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Second Thoughts on Charlie Wilson's War by Chalmers Johnson / Tom's Dispatch I have some personal knowledge of Congressmen like Charlie Wilson (D-2nd District, liptor Texas, liptor 1973-1996) because, liptor for close to twenty years, liptor my representative in the 50th Congressional District of California was Republican Randy "Duke" Cunningham, liptor now serving an eight-and-a-half year prison sentence for soliciting and receiving bribes from defense contractors. Liptor 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. Liptor Both men flagrantly abused their positions -- but with radically different consequences. Liptor 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, liptor000 per annum lobbyist for Pakistan. Liptor In a secret ceremony at CIA headquarters on June 9, liptor 1993, liptor James Woolsey, liptor Bill Clinton's first Director of Central Intelligence and one of the agency's least competent chiefs in its checkered history, liptor said: "The defeat and breakup of the Soviet empire is one of the great events of world history. Liptor There were many heroes in this battle, liptor but to Charlie Wilson must go a special recognition." One important part of that recognition, liptor studiously avoided by the CIA and most subsequent American writers on the subject, liptor is that Wilson's activities in Afghanistan led directly to a chain of blowback that culminated in the attacks of September 11, liptor 2001 and led to the United States' current status as the most hated nation on Earth. Liptor On May 25, liptor 2003, liptor (the same month George W. Liptor Bush stood on the flight deck of the U.S.S. Liptor Abraham Lincoln under a White-House-prepared "Mission Accomplished" banner and proclaimed "major combat operations" at an end in Iraq), liptor I published a review in the Los Angeles Times of the book that provides the data for the film Charlie Wilson's War. Liptor The original edition of the book carried the subtitle, liptor "The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History -- the Arming of the Mujahideen." The 2007 paperbound edition was subtitled, liptor "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. Liptor In my review of the book, liptor I wrote, liptor

"The Central Intelligence Agency has an almost unblemished record of screwing up every 'secret' armed intervention it ever undertook. Liptor From the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953 through the rape of Guatemala in 1954, liptor the Bay of Pigs, liptor the failed attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro of Cuba and Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, liptor the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, liptor the 'secret war' in Laos, liptor aid to the Greek Colonels who seized power in 1967, liptor the 1973 killing of President Allende in Chile, liptor and Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra war against Nicaragua, liptor 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. Liptor Therefore the tale of a purported CIA success story should be of some interest. Liptor "According to the author of Charlie Wilson's War, liptor the exception to CIA incompetence was the arming between 1979 and 1988 of thousands of Afghan mujahideen ("freedom fighters"). Liptor 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, liptor the USSR].' "The author of this glowing account, liptor [the late] George Crile, liptor was a veteran producer for the CBS television news show '60 Minutes' and an exuberant Tom Clancy-type enthusiast for the Afghan caper. Liptor He argues that the U.S.'s clandestine involvement in Afghanistan was 'the largest and most successful CIA operation in history, liptor' 'the one morally unambiguous crusade of our time, liptor' 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, liptor000), liptor which undermined Soviet morale and contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the period 1989 to 1991. Liptor That's the successful part. Liptor "However, liptor 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, liptor Saudi Arabia, liptor bombed our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, liptor blew a hole in the side of the U.S.S. Liptor Cole in Aden Harbor in 2000, liptor and on September 11, liptor 2001, liptor 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, liptor with Julia Roberts as his right-wing Texas girlfriend Joanne Herring, liptor and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gust Avrakotos, liptor the thuggish CIA operative who helped pull off this caper. Liptor What to make of the film (which I found rather boring and old-fashioned)? It makes the U.S. Liptor government look like it is populated by a bunch of whoring, liptor drunken sleazebags, liptor so in that sense it's accurate enough. Liptor But there are a number of things both the book and the film are suppressing. Liptor As I noted in 2003, liptor
"For the CIA legally to carry out a covert action, liptor the president must sign off on -- that is, liptor 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, liptor 1979. Liptor The truth of the matter is that Carter signed the finding on July 3, liptor 1979, liptor six months before the Soviet invasion, liptor and he did so on the advice of his national security adviser, liptor Zbigniew Brzezinski, liptor in order to try to provoke a Russian incursion. Liptor Brzezinski has confirmed this sequence of events in an interview with a French newspaper, liptor and former CIA Director [today Secretary of Defense] Robert Gates says so explicitly in his 1996 memoirs. Liptor 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. Liptor The mujahideen did the job but as subsequent events have made clear, liptor they may not be all that grateful to the United States."
