Good Time Charlie’s War

George Crile (Charlie Wilson’s War, 2003) credits the Houston Congressman with convincing House Members to overcome their valid doubts and keep funding Zia ul Haq.  Members knew in 1979 that the Pakistani dictator had overthrown and murdered President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (Benazir‘s father), that his human rights record was abominable, and that he fostered a nuclear weapons program realized in 1998.

You won’t learn this (or about Wilson’s support for Nicaraguan tyrant Anastasio Somoza) from Hollywood’s Charlie Wilson’s War.   Mike Nichols’ new film, starring Tom Hanks as the “good time” anti-communist congressman, and Julia Roberts as a dyed-blond, super-wealthy Ann Coulter type who says God intended the CIA to provide Afghan refugees with Stinger missiles to shoot down Soviet planes.  Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a street-smart Afghan desk chief.  Unfortunately, this assemblage of talent cannot dissolve Hollywood’s formula.  Instead of shining light on current bloody affairs in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the movie follows box office instinct: obscure the important; stress the personal.  Another high budget glossy exercise in banality!

“How did we get into this mess?” asks a man waiting behind me at the supermarket checkout while reading the headlines.  In other words, why should U.S. Middle East and Persian Gulf involvement impact lives of citizens of the Republic?  “Oil,” many will say.  But few Americans think of themselves as citizens of the world’s most powerful empire.  Traditional explanations blame foreigners or impulsive Presidents for inflicting “messes” on our country albeit the U.S. motives always result from noble attempts to bring democracy and justice to lesser peoples.

History texts have parroted “noble intentions” motives for U.S. policy from “the war to end war” (WWI), through the war “to bring democracy to the Middle East” (Iraq).  Films and TV series assume the U.S. has shouldered the burden of world management as an unfortunate obligation.  Hollywood often promotes supposedly political releases as “based on a true story.”  A hero intervenes in other countries’ affairs to save the world, or rescue a babe.

Mike Nichols used this formula for Charlie Wilson’s War.  He assembled worthy actors to show how a noble, naïve, and fun-loving American — with no righteous cause through which to vent his sexually oriented energies — can push U.S. power to stumble and bumble its way into the contemporary quagmire of Middle Eastern wars and Al Qaeda terrorism.

The endearing Congressman serves wealthy patrons from his congressional office while luxuriating naked with strippers, drinks, and cocaine in a hot tub.  Then, serendipitously, his eye glances at Dan Rather on TV disguised as a mujahid broadcasting from Afghanistan, describing the virtuous plight of those anti-communist rebels.

Charlie experiences an epiphany, blows off the babes, and sets out to redeem himself — like Forrest Gump with more developed faculties pursuing his soul’s upright path: even though the Afghan rebels believe in Islam, their anti-communism serves as a redeeming virtue, as if God created commies so that good guys could slay them.

This film recipe requires a stodgy bureaucracy to overcome.  The late 1970s CIA fills the bill, having lost its appetite for costly covert adventures in far off places — and rightly so.  Since the Agency lacks the will to push Congress for more money to supply eager anti-commies, Charlie — with Joanne’s moral and sexual support — convinces his Committee chairman that freedom-loving Americans need to kill bad Russians.

Although eager to pursue the build-up of the covert weapons budget from $5 million to over $1 billion, the CIA heavy — Gust Avrakotos, a take-no-shit Greek-American, head of the Afghan desk — introduces mild ambiguity to temper the zeal of the playboy Congressman.  Noble intentions don’t always produce positive results.  An instant of wisdom in a foolish film!  The real Avrakotos advised the Greek colonels who overthrew the government in 1967 and helped them establish a dictatorship.

Hanks and Roberts run the obstacle gauntlet — another adventure film prescription.  The audience hopes lover-boy cum missionary will persuade more cynical Committee members to vote taxpayers’ money to satisfy the righteous Afghan patriots.  Nichols shows refugees in Pakistan begging for food and pleading for weapons.  With hand-held ground-to-air missiles and anti-tank weapons they can destroy the evil Soviets and reclaim their country for Allah.

