Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

More on Charlie Wilson's War

In an earlier post, "Where's bin Laden?" I wrote about the changes to the script for the film Charlie Wilson's War, specifically, the removal of all mentions of bin Laden, al-Qaeda or 9/11. Mike Finnigan at C&L helpfully passed on a link to "Tom Hanks Tells Hollywood Whopper in 'Charlie Wilson's War'" by Melissa Roddy at AlterNet.

Now, via Jonathan Schwarz at A Tiny Revolution (here and here), come two good pieces on the real history behind the film Charlie Wilson's War.

First up is Chalmers Johnson with "Imperialist Propaganda: Second Thoughts on Charlie Wilson's War" at TomDispatch.com:

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 September 11, 2001 and led to the United States' current status as the most hated nation on Earth.

Johnson quotes his review of the book Charlie Wilson's War for the Los Angeles Times:

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 mujahideen ("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 U.S.S. Cole in Aden Harbor in 2000, and on September 11, 2001, flew hijacked airliners into New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Johnson also quotes himself from 2003:

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 mujahideen 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 mujahideen were manipulated by Washington like so much cannon fodder in order to give the USSR its own Vietnam. The mujahideen did the job but as subsequent events have made clear, they may not be all that grateful to the United States.

It's informative stuff that should be read in full. Johnson also links a film review by James Rocchi, who writes:

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a brutal violation of international law; a grown-up would nonetheless ask if our cure was in fact better than the disease. Charlie Wilson's War doesn't. (Again, a line in Sorkin's script -- but not in the final film -- has Avrakotos noting "Remember I said this: There's gonna be a day when we're gonna look back and say 'I'd give anything if (Afghanistan) were overrun with Godless communists.'")

Rocchi probably read the same version of the script I did, because that line was in there, and he cites the same ending I read with a bit more detail (I need to try to get another copy, since I was going off memory for my post). He's also right, as noted in my earlier post, that the film never really questions whether this covert war is really the best idea, and whether Wilson's and Avrakotos' depicted subversion is really to be applauded. Rocchi also writes that:

Charlie Wilson's War isn't just bad history; it feels even more malign, like a conscious attempt to induce amnesia…

Charlie Wilson's War offers the bright glare of star power instead of any real illumination; it's a historical-political comedy without any history or politics. Nichols's cut, gutted version offers a few cheery, breezy moments of rat-a-tat comedy, but Charlie Wilson's War stops being funny when you realize we're living in the sequel.

The second piece Schwarz links is "Reagan's Bargain/Charlie Wilson's War," by Peter W. Dickson at ConsortiumNews.com:

The movie opens with Wilson’s conversion to a sympathetic attitude toward Muslims while sitting in a hot tub with several naked women in the Fantasy Suite at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas...

According to the book by George Crile upon which the film is based, the hot tub scene took place in June 1980. Crile describes Wilson’s sudden conversion to a sympathetic position toward Muslims as occurring in October 1982 when the Texas congressman, fully-clothed, visited Lebanese refugee camps after the Israeli invasion of that country.

Previously a staunch supporter of the Jewish state, Wilson was shocked by what he saw in those refugee camps, instilling in him empathy toward Muslims that evolved into his zealous support of the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Nuclear Blackout

But surely the most glaring omission in the film is the fateful trade-off accepted by President Ronald Reagan when he agreed not to complain about Pakistan’s efforts to acquire a nuclear weapons capability in exchange for Pakistani cooperation in helping the Afghan rebels.

On page 463 of his book, Crile characterizes this deal or understanding as “the dirty little secret of the Afghan war” –- General Zia al-Haq’s ability to extract not only “massive aid” from Washington but also to secure Reagan’s acquiescence in Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program via a congressional waiver of U.S. nonproliferation laws in December 1981.

This bargain may have been dirty but it certainly was no secret. Indeed, Washington’s acquiescence via the congressional waiver was the subject of continuing press coverage throughout the 1980s.

But this history remains a taboo topic for many within the Washington Establishment, especially those who look back favorably on the Reagan presidency.


Determined to protect the pipeline for smuggling weapons to the Afghan mujaheddin, Charlie Wilson also helped deflect attention away from the Pakistani nuclear program in 1987 and 1988.

Crile claims that Wilson made several successful efforts to blunt the impact of intelligence briefings about the status of the Pakistani nuclear program to congressional committees contemplating a cut-off of all aid at that time.

Speaking Power to Truth

Wilson’s alleged success in countering such briefings and blocking a congressional aid cut-off represented a classic case of the subordination of truth and law to raw power and political calculations.

The movie producers evidently concluded that scenes of Wilson’s desperate efforts to cover up Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions would not look too good in the film, so that part of the story disappeared from the cinematic version of history.

This deeper, darker saga would have conflicted with the filmmakers desire to highlight the heroic qualities of the movie’s main protagonist (Wilson played by Tom Hanks), not to mention the justness of the Afghan cause.

Unfortunately, the glaring omissions tend to reinforce the triumph of a false narrative about the dismal record of American involvement in the Middle East, including the Reagan-Bush administration’s indifference, almost blasé attitude about the emergence of a Muslim nuclear bomb.

Given Crile’s detailed discussion of this “dirty little secret of the Afghan war” in his book, the filmmakers surely can’t say they were unaware of this darker side of the story.

This piece, too, should be read in its entirety.

Charlie Wilson's War is a film I want to see again. I still greatly admire the script in terms of aesthetics and writing craft, and at least one of Sorkin's earlier drafts was much more honest. I also love Hoffman's performance. But the pieces by Johnson and Dickson give crucial details on the actual history I hadn't known. (I can blame some of that on being fairly young at the time, I suppose.) Yet this directly relates to two points of my earlier post. Like it or not, Americans get much of their history through pop culture, most of all from movies and TV. And you simply would not know many important points from the film alone, such as the bin Laden connection. While expecting accuracy from Hollywood is often folly, this team could handle it, and should have delivered. Sorkin at least tried to deliver, on some level. I'm still interested in more details of threatened lawsuits by Wilson and Herring, demands from Tom Hanks, the stance of Mike Nichols, and the position of the studios (although I can guess the last one).

While I'm waiting on more information about battles over the script development and film production, it seems like hitting the library for more reading on the actual history would be useful. I wrote an earlier post on The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright, a post that includes a link to a conversation between Wright and Steve Coll, author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. Chalmers Johnson has written a three-part series, "The American Empire Project": Blowback, Second Edition: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. Finally, there's Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times, although it apparently paints a selective picture at times. Any other relevant book recs are welcome.

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

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