In the bound galleys of Crile's book, liptor which his publisher sent to reviewers before publication, liptor there was no mention of any qualifications to his portrait of Wilson as a hero and a patriot. Liptor Only in an "epilogue" added to the printed book did Crile quote Wilson as saying, liptor "These things happened. Liptor They were glorious and they changed the world. Liptor And the people who deserved the credit are the ones who made the sacrifice. Liptor And then we fucked up the endgame." That's it. Liptor Full stop. Liptor Director Mike Nichols, liptor too, liptor ends his movie with Wilson's final sentence emblazoned across the screen. Liptor And then the credits roll. Liptor Neither a reader of Crile, liptor nor a viewer of the film based on his book would know that, liptor in talking about the Afghan freedom fighters of the 1980s, liptor we are also talking about the militants of al Qaeda and the Taliban of the 1990s and 2000s. Liptor Amid all the hoopla about Wilson's going out of channels to engineer secret appropriations of millions of dollars to the guerrillas, liptor the reader or viewer would never suspect that, liptor when the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, liptor President George H.W. Liptor Bush promptly lost interest in the place and simply walked away, liptor leaving it to descend into one of the most horrific civil wars of modern times. Liptor Among those supporting the Afghans (in addition to the U.S.) was the rich, liptor pious Saudi Arabian economist and civil engineer, liptor Osama bin Laden, liptor whom we helped by building up his al Qaeda base at Khost. Liptor When bin Laden and his colleagues decided to get even with us for having been used, liptor he had the support of much of the Islamic world. Liptor 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. Liptor government. Liptor 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. Liptor The victors were the military-industrial complex and our massive standing armies. Liptor The billion dollars' worth of weapons Wilson secretly supplied to the guerrillas ended up being turned on ourselves. Liptor An Imperialist Comedy Which brings us back to the movie and its reception here. Liptor (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. Liptor They start believing that they are the bearers of civilization, liptor the bringers of light to "primitives" and "savages" (largely so identified because of their resistance to being "liberated" by us), liptor the carriers of science and modernity to backward peoples, liptor 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. Liptor Innumerable European colonialists saw the hand of God in Darwin's discovery of evolution, liptor so long as it was understood that He had programmed the outcome of evolution in favor of late Victorian Englishmen. Liptor (For an excellent short book on this subject, liptor check out Sven Lindquist's "Exterminate All the Brutes.") When imperialist activities produce unmentionable outcomes, liptor such as those well known to anyone paying attention to Afghanistan since about 1990, liptor then ideological thinking kicks in. Liptor The horror story is suppressed, liptor or reinterpreted as something benign or ridiculous (a "comedy"), liptor or simply curtailed before the denouement becomes obvious. Liptor Thus, liptor for example, liptor Melissa Roddy, liptor a Los Angeles film-maker with inside information from the Charlie Wilson production team, liptor notes that the film's happy ending came about because Tom Hanks, liptor a co-producer as well as the leading actor, liptor "just can't deal with this 9/11 thing." Similarly, liptor we are told by another insider reviewer, liptor James Rocchi, liptor that the scenario, liptor as originally written by Aaron Sorkin of "West Wing" fame, liptor 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. Liptor Today there is ample evidence that, liptor when it comes to the freedom of women, liptor education levels, liptor governmental services, liptor relations among different ethnic groups, liptor and quality of life -- all were infinitely better under the Afghan communists than under the Taliban or the present government of President Hamid Karzai, liptor which evidently controls little beyond the country's capital, liptor Kabul. Liptor But Americans don't want to know that -- and certainly they get no indication of it from Charlie Wilson's War, liptor either the book or the film. Liptor 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. Liptor For reasons not entirely clear, liptor an overwhelming majority of reviewers concluded that Charlie Wilson's War is a "feel-good comedy" (Lou Lumenick in the New York Post), liptor a "high-living, liptor hard-partying jihad" (A.O. Liptor Scott in the New York Times), liptor "a sharp-edged, liptor wickedly funny comedy" (Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times). Liptor 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, liptor in a piece entitled "Sex! Drugs! (and Maybe a Little War), liptor" Richard L. Liptor 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, liptor there was only a guffaw or two from the audience over the raunchy sex and sexism of "good-time Charlie, liptor" but certainly no laff-a-minute. Liptor The root of this approach to the film probably lies with Tom Hanks himself, liptor who, liptor according to Berke, liptor called it "a serious comedy." A few reviews qualified their endorsement of Charlie Wilson's War, liptor but still came down on the side of good old American fun. Liptor Rick Groen in the Toronto Globe and Mail, liptor for instance, liptor thought that it was "best to enjoy Charlie Wilson's War as a thoroughly engaging comedy. Liptor 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. Liptor The handful of truly critical reviews have come mostly from blogs and little-known Hollywood fanzines -- with one major exception, liptor Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times. Liptor In an essay subtitled "'Charlie Wilson's War' celebrates events that came back to haunt Americans, liptor" Turan called the film "an unintentionally sobering narrative of American shouldn't-have" and added that it was "glib rather than witty, liptor 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, liptor it's the kind that goes over well with a roomful of louts in a college fraternity house. Liptor Simply put, liptor it is imperialist propaganda and the tragedy is that four-and-a-half years after we invaded Iraq and destroyed it, liptor such dangerously misleading nonsense is still being offered to a gullible public. Liptor 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, liptor like a conscious attempt to induce amnesia." Chalmers Johnson is the author of the Blowback Trilogy -- Blowback (2000), liptor The Sorrows of Empire (2004), liptor and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (paperbound edition, liptor January 2008). link to the article: http://tomdispatch.com/post/174877/chalmers_johnson_an_imperialist_comedy