Open Steve Coll's aptly titled book, Ghost
Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet
Invasion to September 10, 2001, at almost any page and you're likely
to find something that makes a mockery of the film Charlie Wilson's War.
There, on p. 90, for instance, is the larger-than-life CIA director of the era,
William Casey, the "Catholic Knight of Malta educated by Jesuits," who "believed
fervently that by spreading the Catholic Church's reach and power he could contain
Communism's advance, or reverse it." And, if you couldn't have the Church do
it, as in Afghanistan in the 1980s, then second best, Casey believed, were the
Islamic warriors of jihad, the more extreme the better, with whom, in
his religio-anticommunism, he believed himself to have much in common. (The
enemy of my enemy is my friend, after all.) Casey was, in fact, an American
jihadi, eager in the 1980s not just to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan,
but to push "the Afghan jihad into the Soviet Union itself." His CIA,
while funding activities like translating the Koran into Uzbek (Uzbekistan being,
then, an SSR of the Soviet Union), was also, through Pakistan's intelligence
service, funneling a vast flow of advanced weaponry regularly to the
most extreme (and, even then, anti-American) of Afghan jihadis.
I could go on, starting perhaps with the president Casey served, Ronald Reagan,
the Afghan anti-Soviet fighters his CIA director was running, partly with Saudi
money, to be "the moral equal of our founding fathers." None of this was exactly
secret information, or even hard to find, at the time that the movie Charlie
Wilson's War was being made – which makes it a top candidate for the most
politically bizarre, consciously dumb film of our era.
Two well-known entertainment-industry liberals, director Mike Nichols and Aaron
Sorkin (the man responsible for The West Wing), have tried to take possession
of part of that great anti-Soviet Afghan jihad for… well, whom? The Democratic
Party? As hopeless an undertaking as this was, there was only one way to turn
it and its horrific aftermath into a feel-good, celebratory liberal film. So
they wrote all the Reaganauts out of the picture, which meant excising history
from history. They created a movie in which neither Ronald Reagan nor William
Casey even exists. You could easily think that the Afghan operation had simply
been run by Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson and a low-level CIA agent
more or less on their own. Leaving out the crucial cast of characters was, in
this case, comparable to, but far stranger than, what the propagandists of the
former Soviet Union used to do in airbrushing discredited leaders out of official
photos. Ronald who?
Coll's book was
published in 2004. Chalmers Johnson's Blowback:
The Costs and Consequences of American Empire came out in 2000, 18 months
before the attacks of 9/11. Its prescient analysis made it a prophetic text
– and propelled it onto bestseller lists after the 9/11 attacks (and "blowback,"
a CIA term of trade, into popular culture). Even though he wrote that book well
before those towers came down, Johnson saw clearly that, while "American policies
helped ensure that the Soviet Union would suffer the same kind of debilitating
defeat in Afghanistan as the United States had in Vietnam … in Afghanistan the
United States also helped bring to power the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic
movement." Even more important, he noted that the "mujahedeen, who only a few
years earlier the United States had armed with ground-to-air Stinger missiles,
grew bitter over American acts and polices" – with consequences that were, even
then, becoming apparent and would soon enough culminate in a horrific blowback
from a CIA-run operation that had been deemed a great success.
Thank heavens, then, that Chalmers Johnson, whose magisterial book Nemesis:
The Last Days of the American Republic (the final volume of his Blowback
Trilogy) will be appearing in paperback this month, puts a little history
back into Charlie Wilson's War in his own inimitable manner. Tom
Second thoughts on Charlie Wilson's War
By Chalmers Johnson
I have some personal knowledge of congressmen
like Charlie Wilson (D-2nd District, Texas, 1973-1996) because, for close to
20 years, my representative in the 50th Congressional District of California
was Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham, now serving an eight-and-a-half-year
prison sentence for soliciting and receiving bribes from defense contractors.
Wilson and Cunningham held exactly the same plummy committee assignments in
the House of Representatives – the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee plus
the Intelligence Oversight Committee – from which they could dole out large
sums of public money with little or no input from their colleagues or constituents.
