Charlie Wilson’s War is a highly entertaining film. It is funny, fast-paced and extremely well acted. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is captivating as Gust Avrakoto, the cynical, highly skilled CIA agent who helps Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) and Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) finance a covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Apparently, you can make a good-natured, romantic comedy out of nearly anything nowadays.
The film sets out to make “Good Time” Charlie Wilson, the hard drinking, womanizing Democratic politician from Texas, out to be the greatest American hero since Abe Lincoln. Sure, he’s got some character flaws, but when it comes down to it he worked hard for the cause of freedom and democracy. Blah, blah, blah. I personally could care less about his love for whiskey, his multiple girlfriends, his cocaine use or whether he was a good juggler or not. His decisions as a Congressman are what disturb me. The halo simply does not fit.
Afghanistan was not Wilson’s first crusade. He spent much of the late 1970s championing the cause of Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza Debayle, Nicaraguan dictator and serial human rights abuser. Somoza’s reign of corruption was legendary. He was best known for stealing millions of dollars that were supposed to go the victims of the devastating 1972 Managua Earthquake. To Wilson, Somoza was not the evil bucket of slime that tortured and murdered just about anyone who disagreed with him publicly while robbing his country blind. Somoza was a great representative of America in the fight against communism. The dictators big mistake was to get drunk and attempt to make a move on Wilson’s girlfriend, Tina Simons. It was only at that point that Wilson decided that Somoza was, in fact, not a great representative of truth, justice and the American Way. This is not to say that Wilson was entirely awful. He was a very complex man who made some important contributions while in office. He also gave aid and comfort to a monster. The second part was apparently not significant enough to make the final cut of the movie (the book by George Crile does cover this in detail).
The movie focuses on Wilson’s role in arming the Afghan rebels against the Soviet Union. The film uses the familiar Russians=Evil theme that was quite popular in Cold War propaganda movies. At least in Red Dawn we saw the Russians doing something beyond killing innocent people for a few frames. The only Russians in this film are the ones shooting unarmed peasants from the sky or getting shot down by American supplied Stinger missiles.
It’s easy to find fault with what the hideous actions taken by the Russians in Afghanistan. The problem with how the Russians are portrayed in this film is two-fold. First of all, it is mindlessly simplistic and creates the idea that the war was an easily understood battle between good and evil. It was not. The second problem is that it supports the widely accepted narrative that the Russians were solely at fault for the war. In fact, evidence exists to the contrary. Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor under Jimmy Carter, has stated that the United States began arming the mujahedeen fighters, who were trying to overthrow the Soviet backed government, months before the Russian invasion. The goal, according to Brzezinski, was to “knowingly increase the probability” that the Soviets would invade. Can you imagine what the reaction of the United States would have been if the Russians were caught doing the same thing in Mexico? This is extremely significant because it clashes with the official story of how the war began. Through the lens of Brzezinski’s comments, Charlie Wilson was not simply helping out a group of people fighting to free themselves from the Soviets, but rather was continuing a pattern of expensive and wrongheaded U.S. intervention into sovereign nations that wreaked havoc across the world.
The film ends with a strange postscript. Wilson is recognized as a hero for getting weapons into the hands of the mujahedeen and helping to end Soviet dominance in the region. However, when he tries to get a million dollars in aid to the Afghans after the war he is rebuffed. A Wilson quote about us winning the war but messing up the endgame runs across the screen right before the credits. The message seems to be that it was totally justified to give over a billion of dollars to arm a group of Islamic radicals, but we should have built some schools. Are you kidding me? The largest covert war in American history is fine as long as we build a few schools at the end? As if throwing a few bucks into rebuilding the infrastructure of the country can somehow compensate for the untold damage that arming and training many future Taliban members caused.
The idea is reminiscent of some of the crackpot schemes hatched by Kennedy/Johnson advisor Walt Whitman Rostow. He was the guy who decided we could win the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese by taking them off of their land and moving them to fancy, new, isolated towns called Strategic Hamlets. The Vietnamese didn’t want our makeshift Levittowns, they just wanted us to leave. The common thread in this logic is that United States intervention is justified as long as the people get something that we deem valuable out of it. Sometimes the greatest gift we can give a country is to leave them alone. Unfortunately, this message is entirely absent from Charlie Wilson’s War. It is replaced with the twisted idea that the U.S. can plant its flag anywhere it wants as long it brings “civilization” and modernity with it.