WASHINGTON - A young Colin Powell felt the full horror of the Vietnam War one evening in 1968 while surrounded by dead soldiers in a medical helicopter rising from the floor of the jungle after a bloody firefight.
"I slumped to the floor, facing nine recently healthy American boys, now stacked like cordwood," Powell wrote in his autobiography. "People in combat develop a protective numbness that allows them to go on. That night I saw this shield crack."
The war would make the Army and the nation wary of foreign military missions, but few people took the lesson to heart as Powell did. Appalled by what he saw as the leadership failings of senior commanders in Vietnam, he later became even more disturbed by what he concluded was muddled strategy in Washington.
"Many of my generation, the career captains, majors and lieutenant colonels seasoned in that war, vowed that when our turn came to call the shots, we would not quietly acquiesce in halfhearted warfare for half-baked reasons that the American people would not understand or support," he wrote.
Soon, it will be Powell's turn to call the shots.
President-elect George W. Bush named Powell as his choice for secretary of state yesterday, a position that will give him powerful policy-making authority after three decades of taking orders as a soldier. If he is confirmed by the Senate, little more than a formality in his case, Powell would become the first African-American to hold the position and the third general in the past century, after George C. Marshall and Alexander M. Haig Jr.
At 63, Colin Luther Powell brings an abundance of credentials to the State Department, including a star quality that has seized the national imagination and transcended political and racial boundaries.
His calm, reassuring presence as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf war made him the biggest U.S. martial hero since Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Mobbed during a 1995 tour to promote his autobiography, "My American Journey," the retired general was practically beseeched by Republicans to run against President Clinton in 1996. He turned them down only after agonizing for weeks and heeding family concerns about his safety on the campaign trail or in the White House.
As a national figure with previous senior jobs in the White House and the Pentagon and military tours in Europe, Vietnam and Korea, Powell must now be wary of upstaging his less-experienced boss, political analysts say.
But it is his well-advertised reservations about the use of force that are likely to fetch as much attention in coming months as his gilt-edged resume.
He is a warrior, but an ambivalent one. Powell's admirers see this attitude as a reverent concern for the lives of U.S. troops and a realistic appraisal of what even a superpower can accomplish through arms. His critics view it as a potential abdication of U.S. responsibility and a willingness to risk letting little troubles turn into big ones.
Tilts from Clinton's tendency
Whatever the case, Powell's views on the use of force are expected to tilt military policy away from the interventionist tendencies of the Clinton administration.
Bush is expected to maintain current U.S. troop commitments in Bosnia, Kosovo and other hot spots, at least in the short term. But analysts believe that with Powell as secretary of state a Bush administration would be far less likely to initially deploy troops to those places or to Haiti, where peacekeeping U.S. forces landed in 1994 in an attempt to restore order and democracy.
Nothing illustrates that prospect more vividly than Powell's account of a 1993 conversation with Madeleine K. Albright, who was then ambassador to the United Nations and later became President Clinton's secretary of state.
As Washington wrestled with the question of whether or not to send troops to war-torn Bosnia, Powell as chairman of the Joint Chiefs constantly pleaded for restraint, counseling Clinton not to dispatch forces until the administration had a clearer view of what it wanted to accomplish.
According to Powell, an impatient Albright asked him, "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?"
"I thought I would have an aneurysm," wrote Powell, who has declined to give interviews in the weeks since the election. "American GIs were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board."
Powell was also skeptical of the humanitarian foray in Somalia launched by the elder George Bush's administration, in which Powell first assumed the mantle of Joint Chiefs chairman. He did, however, favor Bush's decision to invade Panama in 1989 to overthrow Manuel Noriega.
That the first Bush administration stayed out of Bosnia despite widespread ethnic bloodletting had much to do with Powell. He argued that the United States had no business sending soldiers or bombers to protect Balkan civilians unless Washington had clearly defined goals on altering the political situation in the region.
"With the doctrine of humanitarian military intervention, I get the sense that he really hates that like poison," said Ted Galen Carpenter, a defense specialist at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington. "It's not that he's skeptical or critical. He regards humanitarian military intervention as a death warrant for GIs and wants nothing to do with it."
