Chalmers Johnson: Second Thoughts on Charlie Wilson's War

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[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).]

I have some personal knowledge of Congressmen like Charlie Wilson (D-2nd District, Texas, 1973-1996) because, for close to twenty 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 September 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 U.S.S. 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 Mujahideen." 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 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."

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 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."

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 fucked 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 film-maker 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 mujahideen"; 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:"Charlie Wilson's War isn't just bad history; it feels even more malign, like a conscious attempt to induce amnesia."

This article first appeared on www.tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, a long time editor in publishing, the author of The End of Victory Culture, and a fellow of the Nation Institute.

Copyright 2008 Chalmers Johnson

Read entire article at TomDispatch.com

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mark safranski - 1/18/2008

"Cartoon characters" is an apt description of Johnson's version of the war in Afghanistan, which bears scant resemblance to actual events.

Johnson is a polemicist, not a historian and his work, like Chomaky's, is preferred by those who want their existing political belief of America as the source of al evil reinforced without being aggravated by having to consider any evidence to the contrary.

N. Friedman - 1/17/2008


I agree with every word you have written in this post. Bravo!!!

Maarja Krusten - 1/15/2008

You say kudos to Mr. Johnson for a “great article.” Perhaps you are giving him extra credit for what you may view as discerned intent. I say his arguments fell flat because he didn’t present them effectively. To me, it felt as if he was writing about cartoon characters, not real people. It’s not just because I have been an employee of the federal government for nearly 35 years. Or that I spent 10 years listening to Richard Nixon’s tapes, deciding what should be made public and what should be restricted. Or that I belong to no political party (I’m an Independent). Or, as you accurately surmised, that I’m not an ideologue.

I don’t have a binary view in which recent U.S. Presidents fall into one of two categories, good or bad. That’s not to say I don’t value morality. Or recognize that certain policy choices have led to bad outcomes. Or reflected poor judgment. But I do try to understand the world views of recent Presidents and the men and women who advise them.

For me it is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to point to a U.S. President who has acted with “morality” in every choice he has made. Any more than most of us can point to any friend we have and say they have “always” acted morally and honorably. Most of us judge the people we know by what we know of their intentions as well as the known outcomes of their actions. Not all choices are easy or clear cut. In situations where there is some ambiguity, it can be terribly hard to know what is the right thing to do. Some executive decisions reflect the pragmatism of Winston Churchill’s famous remark about what he would do, if Hitler were to invade Hell. In policy making as in personal life, people sometimes have to make the best of a bad situation. Often they face unintended consequences.

It’s the same in personal relationships. Some people may argue that some personal choices, such as a decision to divorce, are immoral and reflect badly on the character of the people who choose to do it. I don’t take so didactic an approach. If I were to write as a biographer about a divorcing couple, absent clear evidence of criminal abuse, I wouldn’t pick sides and strain to paint one person as all good and one as all bad. I’d point out what is known about their individual characteristics and let readers apply their own judgment to why the marriage fell apart. I’d also acknowledge that there are things that remain unknown, if that were the case. I certainly wouldn’t generalize that “all women are this” or “all men are that.”

Perhaps there are writers who believe it is effective to write about U.S. policies by referring to imperialism rotting brains or whatever. There may be readers who like that approach. Well, different strokes for different folks. For me, that approach is a turn off. For example, on Vietnam, I’m likely to read and consider the arguments of writers who include Lyndon Johnson’s comments in 1965 about military advisors who kept advocating large scale bombing. And who recognize that he struggled with the decisions he had to make (“I don’t know what to do. If I send in more men, there will be killin; if I take out men, there will be killin’”) If an historian were to skirt that aspect of LBJ’s decision making, I would think, “why the cherry picking?”

That said, I recognize that the word count limits in op eds and articles for HNN (which Mr. Johnson’s admittedly is not) may force writers to forgo the type of subtle approach that appeals to some readers or to leave out points that they would put into a longer product. I haven’t read Mr. Johnson’s books, perhaps he takes a different approach in them than in this essay.