The film characters neglect to mention that these Russian killers hated not just communism but anything Western.  Nichols says he intended to create “moral ambiguity” — raise questions but not offer answers.  “You don’t know the consequences of any act,” Nichols says.  “You don’t know good things from bad things when they’re coming at you, and sometimes [you don’t know] for 10 or 20 years, or ever — because good and bad things keep turning into one another” (NPR Morning Edition, Dec. 20, 2007),

Some lessons get learned, like not touching hot stoves; but not the lesson of initiating expensive covert operations to alter other people’s destinies, especially if you’re ignorant of the nature of people you’re arming and financing!  Mike Nichols shows Pakistani tyrants and generals as sincere anti-communist allies at a time when they coveted the aid to help develop nuclear weapons and promote an Islamic state.

Charlie Wilson and the anorexic Herring — like CIA fanatics — wanted to win the Cold War.  For them, freedom meant everyone should be able to sit naked in a hot tub, sip whiskey, and snort coke.  But, by the 1980s, the CIA knew the futility of trying to export the U.S. order.  The Vietnam War was only five years gone.  More importantly, the CIA knew Cold War propaganda had inflated the Soviet threat and underestimated its weakness.  Indeed, looking back, the Cold War provided rationalization for financing unnecessary weapons, as if sophisticated nuclear technology would protect the world against Soviet threats and provide democracy.  Now that same expensive crap drains the U.S. budget — seventeen years after the excuse, USSR, imploded.  The original motive for super costly nukes and lush covert ops has disappeared.  But the dangerous spiral of nuclear weapons production continues while Bush announces a new covert op plan for Pakistan in the wake of Bhuto’s assassination.

Covert operations don’t forge democracy.  They smash it as they did in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Brazil (1964), Indonesia (1965), Greece (1967), Chile (1970-73) — to name a few examples.  U.S. policy subverts democracy; it doesn’t spread it.  Even in Charlie’s war, government officials ignored post-Soviet Afghanistan planning; they only wanted to “win.”

Charlie’s humanitarian impulse runs rampant in liberal culture.  Help poor Afghans solve problems so they can have a decent country — as if!  Where was this humanitarian impulse when Nixon and Kissinger decided in 1970 to overthrow Allende and his elected government in Chile?

The imperial conspirators like Nixon and Kissinger collaborated with “Quiet Americans” (the CIA anti-hero from Graham Greene’s novel) and fashioned and idealized rhetoric to sell the public myths: the government wants to improve third world life, so those ignorant people will adopt U.S. commercial culture and get happy like Charlie.

Do-good Charlie helped Afghanistan on its road to Hell.  The Soviets — like the U.S. in Vietnam — slaughtered civilians after they intervened in late 1979, but ironically key U.S. officials had hoped the Soviets would invade.  Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, wanted to draw the Russians into “the Afghan trap.”  Zbig told Le Nouvel Observateur that “The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.”  Carter agreed and in July 1979 authorized covert aid to the mujahadeen.

Charlie facilitated and enlarged a small-scale process.  By personifying the Afghan covert op, Hollywood trivialized human tragedy, turning a volatile congressional clown into good box office.

Aaron Sorkin’s script avoids sticky details: who received the $1 billion released by Charlie’s largesse and what did they do with it?  The real Charlie became Santa Claus to corrupt war lords.  In post-Soviet Afghanistan these heavies battled each other, creating conditions that allowed the Taliban to prevail.

The movie ends with Wilson pleading to fellow Committee Members in vain for a million dollars for Afghan schools.  The film does show Congress eschewing interest in aid that’s not for fighting commies, terrorists, or drug cartels.  The CIA honors Charlie.  The screen goes blank.  “It was a glorious victory and then we f’d up the endgame.”

Huh?  A chess match?  A morality tale?  Or a film to justify naked partying and coke snorting as partners to noble life causes, like fighting communism?  In the end, freedom and fun go together in America — like marriage and divorce, life and suicide, aiding anti-communist Afghan guerrillas in the 1980s and getting terrorized on 9/11/2001!

Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies Fellow.  Read his A Bush and Botox World.  See his We Don’t Play Golf Here — And Other Stories of Globalization in Mexico on DVD through  This article first appeared in the 17-23 January 2008 issue of Progreso

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