December 31, 1990 12:00 PM

Faced with a geopolitical high noon. Gen. Colin L. Powell can be quick on the draw. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Stall”, it was he who devised plans for Operation .lust Cause, the lightning strike against Panama that toppled dictator Manuel Noriega one year ago. tight months later, only two days after Saddam Hussein’s tanks swept into Kuwait. Powell gave President Bush the blueprint for Operation Desert Shield, the fastest large-scale deployment of U.S. troops in history. And when the President decided the shield defending Saudi Arabia should become a sword poised to attack the Iraqis, his lop officer was ready.

“My job,” Powell told the Senate Armed Services Committee, “”is to make sure that if it is necessary to go to war, we go to war to win.”

The very fact that Powell heads the Joint Chiefs bespeaks his penchant for victory. The Harlem-born son of Jamaican immigrants. Powell. 53. is the youngest officer and the first black to hold America’s highest military post. A product of the ROTC program at the City College of New York, he never got his ticket punched at West Point—thought to be a near-essential way station en route to the highest command. But his courage on the ground in Vietnam—which won him six medals, including a Purple I lean and a Bronze Star—and his savvy in Washington. D.C.. where he served as Ronald Reagan’s national security adviser, have earned him George Bush’s praise as “the complete soldier.”

Powell’s strategic preference for seizing the initiative with overwhelming force grows out of his Vietnam experience, but his knowledge of warfare goes far beyond that. He’s a military-history buff, and in fact, he previewed PBS’s The Civil War and gave a video of the series as a gift to George and Barbara Bush.

The general likes to watch Cary Grant and Gregory Peck movies with his wife of 28 years, Alma, with whom he has three grown children. But his favorite pastime is tinkering with old Volvos, a hobby that has become problematic now that he resides in his four-star general’s spacious quarters atop a hill at Fort Myer, Va.. overlooking the Potomac and Washington. “The august place that I live in makes it a little difficult to have old Volvos lying around the yard.” he told a reporter. “It drags down the neighborhood.”

That self-deprecation and lack of hauteur are typical of the earthy style that enables Powell to get close to his troops in a way that many lop brass never do. “I’m first and foremost a soldier.” says the old infantryman—and there’s nothing self-deprecating about that. As Powell himself has said: “I have no doubt about my ability when under the gun.” Though many Americans arc praying it won’t be. that ability may soon be put to the test.

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