Another look at "Charlie Wilson’s War"

Chalmers Johnson, the author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, reacts to the Hollywood-version of U.S. support for the Afghan mujahideen as portrayed in the film, “Charlie Wilson’s War“, and he’s none too pleased:

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.

I can’t say I disagree with Johnson’s take on the film, which he calls “imperialist propganda”, though I was a bit more forgiving in my own review last month. While the film was indeed superficial in its account of the history of U.S. involvement with the mujahideen — and laughably jingoistic in its portrayal of Russian soldiers — I wasn’t expecting much to begin with, Hollywood being what it is. That said, I did find Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal of a CIA agent to be pretty entertaining, if only for his obscenity-laced tirades against his higher-ups at the agency.

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About Charles Davis

A writer and producer with whose work has aired on television and radio and been published by outlets such as Al Jazeera, The Intercept, The Nation and The New Republic.
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