The Making of an American Hero

SACRED HONOR: COLIN POWELL, THE INSIDE ACCOUNT OF HIS LIFE AND TRIUMPHS By David Roth HarperSanFrancisco/Zondervan 256 pp., $19.99.

COLIN POWELL: SOLDIER-STATESMAN/ STATESMAN-SOLDIER By Howard Means Donald I. Fine 369 pp., $23 cloth Ballantine 337 pp., $5.99 paper.

CRUSADE: THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE PERSIAN GULF WAR By Rick Atkinson Houghton Mifflin 575 pp. $24.95.

HERE are three books to help us understand the Colin Powell phenomenon.

For phenomenon it is. Who would imagine that this Bronx native, the son of Jamaican immigrants, would rise to the very peak of the military pyramid? Or that he would win adulation by helping lead a desert war that - with minimal American casualties - would restore the image tarnished in Vietnam? Or that his achievements would come to symbolize American pride in the military, in the erosion of racial barriers, and in the national myth of success through personal drive and grit?

It is of course not that simple, as these books - particularly the very intelligent account by Howard Means of how Powell climbed the ladder - make clear.

How did Powell do it? The simple - and simplistic - answer appears in David Roth's ``Sacred Honor: Colin Powell, The Inside Account of His Life and Triumphs,'' which should be seen as an official or authorized biography and is copyrighted by Powell, a fact presented in very small print.

Roth was a public affairs officer on Powell's staff, and has enjoyed access to Powell's family and inner circle. Their views are faithfully presented in dozens of admiring anecdotes and quotes: that Powell, from his earliest days as an ROTC cadet, was remarkably gifted, balanced, intelligent, hard-working; that, first the Army and then the Washington establishment, immediately recognized - and rewarded - these qualities.

The racism Powell undoubtedly encountered is entirely ignored in Roth's account. So is the personal ambition and maneuvering that shifted Powell away from field commands and into the Pentagon orbit by the early 1970s. And so is the alliance with White House top people that put him on the inside track.

This is to derogate, not Powell, but rather Roth's bland and superficial book. The up-or-out officer promotion system virtually ensures both great ability and ambition at the top; any officer who falls short is gone by then.

So Powell was hardly alone in displaying outstanding military abilities. But he far outstripped his rivals politically by becoming Deputy National Security Adviser and then National Security Adviser (1987), following the Iran-contra fiasco.

Roth seems oblivious to such defining moments, which Howard Means addresses in his admiring, yet searching, account of Powell's rise, ``Colin Powell: Soldier-Statesman/ Statesman-Soldier,'' recently released in paperback.

This meticulous biography is also an intimate account of who got what and how in the White House national security hierarchy during the Reagan-Bush years. The depth of knowledge, insight, and subtlety is reminiscent of Hedrick Smith's ``The Power Game'' or Ward Just's Washington tales. Means has no military background, but his interviews offer brilliant insights about Powell and the post-Vietnam Army. An example: Powell's identification with the American Division, a hard-luck outfit that suffered badly in Vietnam and one of whose units conducted the My Lai massacre. He served with it there, and, not rejecting this losing unit, still wears its patch.

Or consider the comment by another general on Powell's switch to the National Security Council from a post in Germany. ``If he hadn't come back, he would have continued as corps commander, stayed in Army circles,... and maybe even been chief of staff of the Army. But he came back and was reinstated in the diplomatic-military circle, and gained the confidence of Reagan and then Bush, and the rest is history.''

And Means quotes another Beltway insider, Kenneth Adelman, on Powell's alleged ``reluctance'' to leave the field command: ``Colin has been seen [by some] as the reluctant warrior, but he wasn't so reluctant. He wanted it. He was delighted to do this job.'' And his mentors, Caspar Weinberger and especially Frank Carlucci, were delighted to get it for him.

Yet Powell would not have become a national hero without the Persian Gulf victory, whose events Rick Atkinson narrates in ``Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War.'' The dominant figures in this authoritative and detailed battlefield account are, inevitably, George Bush and especially Norman Schwarzkopf, whose unbridled temper and confrontational ways Powell tried to soothe.

Atkinson picks up where Means leaves off in contending that the Gulf war was an opportunity for the military, the Army above all, to at last overcome the Vietnam syndrome and regain the nation's confidence with a clear-cut victory at low cost. But what of Iraqi fortifications and firepower? No one could expect the Iraqi Army simply to disintegrate, and neither Atkinson nor any other writer has yet offered a sustained explanation.

Perhaps the oft-quoted aphorism by Marechal de Saxe, writing in 1732, says it best: ``The secret of the success or failure of armies must be sought in the hearts of men.''

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