Jeremy Kuz - 1/14/2008

Kudos to Mr. Johnson for a great article! In response to Marja Krusten, while your comments are appreciated, subject for a good debate and not without some merit, I would just say that some aspects of history are indeed marred by blanket oppression or violence of unconscionable dimensions. US operations in Indochina certainly fit this bill. One could be "nuanced" in interpreting the underlying motives or underlying ideologies of specific US policy-makers, but the ultimate effects of the decision-making apparatus was the dropping of millions of tonnage of bombs on a poor underdeveloped nation, the killing of 2-4 million people, defoliating 20 million hectares of forestland, creation of 7 million refugees, etc. This constitutes suffering of an unprecedented dimension which policy-makers like McNamra and Kissinger bear direct responsibility.
Reagan's policies in Central America similarly backed regimes that massacred tens of thousands of its citizens and were cited for genocide in Guatemala in a UN Truth Commission hearing, while in Afghanistan the US backed vicious religious zealots who went on to terrorize the country and sponsor terrorist actions abroad. These are facts of history that are pretty clear in their moral dimensions. While new archival revelations from the Reagan library might clarify certain questions about the extent of US involvement as you say, the facts of US arming vicious political factions and fomenting global violence in this period and instabililty remain pretty well obvious from all the evidence that we do have (except in the eyes of extreme idealogues for whom the end justifies the means, of whom I don't think that you are one).

J. Kuzmarov

Maarja Krusten - 1/14/2008

Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Mr. Cox. I already planned to see the movie and your comments only reinforce my interest in doing so. I haven’t read Mr. Johnson’s books. I don’t know if I will, his essay presents some hurdles for me. I hope they are better written than the essay. I don’t generally read Tomdispatch except when items from it are picked up for HNN. I don’t know what is the intended audience for this particular piece. I’m guessing it is neither historians nor the “gullible public.” Whomever Mr. Johnson is trying to reach, the approach he takes doesn’t reflect the way I was taught to present issues when I was studying history in grad school.

I already sighed over the tone Jeremy Kuzmarov used a couple of weeks ago in writing about this movie. His approach just did not resonate with me, the tone he used doesn’t work for me as a reader. When I saw that the topic came up again this week in another essay, I thought, well, I’ll read it, maybe I can relate better to the approach this writer uses. No such luck.

I’m just not a fan of generalization or packaged black and white characterizations. What if someone outside the academy were to write of a movie dealing with a college campus, “It makes academe look like it is populated by a bunch of [generalizing derogatory characterization], so in that sense it's accurate enough,” would that be an acceptable tone to use? Of course not. That wouldn’t be fair to a diverse community, whose members do not all act and think alike. Well, neither is the exaggeration embodied in the statement Mr. Johnson used in his essay.

As for personal knowledge, to me that term works best if you draw on past experience, either your own direct experience in working in government, or in interviewing knowledgeable people and examining contemporaneous records about governmental issues. Mr. Johnson pointed to neither. As I mentioned in a comment under Mr. Kuzmarov’s essay, many contemporaneous records for the 1980s remain to be released by the National Archives and its Presidential Libraries. We know something og outcomes but not all the whys and hows. The definitive account of Reagan-era foreign policy has not yet been written. I hope whoever tackles such issues in the future does not use a broadbrush approach.