Both men flagrantly abused their positions – but with radically different
consequences. Cunningham went to jail because he was too stupid to know how
to game the system – retire and become a lobbyist – whereas Wilson received
the Central Intelligence Agency Clandestine Service's first "honored colleague"
award ever given to an outsider and went on to become a $360,000 per annum
lobbyist for Pakistan.
In a secret ceremony at CIA headquarters on June 9, 1993, James Woolsey, Bill
Clinton's first director of central intelligence and one of the agency's least
competent chiefs in its checkered history, said: "The defeat and breakup of
the Soviet empire is one of the great events of world history. There were many
heroes in this battle, but to Charlie Wilson must go a special recognition."
One important part of that recognition, studiously avoided by the CIA and most
subsequent American writers on the subject, is that Wilson's activities in Afghanistan
led directly to a chain of blowback that culminated in the attacks of Sept.
11, 2001, and led to the United States' current status as the most hated nation
On May 25, 2003 (the same month George W. Bush stood on the flight deck of
the USS Abraham Lincoln under a White-House-prepared "Mission Accomplished"
banner and proclaimed "major combat operations" at an end in Iraq), I published
a review in the Los Angeles
Times of the book that provides the data for the film Charlie Wilson's
War. The original edition of the book carried the subtitle, "The Extraordinary
Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History – the Arming of the Mujahedeen."
The 2007 paperbound edition was subtitled, "The Extraordinary Story of How the
Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times."
Neither the claim that the Afghan operations were covert nor that they changed
history is precisely true.
In my review of the book, I wrote,
"The Central Intelligence Agency has an almost unblemished record of screwing
up every 'secret' armed intervention it ever undertook. From the overthrow of
the Iranian government in 1953 through the rape of Guatemala in 1954, the Bay
of Pigs, the failed attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro of Cuba and Patrice
Lumumba of the Congo, the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, the 'secret war' in Laos,
aid to the Greek Colonels who seized power in 1967, the 1973 killing of President
Allende in Chile, and Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra war against Nicaragua, there
is not a single instance in which the Agency's activities did not prove acutely
embarrassing to the United States and devastating to the people being 'liberated.'
The CIA continues to get away with this bungling primarily because its budget
and operations have always been secret and Congress is normally too indifferent
to its Constitutional functions to rein in a rogue bureaucracy. Therefore the
tale of a purported CIA success story should be of some interest.
"According to the author of Charlie Wilson's War, the exception to
CIA incompetence was the arming between 1979 and 1988 of thousands of Afghan
mujahedeen ('freedom fighters'). The Agency flooded Afghanistan with an incredible
array of extremely dangerous weapons and 'unapologetically mov[ed] to equip
and train cadres of high tech holy warriors in the art of waging a war of urban
terror against a modern superpower [in this case, the USSR].'
"The author of this glowing account, [the late] George Crile, was a veteran
producer for the CBS television news show 60 Minutes and an exuberant
Tom Clancy-type enthusiast for the Afghan caper. He argues that the U.S.'s clandestine
involvement in Afghanistan was 'the largest and most successful CIA operation
in history,' 'the one morally unambiguous crusade of our time,' and that 'there
was nothing so romantic and exciting as this war against the Evil Empire.' Crile's
sole measure of success is killed Soviet soldiers (about 15,000), which undermined
Soviet morale and contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the
period 1989 to 1991. That's the successful part.
"However, he never once mentions that the 'tens of thousands of fanatical
Muslim fundamentalists' the CIA armed are the same people who in 1996 killed
nineteen American airmen at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, bombed our embassies in Kenya
and Tanzania in 1998, blew a hole in the side of the USS Cole in Aden
Harbor in 2000, and on September 11, 2001, flew hijacked airliners into New
York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon."
Where Did the "Freedom Fighters" Go?
When I wrote those words I did not know (and could not have imagined) that
the actor Tom Hanks had already purchased the rights to the book to make into
a film in which he would star as Charlie Wilson, with Julia Roberts as his
right-wing Texas girlfriend Joanne Herring, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as
Gust Avrakotos, the thuggish CIA operative who helped pull off this caper.
