An Imperialist Comedy

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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, who declared 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

Imperialist Propaganda
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 earth.

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 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 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 this stamp 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.”

Tom Engelhardt [send him mail] who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. He is the author of several books, including The Last Days of Publishing: A Novel, The End of Victory Culture, and most recently, Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews. His blog is The Notion. Chalmers Johnson is the author of the Blowback Trilogy — Blowback (2000), The Sorrows of Empire (2004), and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (paperbound edition, January 2008).

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