Charlie Wilson’s War
Author: Blog Critic Books and Ex Libris Book Review
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on 12/08/2009
In today’s context Charlie Wilson’s War can serve as a great insight to the complications and delicacy of the “War on Terrorism.” After all, the international community is greatly concerned with the state of Afghanistan in particular, regarding the harboring of terrorists.
However, with the insight of Charlie Wilson’s War, the involvement the U.S. in Afghanistan around the Cold War era could be seen as a direct link to the creation of these so-called “terrorists.” A historical insight of the actions taken by the U.S. to defeat the Russians provides many lessons for current international relations. The “War on Terrorism” has been a tool of U.S. foreign policy for around seven years now; perhaps citizens and politicians alike should remember the saga of Afghanistan, the operations conducted there; if these facts are accurately recalled, perhaps the international community will realize that the anti-terrorism policies being used today are necessary only because of the communistic ‘threat’ of the Cold War. The propagation of fear of “the other” has been a tool of governments and power-holders for decades, this polarization is created only for the interests of a few. Charlie Wilson’s War reminds us of the danger of polarization, power-struggle, and global policy catering to the interests of a few.
“When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.”
– Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Young British Soldier’
When you study history in school, everything seems very structured and comprehensive, very coherent when viewed through the lense of economics and cause-and-effect. History is all about treaties and laws, trade, economic theory, statesmen and the hard realism of power….but then, time and time again, as you flip through the pages of history, they come at you – rollicking out of the mist with some grand wild-eyed vision, a chaotic elemental force that just seems to skew everything sideways…and at the end of the day you are left surveying an empire in ruins, millions of people freed from oppression and a blowback that is today, still only barely understood or acknowledged.
At the end of the day, Zia ul Haq’s observation “Charlie did it” rings utterly true.
Charlie Wilson was a womanizing, alcoholic wastrel, East Texas congressman, best known for his booming voice, drinking, congressional junkets and proclivity for showgirls and Playboy bunnies. He was also the hinge and the catalyst for the largest covert operation in history – the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
Charlie Wilson’s War is, quite frankly, an extraordinary piece of work. George Crile, a producer for the television news show 60 Minutes, has put together a vivid and fascinating book that tellingly examines how a U.S. congressman essentially hijacked U.S. foreign policy into supporting the Afghan mujahidin to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
This quixotic politician became obsessed with the plight of Afghanistan, the Afghan people, and with taking the fight to the Soviets directly. This passionate ambition (or obsession depending on your perspective) brought Wilson into play initially as the primary critic of the CIA’s early efforts in Afghanistan, and through his political machinations, almost single-handedly pushed the CIA into a far more active covert role than they had planned. The operation evolved into one of the most critical centerpieces of the Cold War and a major contributing factor in the collapse of the USSR.
Crile’s ability to draw vivid and motivated portrayals of the many people working with Charlie Wilson is one of the defining characteristics of this compulsively readable book. Charlie Wilson was aided in his endeavors by an unlikely and diverse cast of characters including Gust Avrokotos, a street-smart, “working-class” CIA agent of Greek-American descent, adrift in a sea of bureaucratic Ivy League “cake-eaters”; code-breakers, eccentric politicians trading favors and committee funding votes, suicidal mujahidin, Israeli weapons dealers, the President of Pakistan Zia ul Haq (who seemed to find a kindred spirit in Charlie Wilson), a Dallas housewife turned belly-dancer and an ex-Green Beret who helped turn the mujahidin into an effective and deadly army of peasant techno-guerillas. Maybe too effective…
The result of Charlie Wilson’s obsession was eventually 25,000 dead Russian soldiers…and a profoundly changed world.
I have just three words to emphasis: Read. The. Book. It is simply terrific.
EX LIBRIS BOOK REVIEWS
Charlie Wilson’s War – George Crile
September 11th made it clear that thousands of Afghans armed and trained by the U.S. had become terrorists with the US now in their sights. How did Afghanistan become a training ground for terrorists? George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War is the story of how one man, U.S. Congressman Charlie Wilson, Rep. Texas, almost single-handedly launched the several billion dollar CIA operation in Afghanistan to force out the occupying Soviets, without a vote in Congress, and without the clear approval of the President. What started as barely a nuisance campaign turned into the greatest covert operation in CIA history.
Charlie Wilson’s War is a highly entertaining, eye-opening, sobering book. Entertaining because of Crile’s journalistic writing and the in-depth character studies of the main players: Charlie Wilson – a charismatic, boozing, womanizing, ruggedly tall and handsome, ne’er-do-well Congressman from the Texas bible belt and Gust Arvakotos – a street-fighter Greek-American CIA agent whose aggressive and “earthy” behavior clashed with the blue-blood establishment at Langley. Highlighted as well are a string of beautiful, seductive women who inspired and accompanied Charlie to the Mid East, Michael Vickers – a brilliant strategist whose approach of diverse weaponry led to the ultimate Soviet retreat, and many many others. The book is eye-opening because of the exposure of all the back-room politics that went into play in order for this war to get off the ground. Trading favors and buying influence is how things actually get done in Washington. If you want to be where the power is, sit on the Defense Appropriations Committee. They’re the ones who dole out the bucks – defense contracts in your state. The story is sobering because well, the escalation of conflict in that area caused the deaths of thousands of Russian solders and hundreds of thousands of Afghans. And, after the Soviets pulled out, in the power vacuum that was created, the Afghans turned on each other with the weapons and training we gave them.
This book is a great read. I spent three nights in a row up until 1:30 a.m. reading it, only putting it down when the words started to blur.
Vengeance and Being Born Again
Additional Resources from Blog Critic:
For some historical perspective on Afghanistan and its role as a crossroads of empire (and a relentless eater of foreign armies), I highly recommend Peter Hopkirk’s The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia, and that timeless classic Kim by Rudyard Kipling.
For a slightly different, very moving and evocative take on Afghanistan check out An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot, a first-rate travel book that was published just after 9-11.
Interested in what Afghanistan looks like? Be sure to check out National Geographic’s Afghanistan in Crisis site. Also check out the University of Texas’s Afghanistan Map Collection and get a look at life in Afghanistan here, here and here.
As a crossroads between Islam and Buddhism, Afghanistan and Central Asia are a priceless archaeological treasure trove, albeit one that has been difficult, if not impossible to study in recent years. Find out more at Central Asia Archaeology or if you are feeling ambitious, read another solid work by Peter Hopkirk called Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for the Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia.
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Footnote: These two book reviews below were first published on alternative media websites: Blogcritics and Ex Libris Book Reviews.