Let Them Eat Schools: An Entirely Hostile Review Of Charlie Wilson’s War

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.

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  1. #1 by Jim Wheeler on May 30, 2011 - 12:53 PM

    The last half century is littered with ill-considered and wasteful misuse of America’s military might. I blame it mainly on demagoguing politicians taking advantage of the public’s fears and partly on the cloud of secrecy surrounding military operations. Lyndon Johnson hoodwinked the public while playing on fears of Communism. George W. Bush leveraged 9/11 into an incredibly costly war and episode of nation-building. How costly? In case you missed it on the Erstwhile Conservative’s post this morning, Joseph Stiglitz made the case here:

    http://www2.gsb.columbia.edu/faculty/jstiglitz/download/speeches/International
    /2008_ChathamHouse_Iraq.pdf

    When you’ve got a hammer, everything looks like a nail, doesn’t it?

    Nice job – outstanding post, Keith.

    Jim

  2. #3 by Keith Spillett on May 30, 2011 - 2:22 PM

    3 trillion dollars in wars…Imagine what we could have done with that, Jim??? It staggers the mind.

    Duane does such an exceptional column. He seems to always be right on target.

    I couldn’t agree more with your response. Unfortunately, this has been a consistent trend regardless of which party has been running the country. Eisenhower was so prophetic in his military-industrial complex speech. I think he was the only President to completely grasp the danger we were getting ourselves into. Yet, his willingness to stand aside and let the Dulles brothers overthrow Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran and Jacobo Arbenz set the stage for years of illegal incursions into countries that did not ask for our involvement. Fighting the Cold War through proxies was seen as a better alternative then a full scale shooting war with the Soviets, but the damage that was caused was staggering. The world will be paying the cost from those proxy wars for generations to come.

    Chalmers Johnson has done some really illuminating work on the subject. Blowback is a tremendous book. Also, if you have a chance, check out Stephen Kinzer’s book All the Shah’s Men. It is, in my opinion, the best book written on the hidden toll of the Cold War.

  3. #4 by juan don on May 31, 2011 - 12:06 AM

    Keith,

    Chalmers Johnson should be required reading for every high school history class. It was a huge loss for historical honesty when he passed away. We’ve replaced the Cold War with the War on Terror.
    The question for post-Bush II “deficit hawks” should be this: how can America continue to finance endless war? Railing about the costs of Planned Parenthood and NPR is absurd in comparison to feeding what Eisenhower feared.

    By the way, if we ever get serious about containing health-care costs, both parties would agree that eliminating privately owned, for-profit insurance providers from the equation is the only sensible solution. The country is being held hostage by corporate enablers masquerading as public servants.

    I just turned Duane on to your blog. Along with Jim, he’s providing value to the paper’s online edition. Although Joplin is decidedly conservative, it’s unfortunate that the two bloggers who supposedly represent the right side of the aisle are parrots of talk radio/Fox News extremism. It’s enough for a liberal Democrat to miss the sane days when John Danforth and Bob Dole represented the Republican Party. It’s hard to imagine Reagan surviving in today’s far-right, reality impaired hothouse.

    Albert hit a home run this afternoon. Although it was in a losing effort, I’m taking the cup is half full approach. I’m just another hopeless romantic.

    • #5 by Keith Spillett on May 31, 2011 - 7:03 AM

      I did a bit of Johnson last year with the students. We talked a lot about the concept of blowback, but the writing was a bit thick so we did the ideas without the reading. I taught the whole Kinzer book in a unit on Iran and the kids loved it. I was sorry to hear of Johnson’s passing. He was an interesting fellow. Tremendous writer. He seemed to always have his picture taken with that weird looking cat he owned!

      Here’s Chalmers with the cat….Chalmers cat picture

      I find myself saying positive things about Eisenhower a lot lately. I simply cannot imagine him inhabiting the same party as Michelle Bachmann and Rick Santorum. Joe McCarthy would have dug their act, but not Eisenhower. He would have probably been appalled by the whole charade.

      I’m with you on the health care idea. It’s depressing to think that on most of the issues that are relevant, neither party has what could be called an effective or articulate position.

      Albert will be on a Tulowitski-esque binge anytime soon. I hope for your sake he doesn’t. Those homeruns are going to be pretty expensive come November!!!!!

  4. #6 by Austen Pacini on May 31, 2011 - 12:14 PM

    having seen this movie i feel compelled to comment on your analysis of it, as far as Charlie funding a dictator, so did: Reagan, Bush and all most any senator or congressman who served in the 80’s (not condoning it, but anyone watching a political movie should know that there are going to be some skeletons who stay in the closet, secondly, one of the reasons it took us so long to find Mr. Bin Laden is his massive popularity among many of those 3rd world countries in the middle east and adjacent areas. why was/ is he so popular? cause he invested in infrastructure (aka roads, businesses, public works, mosques, SCHOOLS and especially important if your being blown up all the time HOSPITALS!) the conclusion: a lot of these people hate us because all we do is come in, destroy and leave, which means that there are massive swaths of populations left banging rocks together trying to scratch a living. This brutal existence leads high levels of illiteracy and ignorance which are then preyed upon buy radical groups such as Al Qaeda and Hamas, who do put money into infrastructure (when they are not trying to blow up the US or Israel) What does all this mean? we created our own enemies by mistreating our fair weather allies, a great deal of which could have been avoided if the time and energy were taken to try and ensure that these countries could fend for themselves, this being said, it is extremely expensive to start a country, just take a look at Iraq (which now a much safer place than Afghanistan, ask anyone shipping out) so the US should factor that into any war budget in the future. So ultimately i don’t think that building schools excuses a covert war, but stop us from turning our own allies against us

    • #7 by Keith Spillett on May 31, 2011 - 4:24 PM

      Hey Austen! Long time no speak. Spectrecide sounds excellent! Thanks for the comment.

      I feel like we would be better off taking greater consideration of the long term effects of our foreign policy decisions. Hopefully, we will learn from our mistakes and not continue to make them.

  5. #8 by afrankangle on June 1, 2011 - 7:53 AM

    Dang … a heck of a lot that I didn’t know. Then again, there is always a lot more to the story than most of us realize. Many thanks.

  6. #10 by John Erickson on June 2, 2011 - 3:51 PM

    By the by, Keith, as to the arming of the Mujaheddin? Check out the 80s’ footage – most of them are firing British WW2 Lee-Enfield rifles. The Brits were cleaning out their inventories, switching over to automatic rifles, and we bought a TON of them dirt cheap to hand over to the Afghans. Guess what they did with the cash? They went south for the summer – WAY south, little place called the Falklands.
    Nice to know they put the money to good use! 😀

    • #11 by Keith Spillett on June 2, 2011 - 4:39 PM

      Nice! Never heard that story before. I’ve been really disappointed that no one has invaded the Falkland Islands recently I hear they are harboring some of the X-Men.

      • #12 by John Erickson on June 2, 2011 - 5:40 PM

        Hey, if you get HD Movie Network on your cable/satellite, you can watch “Charlie Wilson’s War” again! It’s a shame they didn’t do more footage on Charlie’s office staff. 😉

  7. #13 by Keith Spillett on June 2, 2011 - 5:51 PM

    Nah…once a week is enough for me. I’m going to stick to test patterns for the next few weeks.

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