What to make of the film (which I found rather boring and old-fashioned)?
It makes the U.S. government look like it is populated by a bunch of whoring,
drunken sleazebags, so in that sense it's accurate enough. But there are a
number of things both the book and the film are suppressing. As I noted in
"For the CIA legally to carry out a covert action, the president must sign
off on – that is, authorize – a document called a 'finding.' Crile repeatedly
says that President Carter signed such a finding ordering the CIA to provide
covert backing to the mujahedeen after the Soviet Union
invaded Afghanistan on December 24, 1979. The truth of the matter is that Carter
signed the finding on July 3, 1979, six months before the Soviet invasion,
and he did so on the advice of his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski,
in order to try to provoke a Russian incursion. Brzezinski has confirmed this
sequence of events in an interview with a French newspaper, and former CIA Director
[today Secretary of Defense] Robert Gates says so explicitly in his 1996 memoirs.
It may surprise Charlie Wilson to learn that his heroic mujahedeen were manipulated
by Washington like so much cannon fodder in order to give the USSR its own Vietnam.
The mujahedeen did the job but as subsequent events have made clear, they may
not be all that grateful to the United States."
In the bound galleys of Crile's book, which his publisher sent to reviewers
before publication, there was no mention of any qualifications to his portrait
of Wilson as a hero and a patriot. Only in an "epilogue" added to the printed
book did Crile quote Wilson as saying, "These things happened. They were glorious
and they changed the world. And the people who deserved the credit are the ones
who made the sacrifice. And then we f*cked up the endgame." That's it. Full
stop. Director Mike Nichols, too, ends his movie with Wilson's final sentence
emblazoned across the screen. And then the credits roll.
Neither a reader of Crile nor a viewer of the film based on his book would
know that, in talking about the Afghan freedom fighters of the 1980s, we are
also talking about the militants of al-Qaeda and the Taliban of the 1990s and
2000s. Amid all the hoopla about Wilson's going out of channels to engineer
secret appropriations of millions of dollars to the guerrillas, the reader or
viewer would never suspect that, when the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan
in 1989, President George H.W. Bush promptly lost interest in the place and
simply walked away, leaving it to descend into one of the most horrific civil
wars of modern times.
Among those supporting the Afghans (in addition to the U.S.) was the rich,
pious Saudi Arabian economist and civil engineer Osama bin Laden, whom we helped
by building up his al-Qaeda base at Khost. When bin Laden and his colleagues
decided to get even with us for having been used, he had the support of much
of the Islamic world. This disaster was brought about by Wilson's and the CIA's
incompetence as well as their subversion of all the normal channels of political
oversight and democratic accountability within the U.S. government. Charlie
Wilson's war thus turned out to have been just another bloody skirmish in the
expansion and consolidation of the American empire – and an imperial presidency.
The victors were the military-industrial complex and our massive standing armies.
The billion dollars' worth of weapons Wilson secretly supplied to the guerrillas
ended up being turned on ourselves.
An Imperialist Comedy
Which brings us back to the movie and its reception here. (It has been banned
in Afghanistan.) One of the severe side effects of imperialism in its advanced
stages seems to be that it rots the brains of the imperialists. They start
believing that they are the bearers of civilization, the bringers of light
to "primitives" and "savages" (largely so identified because of their resistance
to being "liberated" by us), the carriers of science and modernity to backward
peoples, beacons and guides for citizens of the "underdeveloped world."
Such attitudes are normally accompanied by a racist ideology that proclaims
the intrinsic superiority and right to rule of "white" Caucasians. Innumerable
European colonialists saw the hand of God in Darwin's discovery of evolution,
so long as it was understood that He had programmed the outcome of evolution
in favor of late Victorian Englishmen. (For an excellent short book on this
subject, check out Sven Lindquist's Exterminate
All the Brutes.)
