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Rep. Charles Wilson. (Photo: Houston Chronicle).
News and Opinion

Meditations on Charlie Wilson's War

-- Ben Burrows

Charlie Wilson’s War, scripted by West Wing creator Aaron Sorkin, and directed by liberal director Mike Nichols, depicts Representative Charles Wilson, and his seduction by the CIA and unscrupulous political sponsors, to finance the mujahadeen in Afghanistan, whose training eventually resulted in the emergence of Osama Bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban. The movie presentation makes Wilson a central figure in establishing, financing, and arming these fighters.

This ought to strike an odd chord, for both Republicans and Democrats since Republicans have been claiming for years that only Ronald Reagan’s initiative was involved, and that Democrats were only peripherally involved in the Afghan rebellion, which "brought down the Soviet Union." Interestingly, Tom Hanks’ portrayal has people all around Wilson (notably Julia Roberts’ Joanne Herring) motivated by beating the Soviets at their own game with a war of liberation against a cruel and technologically masterful Russian invasion.

The casting of everyman Tom Hanks in the Wilson role was serendipitous. Hanks has a reputation for giving credibility even to characters whose personalities are very different from his own ("Philadelphia"), and for delivering wry humorous remarks which the audience will take at face value ("Big"). In addition, Hanks bears some physical resemblance to the Congressman.

Wilson was an unabashed Texas liberal, whose 2nd Congressional District lies adjacent to Lyndon Johnson's 10th. Nichols, early on, stages a scene where a local fire chief protests an ACLU lawsuit preventing the placement of a Christmas creche at his fire house. Hanks's Wilson is quick to point out that there are several churches only a short distance from the fire house, where such a lawsuit would have no effect. Moreover, Wilson's championship of Afghan resistance to Soviet conquest is won not by Joanne Herring's (Julia Roberts) appeals to anti-Communist victory, but by his own empathy for the displaced Afghans fleeing Soviet military technological mass brutality.

The director of "Charlie Wilson's War," Mike Nichols, even before he began making movies, was fascinated with the idea of portraying uncomfortable people, and in making his audiences uncomfortable. His comedy routines with Elaine May from the 1960's are classics in discomfort: "My Son the Nurse!" seems by today's standards almost sexist in its concern for sexual role models; but its portrayal of a son reporting to his 1950's parents that he wants to be a registered nurse toys with such roles in such a liberating way that it opened the door for discussions which only much later became mired in the swamp of political correctness. Nichols broke into film directing Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" with its characteristic harsh gamesmanship and vicious comic timing. His second picture, "The Graduate," won him the Best Director Oscar in 1968 -- paying attention both to the discomfort of Ben Braddock's (Dustin Hoffman) aimless post-college return to a reality of unfamiliar demands, and to the multiple betrayals in which he participates.

"Charlie Wilson’s War" should make all of us uncomfortable. For those on the left who would like to give Reagan and his political descendants all the credit for germinating Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, Charlie Wilson of Nichols’ creation remains an ambiguous figure. His concern for the Afghan people was manipulated by cynical CIA operatives like Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) -- who may have anticipated the dire consequences of giving tactical training and high-tech weapons to Muslim religious fanatics ("We'll see!") – even if they failed to explicitly failed to warn Wilson of the dire consequences he was setting in motion. Wilson's later concern for humanitarian follow-up was ignored by his neocon colleagues, who co-opted Wilson's earlier initiative as their own, and then left the putative Afghan democrats without resources or even a fig-leaf alliance. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda followed shortly after. Charlie Wilson retired at the time of the Gingrich "revolution.".

Some of the more interesting parallels of the movie with our current Iraq military adventure ought to make us equally uncomfortable. Afghanistan was a war we fought without United States troops being directly involved (at least officially) on Afghan soil. It was performed by arming Afghan patriots, and later, with other fighters from many countries volunteering to drive out the Western infidels (Russian) and to spread the hegemony of sharia law. By contrast, Iraq was almost entirely fought with United States troops, and our commitment there appears to grow more exclusive with time. Iraqi "patriots" for the Green Zone government often quit their military and police positions almost as soon as they completed their training.

Tom Engelhardt is equally puzzled: "Two well-known entertainment-industry liberals, director Mike Nichols and Aaron Sorkin (the man responsible for "The West Wing"), have tried to take possession of part of that great anti-Soviet Afghan jihad for… well, whom? The Democratic Party? As hopeless an undertaking as this was, there was only one way to turn it and its horrific aftermath into a feel-good, celebratory liberal film. So they wrote all the Reaganauts out of the picture, which meant excising history from history. They created a movie in which neither Ronald Reagan, nor William Casey even exists. You could easily think that the Afghan operation had simply been run by Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson and a low-level CIA agent more or less on their own."

If Nichols and Sorkin had meant the movie to be a warning to the American people not to be seduced by magical warfare solutions, either the studio lost this meaning on the cutting room floor, or the artists took for granted an audience political sophistication which even sympathetic audiences had trouble absorbing.

For those on the right, Wilson's efforts reveal the lie in the Reaganite claim that Republicans were solely responsible for defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan. Wilson's campaign to arm the Afghans, in fact, began before Reagan was even elected, during the Carter administration. The movie is not clear on time frame, appearing to compress the time from 1980 to 1983 as if it were part of a single Congressional session. It is only after the final set of negotiations that Reagan's picture makes its appearance on an office wall.

Magical solutions to political problems through warfare were not confined to the 1980’s. More recently, our adventure in Iraq may apparently have been approved out of similar good intentions, and similar magical thinking. More recently, the President’s surge strategy has been touted for a reduction in civilian deaths (to the levels that existed two years ago). Others might point to the more recent political changes in the United States: with the real possibility that American troops would be withdrawn, and that the Green Zone Welfare Sheikhs’ gravy train would come to an end, our Iraqi "allies" found it in their interest to muzzle Muqtada al-Sadr, and to join forces with "coalition" troops against Wahabi foreign invaders, out to spread Al Qaeda’s ultra-conservative strain of Islam. If that is the explanation, the only real surge may have belonged to the Democratic candidates for President.

Instead of seeing Charlie Wilson as a hero, with conservative objectives concealed in liberal Democratic clothing, perhaps it is more realistic to view him as a well-motivated dupe, deceived by those determined to subvert Wilson’s very humanitarianism, to abandon both Wilson and the Afghan people in their short moment of triumph. It is worth noting in Hanks’s previous movie, Cast Away, the character "Wilson" is played by a waterlogged volleyball

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