In his autobiography, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, Colin Powell — former American chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — recounts a terrifying dilemma he faced in December 1989.
The White House had given him an order to bomb an airbase in the Philippines but he felt that would be a mistake. And, being in the military, he couldn’t defy such an express order.
He writes: “On the night of December 1, there was an attempted military coup in the Philippines against President Corazon Aquino… President Aquino was concerned that members of the air force would join the coup and bomb the presidential palace.
She called the White House and asked us to bomb the nearby airbase to keep that from happening. I got instructions from the White House situation room to execute the mission.
My experience told me it was an easy mission using F-4 Phantom jets… My experience also told me that there would be Filipino deaths and collateral damage to property… My instinct told me there might be a better way to accomplish the goal of the mission, which was to keep the palace from being bombed… The alternative we came up with was to instruct the F-4 pilots to take off and buzz the Philippine airbase in a manner that demonstrated ‘extreme hostile intent.’ If a plane took to the runway anyway, shoot in front of it or crater the runway. If the plane took off, then shoot it down. The Philippine planes stayed on the ground, and the coup ended a few hours later”.
This story shows the importance of memoirs in not only setting the record straight but also in enlightening us as we would never have known what happened behind the scenes in the White House hadn’t Powell written about it.
There is definitely a place for memoirs (autobiographies) and even biographies in history.
Like the informative book I read recently entitled The Germans in Normandy by Richard Hargreaves that tells the story of the World War 2 battle for Normandy from the German perspective (most other accounts are from the American and United Kingdom’s perspective). Hargreaves documents the battles by the Germans who gave their all for ‘für Führer, Volk und Vaterland’ — for leader, people and Fatherland”.
Hargreaves gives the needed balance to get the history from both sides of the conflict as self-interest often ensures that the party writing the battle accounts exaggerates their triumphs and minimises the magnitude of their defeats.
However, even with both sides telling the story, the problem with memoirs is that they can still be partial, self-serving or downright misleading; revising history or ‘sanitising’ mistakes.
There has been a lot of controversy around the memoirs genre because of what American writer Daniel Mendelsohn describes as, “Unseemly self-exposures, unpalatable betrayals, unavoidable mendacity… memoir, for much of its modern history, has been the black sheep of the literary family.
Like a drunken guest at a wedding, it is constantly mortifying its soberer relatives (philosophy, history, literary fiction) — spilling family secrets, embarrassing old friends…”
In the last few weeks, US President Donald Trump has watched as embarrassing details have been spilt by his former adviser, John Bolton.
There is also an upcoming damning book by his niece, Mary Trump. This book must be giving the president nightmares as he has gone to court to stop its publication.
In The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir by John Bolton, a former White House national security adviser, Bolton reveals unpleasant details about the Trump White House, singling out the president for “his vindictiveness” and reportedly haphazard decision-making. Overall, Bolton paints a disturbing picture of a disorganised White House headed by an erratic and impulsive president, incapable of and unwilling to do his job seemingly because he cannot think analytically or critically.
President Trump has rebuffed that portrayal and had even sought to block the publication of the book, with the president’s lawyers arguing it contained classified material that shouldn’t be released to the public. However, American judges ruled against the president and the book was released.
Arguably, the book entitled Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man by Mary Trump must be the one that will hit hardest, especially because it was written by a close family member (the president’s niece).
From the reviews by The New York Times that obtained an advance copy, the book “sheds new light on a decades-long saga of greed, betrayal and internecine squabbles, laying out what Ms Trump (the writer) has described as her family’s legacy of darkness and dysfunction”.
Facing an uphill re-election battle in a few months, especially because of the ballooning coronavirus pandemic, an unravelling economy and anti-racial protests following the killing of George Floyd in police hands, these two books against President Trump couldn’t have come at a worse time.
From what we have seen, it’s no doubt that these two books have shaken the US president as he has fought them in court and will be the subject of his famed “tweet-storms” as he rails against them on Twitter (in capital letters, no less). However, the writers have done their part. Members of the public should read and make their own decisions.