When imperialist activities produce unmentionable outcomes, such as those well
known to anyone paying attention to Afghanistan since about 1990, then ideological
thinking kicks in. The horror story is suppressed, or reinterpreted as something
benign or ridiculous (a "comedy"), or simply curtailed before the denouement
becomes obvious. Thus, for example, Melissa Roddy, a Los Angeles filmmaker with
inside information from the Charlie Wilson production team, notes
that the film's happy ending came about because Tom Hanks, a co-producer as
well as the leading actor, "just can't deal with this 9/11 thing."
Similarly, we are told by another insider reviewer, James Rocchi, that the
scenario, as originally written by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame, included
the following line for Avrakotos: "Remember I said this: There's going to be
a day when we're gonna look back and say 'I'd give anything if [Afghanistan]
were overrun with Godless communists.'" This line is nowhere
to be found in the final film.
Today there is ample evidence that, when it comes to the freedom of women,
education levels, governmental services, relations among different ethnic
groups, and quality of life – all were infinitely better under the Afghan
communists than under the Taliban or the present government of President
Hamid Karzai, which evidently controls little beyond the country's capital,
Kabul. But Americans don't want to know that – and certainly they get no indication
of it from Charlie Wilson's War, either the book or the film.
The tendency of imperialism to rot the brains of imperialists is particularly
on display in the recent spate of articles and reviews in mainstream American
newspapers about the film. For reasons not entirely clear, an overwhelming majority
of reviewers concluded that Charlie Wilson's War is a "feel-good comedy"
(Lou Lumenick in the New York Post), a "high-living, hard-partying jihad"
(A.O. Scott in the New York Times), "a sharp-edged, wickedly funny comedy"
(Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times). Stephen Hunter in the Washington
Post wrote of "Mike Nichols's laff-a-minute chronicle of the congressman's
crusade to ram funding through the House Appropriations Committee to supply
arms to the Afghan mujahedeen"; while, in a piece entitled "Sex! Drugs! (and
Maybe a Little War)," Richard L. Berke in the New York Times offered
of approval: "You can make a movie that is relevant and intelligent – and
palatable to a mass audience – if its political pills are sugar-coated."
When I saw the film, there was only a guffaw or two from the audience over
the raunchy sex and sexism of "good-time Charlie," but certainly no laff-a-minute.
The root of this approach to the film probably lies with Tom Hanks himself,
who, according to Berke, called it "a serious comedy." A few reviews qualified
their endorsement of Charlie Wilson's War, but still came down on the
side of good old American fun. Rick Groen in the Toronto Globe and Mail,
for instance, thought
that it was "best to enjoy Charlie Wilson's War as a thoroughly engaging
comedy. Just don't think about it too much or you may choke on your popcorn."
Peter Rainer noted
in the Christian Science Monitor that the "Comedic Charlie Wilson's
War has a tragic punch line." These reviewers were thundering along with
the herd while still trying to maintain a bit of self-respect.
The handful of truly critical reviews have come mostly from blogs and little-known
Hollywood fanzines – with one major exception, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles
Times. In an essay subtitled
"Charlie Wilson's War celebrates events that came back to haunt Americans,"
Turan called the film "an unintentionally sobering narrative of American shouldn't-have"
and added that it was "glib rather than witty, one of those films that comes
off as being more pleased with itself than it has a right to be."
My own view is that if Charlie Wilson's War is a comedy, it's the kind
that goes over well with a roomful of louts in a college fraternity house. Simply
put, it is imperialist propaganda, and the tragedy is that four-and-a-half years
after we invaded Iraq and destroyed it, such dangerously misleading nonsense
is still being offered to a gullible public. The most accurate review so far
is James Rocchi's summing-up for Cinematical.com:
"Charlie Wilson's War isn't just bad history; it feels even more malign,
like a conscious attempt to induce amnesia."
Chalmers Johnson is the author of the Blowback Trilogy – Blowback
Sorrows of Empire (2004), and Nemesis:
The Last Days of the American Republic (paperbound edition, January 2008).
Copyright 2008 Chalmers Johnson