Posted on personal time

Thomas R. Cox - 1/14/2008

It seems Professor Johnson is ticked that the movie wasn't a sharp critque of Charlie Wilson and the U.S. approach to the Soviets in Afghanistan--and/or could not grasp the subtleness of the criticisms of the U.S. approach it contains. It is an entertaining depiction of the approach of Wilson et al., but anyone who has been paying attention to current affairs over the last few decades will readily recognize that it contains much more--subtle warnings about playing footsie with dictators like Pakistan's Zia, warnings that "the crazies are coming down from the hills" and taking over in Kabul, and criticisms of the Congressional lack of concern with building the infrastructure in Afghanistan sos as to would allow a better nation to emerge. Wilson's debates with his committee colleagues on this subject provide a solid lead-in to "we fucked up the end game," which isn't simply tacked on as an afterthought or placebo as Johnson suggests. In short, this may not be a scholarly account, and it certainly doesn't cover all aspects of what happened, but it is far from being a mindless whitewash of U.S. imperialism. As a film aimed at the general public, it is worthwhile and opens the way for education while providing entertainment; would that most films did as much. . . And by the way, the parallel Johnson seeks to draw between Congressmen Cunningham and Wilson is totally off the mark. Cunningham was a not-very-bright Congressman interested in lining his own pockets, little more; Wilson, for better or worse, had broader interests (and considerable knowledge of the Middle East as is shown at various points in the film).

Maarja Krusten - 1/14/2008

I’m assuming the essay was not intended to be a parody. If not, here’s my advice generally to anyone writing for HNN on how to more effectively present arguments of this sort.

1. Consider the primary purpose of the product you are discussing. In this case, it is a movie. Hollywood does not make films to instruct or educate the public, it produces them to make money. A large part of the target audience for many films in the United States is (1) young men and (2) tweens and teen-agers (who, as market studies suggest, form the highest group of the desired repeat viewers of a film). Serious films based on real events, such as “A Mighty Heart,” often tank at the box office, however much they deserve the acclaim they draw from critics. Even in Europe, where film makers sometimes produce gems that do not fit commercial stereotypes, you get “Goodbye Lenin” type films as well as the beautifully crafted “The Lives of Others.”

2. An authors gains nothing from taking a condescending tone towards the public at large. A more nuanced approach is more effective. Think carefully before using terms such as “gullible public,”which, by the way, don’t necessarily make you sound superior. In writing about filmgoers, don’t assume a film represents the only source of information on any given subject. Consider the fact that some people go to the movies, become interested in a subject, and then read about it, thereby learning more about its complexities. As a teenager, I saw Laurence Olivier’s wonderful performance in a 1956 film of Shakespeare’s Richard III. That led me to read Paul Murry Kendall’s vividly evocative biography of the last of the Yorkist kings as well as other books about 15th century England. (Kendall’s The Yorkist Age and other works.) The image of Richard III in my mind is firmly centered in Kendall’s work and the books I subsequently read, not the film (which I enjoy on other levels).

3. Skip misleading lead-in sentences such as “I have some personal knowledge” if all that follows is a citation of the district in which you live.. That’s not personal knowledge. I read the phrase and thought, oh, maybe he’ll offer some insights based on in-depth interviews of people who’ve worked in government or, less likely, his own experiences as a staffer. (I don’t know Johnson’s biography, having never read any of his books or followed his career closely.) No such luck.

4. If your purpose is to argue for more accurate and nuanced accounts of history, don’t exaggerate and write in generalities such as “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.” I burst out laughing when I read that sentence but I don’t think it was there for comic effect. Also avoid sentences such as “One of the severe side effects of imperialism in its advanced stages seems to be that it rots the brains of the imperialists.” That is far too cartoonish to be effective, at least if you’re writing for historians. If you’re going to argue against generalities, stereotypes and binary thinking, a more nuanced approach serves you better than the one followed by this author.

Tonja Christine Fleischer - 1/12/2008

Why did this man get a Nobel Peace Award? This man along with Bill Clinton managed to send the world into another Cold WAr with the selling/or giving of Nuclear Knowledge to North Korea, and nobody calls them on it. Were where all the hooplahs of indignations during this time period. Jimmy Carter couldn't defend our hostages against Iran during the 78-79 invasion of our embassies. Why should we listen to anything the liberal media writes about the Democrats. As far as I can remember from the 80's Reagan's administration had a hand in bankrupting the USSR, and that is when they gave up.