impacted him mentally during his meteoric rise within the ranks of the U.S. army. It is clear from reading this book and the two mentioned earlier that Powell's family was a close-knit group. Rarely are readers afforded a glimpse of the human side of the heralded subjects about whom they read.

Powell joined the military during a period when lifein the U.S. armed forces was trying under the best of circumstances for Black Americans. …