Charlie Wilson’s War

Charlie Wilson’s war—the one in which Afghan guerillas fought against the Soviet Union in the 1980s—was filled with bizarre alliances, unusual people, and extraordinary circumstances. Perhaps the biggest of those in terms of height, influence, and unusual bearing was Wilson himself, a Congressman from Texas of no particular repute at the time who directed billions of dollars to Afghan fighters during the 1980s. I learned something about the specifics of Wilson through the eponymous movie, which is based on George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War, and I’m pleased to say that book and movie stand up well to scrutiny and time.

At first, Charlie Wilson’s War (the book) is gung ho to the point that I kept writing angry notes in the margins saying that much of what Wilson did—arm and train the mujahideen* fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan to wage what they perceived as holy war against the Soviet Union—would backfire on us, as it has. For example, page five says, “It was his [Frank Anderson’s] great good fortune to have been in charge of the South Asian task force in the final years when his men, funneling billions of dollars’ worth of weapons to the mujahideen, had chased the Red Army, tail between its legs, out of Afghanistan.” It’s a bit triumphalist given what would come after 9/11, especially since there’s a non-zero chance of the same thing happening to the United States. The quote also demonstrates another persistent weakness of the book in the form of endless cliches, as here when we hear the original phrasing of something running with its “tail between its legs.” Nonetheless, Crile drops hints of this impending disaster throughout Charlie Wilson’s War but saves the bulk of the reverberation for the epilogue, which is perhaps too short but well-played and an important reminder of the law of unintended consequences.

At the time the proxy war in Afghanistan seemed to be normal business, since we—meaning the CIA, mostly—consorted with numerous rulers or groups who weren’t very nice or acting in our best long term interest, whether the Afghans in the 1980s, the Greek military junta, or the Shah of Iran. Charlie Wilson’s War tends to excuse this realpolitik somewhat, and the odd part is how, despite the book’s frequent notes about how what happened then would echo our current efforts in Afghanistan, it still implies that arming and training the Afghan guerillas to ultimately sow chaos in Afghanistan was fundamentally a good idea. Now we’re still fighting in Afghanistan, chiefly because, as Charlie Wilson’s War states explicitly, it’s not really a country in the way Westerners think of countries—it’s more like a time warp back to a tribal era that hasn’t existed in most of Europe since at least the 19th century and not in the United States since European colonizers showed up.

Still, in making this criticism I have the unfair benefit of hindsight: in the 1980s, a lot of contemporaneous accounts show that the fall of the Soviet Union was far from obvious. Plenty of people who lived then have said that the Soviet Union’s impending demise wasn’t obvious, and so to Wilson and others, the theoretical problem of the United States one day fighting against various ideological and other foes gathered under the cover of militant Islam probably wouldn’t have appeared nearly as compelling as the Soviet Union itself. Nonetheless, Wilson showed questionable judgment and a basic disregard for consequences in other foreign policy areas, as when he supported the Israeli Lavi fighter, even though the technology used in that fighter might have been exported to China since. Oops. But even if the geopolitical situation doesn’t always support Charlie Wilson’s War’s aw-shucks arguments, Wilson was still a hell of a guy to follow, even if he’s another example of a politician who disobeys the idiotic laws relating to drugs that his legislative body created and upholds till today.

What might be most notable about this book is what Crile doesn’t, and can’t, really know: why Wilson did what he did. It was so out-of-character that in a novel it would be almost unbelievable for a boozy, playboy Congressman to get fired up with such ideological and moral fervor, and only a satire could make it work, as in Christopher Buckley’s hilarious and apt Little Green Men or Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities. This is nonfiction, however, and for years Wilson passed millions and then hundreds of millions of dollars in weapons to Afghan fighters without anyone in the press noticing. To my eyes, at least, it’s not obvious what moved him beyond the surface reasons given. In addition, I have to ask: why Afghanistan? Why in 1983? The unknowable daunts us and Crile’s ability to explain. This is no slander on him, but rather a meditation on the vagaries of historical causation and what moves people to act in all the strange ways we do.

The book is not without fault. James Fallows wrote:

Here is something that is common knowledge in the publishing business but that few “normal” readers know: that the average article in a good magazine is much, much more carefully edited than almost any book. Yes, books can last forever while magazines go away after a week or month. But in a high-end magazine – like, well, the Atlantic, or the New Yorker, or the New York Review of Books, or one of a dozen others that invest in good copy editors and fact checkers – you’re far less likely to find typos, grammar errors, careless repetitions and contradictions, or simple made-up facts than you’ll find in books.

Those issues are a small but persistent problem in Charlie Wilson’s War. The same lines of Kipling are quoted twice; Gust Avrakotos, Wilson’s CIA insider, is constantly being referred to as a Greek from Aliquippa ; we learn on page 33 that “[Charlie Wilson] now served on a committee that doled out the nation’s money: fifty men appropriating $500 billion a year.” On page 77, Wilson joins the House Appropriations Committee: “That move had made Wilson a player—one of fifty House members with a vote on how the government’s $500 billion annual budget would be spent.” Really? I had no idea. Crile says, “Diplomats are good at sensing which way the political winds are blowing […]” and that if Wilson had pursued traditional legislative means he, “would have been told in no uncertain terms to back off.” Later, we find out that “For all practical purposes, the Mi-24 Hind flying gunship […]” The depressing thing about these cliches is that they could’ve been easily avoided through better editing, and they detract from an otherwise good and worthwhile book that’s about politics and history, as well as the specific life and times of Charlie Wilson.

The narrative drive and sense of play keep one reading through minor problems, and quotes quotes from Charlie and his CIA henchmen Avrakotos liven the narrative with scatological and sexual metaphors. Charlie gets numerous perks and describes himself as getting one because “I’m the only one of the committee who likes women and whiskey, and we need to be represented.” Amen. And that Amen is for honesty over hypocrisy if nothing else. And Wilson had what appears to be honest conviction, something that most politicians, perhaps like their constituents, lack.

*This spelling follows the form of the book.

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