A soldier for 35 years before he retired from the military in 1993, Powell doesn't rule out force as a foreign policy option. But he regards committing troops to hostile situations the same way that the painter Cezanne viewed the color black - as a tool to be used rarely, but with great effect.
The so-called "Powell Doctrine," which gained currency during the Persian Gulf war, is based on principles laid down by Caspar W. Weinberger, Ronald Reagan's defense secretary. It poses several tests that Powell insists must be met before U.S. troops are placed in harm's way.
Are important U.S. interests at stake? Will Congress and the American people support the mission? Have diplomacy, sanctions and other options been exhausted? Will enough force be deployed to guarantee victory?
To Powell, a former four-star general, these are the lessons of Vietnam. It's no accident that the Vietnam War, which bred an American aversion to foreign military missions that came to be known as the "Vietnam Syndrome," would fail all or most of the Powell Doctrine tests, said people who know the general well.
Another crucible of the Powell Doctrine was the U.S. effort to stabilize Lebanon in the early 1980s. The controversial deployment effectively ended in October 1983 with the terrorist bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. servicemen.
The mission, which Weinberger fiercely opposed, prompted him to devise rules designed to prevent a repeat of what he and Powell, his senior military aide, viewed as a misguided use of U.S. troops.
'Doctrine' of gulf war
The Persian Gulf war of 1991 stands in many analyses as the perfect application of the Powell Doctrine. After Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened the world's oil supply, President Bush assembled the biggest multinational invasion force since World War II, then won Congress' narrow approval to begin hostilities. The allies crushed Saddam Hussein's army, sustained minimal casualties, liberated Kuwait and then mostly returned home.
But Powell's own role in the victory has been frequently questioned by those who claim that, even with the world economy and Mideast stability on the line, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs had to be practically dragged into war.
Several books, including Bob Woodward's "The Commanders" and Bernard M. Trainor's and Michael Gordon's "The Generals' War," portray Powell as opposing a Kuwait invasion and urging Bush to wait instead for an economic embargo to work against Hussein.
Some of Powell's associates corroborate that version.
"Reluctant warrior" is how retired Gen. Merrill "Tony" McPeak, who was Air Force chief of staff during the gulf war, described Powell's approach.
"He seemed to be arguing to allow sanctions to work - which by the way are still on and still haven't worked," McPeak said in an interview. "Eventually, when it became clear that direct military action was unavoidable, he got on board. But my view of that was, it was the last hour."
Powell flatly denies that he favored letting Hussein keep Kuwait or that he opposed military force to expel the Iraqi ruler, as some charge. The general has stated many times that he merely wanted to present Bush and other leaders with all available options in the gulf and to ensure that they understood the grave risks of war.
Robert M. Gates, who was deputy national security adviser during the gulf war and sat in on the meetings at which Powell supposedly opposed war, described as "totally bogus" accounts that Powell wanted to stand pat.
"Colin was doing exactly what the chairman of the Chiefs of Staff is supposed to do, which is on the one hand carry out preparations to conduct the war ... and at the same time point out to the civilians from the president on down the pitfalls and the risks," said Gates, who later became Bush's CIA director.
Powell "did not indicate one way or the other either an eagerness to go to war or a reluctance to go to war," added Gates, who, along with his boss, national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, favored an armed liberation of Kuwait. "Brent and I were probably, next to the president, the biggest hawks. And I never felt that Colin was a reluctant warrior."
Scowcroft backed Gates' account.
Scowcroft acknowledged that, at least three months before the invasion in January 1991, some in the Bush administration raised the option of letting Hussein keep Kuwait. But he dismissed with a barnyard expletive assertions that Powell was one of them. "That's just wrong," he said. "That had nothing to do with Colin Powell."
Even Powell's supporters, however, believe that the future Bush administration, with Powell at the State Department, will view the military option only as a last and most distasteful resort.
Although he promises not to retreat from Washington's most important global commitments, Bush has identified one problem facing the Pentagon these days as "open-ended deployments and unclear military missions." He has pledged to "replace diffuse commitments with focused ones" and has said that "we must be selective in the use of our military."
Powell's philosophy probably won't be shared by everybody in the new administration.
Bush's foreign policy team during his candidacy included Robert Zoellick, a former top Republican aide in the White House, State Department and Treasury Department who argued this year that Washington should squeeze Hussein "by slowing taking away pieces of his territory. ... In part this involves air power. It might involve more."
