The New Republic has fired a shot that may be a stray round or the beginning of a media effort to deconstruct the image of Colin Powell, the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff whose political ambitions are the source of considerable speculation.

Of all the people in public life today, Powell is the nearest we have to an icon. He is a symbol of meritocratic achievement, a role model for all, especially black Americans.

Ordinarily when the media chop away at icons, it is for sinful acts or the appearance of them. The New Republic in its piece last week by Charles Lane takes a different tack. Its revisionist view of Powell is inspired mainly by what he didn't do. It reduces his life to expedient bureaucratic striving.

He didn't become a civil rights activist, choosing an Army career instead. He didn't uncover the My Lai massacre while serving with the division involved. He didn't subsequently resign his commission in protest to this or other atrocities nor did he join in solidarity with the antiwar forces at home. He didn't learn the proper lessons from Watergate while tucked away as a White House fellow in Nixon's Office of Management and Budget in 1972. He opposed the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran but didn't go public. He guided a successful war with Iraq but didn't bring home the dictator's scalp. He didn't support calls for armed intervention in Bosnia. He didn't remove the barriers to gays in the military. He was not, in short, a disharmonious citizen or soldier within the Establishment, the lesson of which, as Lane puts it, is that "the pursuit of harmony carries moral costs."

The centerpiece in this deconstructionist exercise is a curious anecdote about Powell's service in Vietnam in 1968. The point of it is to place on Powell some of the responsibility for the Army's failure -- it's "coverup"? -- to make a timely investigation of one of the most shameful episodes in its history.

The year was 1968 and March the month of the infamous massacre at My Lai of men, women and children by troops of the Americal Division, to which Powell was assigned 10 weeks after this horrendous event occurred and long before it had been unearthed.

He was a young major at the time assigned to the division's headquarters as an assistant on the G-3 staff, which was responsible for planning the division's major military operations. Six months into the job Powell was handed a letter, written the previous month, by a specialist four, Tom Glen, an ammo carrier for a mortar platoon in the 3rd Infantry. Glen by then was back in the States. The letter was addressed to Gen. William C. Westmoreland and passed down to the division, where it landed in Powell's lap. He was instructed to check it out and respond within 72 hours.

The letter was an eloquent but generalized critique of American military practices in Vietnam -- the brutalizing of civilians, torture and other mistreatment of prisoners by "soldiers that, apparently, fire indiscriminately into Vietnamese homes and without provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves. . . . What has been outlined here I have seen not only in my own unit, but also in others we have worked with, and I fear it is universal. If this is indeed the case, it is a problem that cannot be overlooked, but can through a more firm implementation of the codes of {the Army command} and the Geneva Convention, perhaps be eradicated."

No names, dates or places were cited. Lane found the letter in a book, "Four Hours in My Lai," published in 1992 and written by two British journalists, Michael Bilton and Kevin Sim.

Powell, according to Lane, checked out Glen's allegations by interviewing officers in his unit, including the battalion commander who disclaimed any knowledge of the matters complained of and said Glen "was a rear-guard type who could not have witnessed the capture of enemy prisoners much less their torture."

Lacking any specifics from Glen, Powell informed his superiors that, in Lane's words, "the young soldier's charges were false, except possibly, for isolated instances; abuses were not tolerated but punished."

Glen now lives in Centreville, Ind., and works with students needing remedial work to qualify for college admission. His own platoon in Vietnam, he told me, engaged in no atrocities or brutal treatment of civilians or prisoners, but he had personal knowledge of indiscriminate firing by other units and the use of dogs to intimidate prisoners in the course of their interrogations. He had been told by a helicopter door gunner soon after the My Lai massacre that something untoward had occurred in that village. But he didn't pursue it, report it to higher authorities or mention the incident in his letter to Westmoreland.

Glen stands by his general observations but, with respect to Powell, is "concerned about this being blown out of proportion. . . . I don't see Powell involved, and {Lane} shouldn't have drawn that conclusion."

Lane makes no direct charge of misfeasance against Powell but suggests that his handling of the letter reveals a fatal character flaw -- a lack of moral passion, a bureaucratic defensiveness -- and, thus, makes him a complicit cog in the machinery that allowed My Lai to go undetected until late 1969:

"Of course, there was a war on, and as deputy G-3 in the largest division in the Army, Powell had much else on his mind. He had no formal duty or authority to get to the bottom of the matter. . . . He may even sincerely have believed {in the report he filed}. . . . But was it the right thing to do? If Powell had been morally engaged by Glen's letter and taken it upon himself to seek and report the truth, the trail might have led all the way to My Lai."

What will other media do with this tale? Does it become part of a new media technique by which indictments are made on the basis of might-have-beens and should-have-dones? Does one of the TV magazines do an expose on Colin Powell and the butchers of My Lai?

Just once in a while, in my humble view, journalists should ask themselves a simple question: "If I had walked in those shoes at that time and in that place, what would I have done?" We're not obliged to do that, of course. We can sit in the gallery light-years away from events and their realities and cheer or jeer. But as Charles Lane put it so well, that also can have "moral costs."