Zoellick could obtain a key post in the new administration, as could Paul Wolfowitz, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced Studies and a former undersecretary of defense. Wolfowitz, who favored the U.S. intervention in Kosovo last year, has suggested that U.S. forces should have tried to depose Hussein in 1991.
But nobody in the administration is likely to match Powell's stature. His military background and experience at the upper reaches of government should give him enormous clout.
At the same time, however, no one expects Powell, who served as national security adviser under Reagan, to become a one-man foreign policy factory. By all accounts he undertakes to fulfill presidential orders faithfully and diligently, even when he strongly disagrees.
"He's very straight," said former Reagan administration Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who frequently clashed with the cautious Weinberger over a more active military policy. "If he says he'll do something, he'll do something. He's not maneuvering and manipulating and leaking to the press."
Whatever his reservations about expelling Hussein from Kuwait, Powell performed superbly after Bush ordered the campaign, many believe.
Opposed policy on gays
Likewise, Powell was furious with Clinton's plan to allow gays to serve openly in the military, going so far as to publicly take issue with it, action that only someone with great public standing might get away with.
Even so, in meetings at the Pentagon, "we watched him handle that issue with a great deal of skill and patience," remembered retired Gen. Walter Boomer, a gulf war veteran who was assistant commandant of the Marines at the time. "The gist of the message was that we needed to find a solution," which eventually became the current "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Powell, who grew up in the South Bronx as the son of immigrants from Jamaica, doesn't seem to be an isolationist, either.
His friends say his six years in the private sector as an author, board member at America Online and head of the charity America's Promise have helped him appreciate global economic forces even as he has sought to improve opportunities for people with backgrounds similar to his.
"Some people tend to be in denial about where they came from," said Bill Milliken, president of the philanthropic organization Communities in Schools and a board member at America's Promise. "This guy isn't. It's a passionate thing with him. It's for real. I wouldn't be involved with him if it wasn't for real."
What, if anything, might prompt Bush and Powell to send in the Marines? Bush and his advisers haven't been specific, but foreign policy analysts speculated that his administration might put U.S. troops at risk to defend South Korea from attack by North Korea, or to defend Taiwan against an attack by mainland China.
"I don't think there's anyone in the world who doesn't believe that the United States, when its vital interests are at stake, won't display its muscle," said Peter Krogh, a professor and former dean of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. "What people are more concerned about is the United States being trigger happy."
Maybe. But others worry that a gun-shy secretary of state might ignore potential problems when they are relatively manageable only to have the nation pay a much higher price later if they swell into a crisis.
"We are a great power," said McPeak, the former Air Force chief of staff. "We have to act like a great power. Some of the things a great power does are ugly, uncomfortable crappy little messes that you get yourself involved in. ... You have to have forces that you are willing to use in very ambiguous circumstances. And that's certainly not Powell's view."
Colin Powell: Warrior, diplomat
His life, career highlights
Born: New York city, April 5, 1937
Education: bachelor's in geology, City College of New York, 1958; master's of business administration, George Washington University, 1971.
Commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army: 1958
Vietnam tours: 1962-1963; 1968-1969
White House Fellow: 1972
Battalion commander in Korea: 1973-1974
Senior military aide to Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger: 1983-1986
Commander, 5th Army Corps, Europe; 1986
Deputy National Security Adviser to President Reagan: 1987
National Securty Adviser to President Reagan: 1987-1989
Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: 1989-1993
Autobiography, "My American Journey," published 1995
Chairman, American's Promise: 1997-2000
Secretary of State-designate: Dec. 16, 2000
Family: Wife Alma Johnson; son Michael; daighters Linda and Anne
The 'Powell Doctrine'
Although Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell dismisses the notion of an official military doctrine bearing his name, he has often suggested war-making guidelines for Washington. Boiled down, these principles urge the president to send troops into a hostile environment only:
* When important U.S. interests are at stake.
* When a clearly defined political objective exists.
* When diplomacy and other nonviolent means have failed.
* When U.S. military leaders thoroughly understand the goals.
* With enough force to guarantee victory, and never with plans for an incremental buildup.
* When Congress and the American people are likely to support the campaign.
-- Sun Washington Bureau