Charlie Wilson’s War, the Culture of Imperialism and the Distortion of History

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By Jeremy Kuzmarov ||| Dateline: 12-31-07


Mujahedin pose triumphantly atop Soviet Hind helicopter they brought down in 1979, in the Panjsher valley, north of Kabul.

The Hollywood propaganda machine never sleeps. With the advent of television and Murdochmedia, people forget that it was Hollywood who for generations indoctrinated Americans about the “nobility” of America’s Manifest Destiny and the sanctity of US military actions.

In his provocative 1993 book, Culture and Imperialism, Edward W. Said examines how cultural representations in the West have historically helped to stereotype Third World peoples as being passively reliant on foreign aid for their social and political uplift, thus engendering support for imperial interventions ostensibly undertaken for humanitarian purposes. This was true, he argued, even in works critical of Western interventions, like Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, where the indigenous characters appear to be either incidental to the story or dependent on Westerners (as is exemplified in the Vietnamese character Phuong who latches onto the “quiet American” Alden Pyle as a means of escaping a life of poverty and prostitution).

Said’s final chapters focus on Hollywood’s promotion of demeaning stereotypes of Arabs as religious fanatics and terrorists and universally oppressive towards women. He highlights, further, how the Vietnamese people in most American films on the war have been deprived of human agency, with the U.S. defeat frequently blamed on ineffectual liberal bureaucrats and incompetent senior officers rather than the strength of Vietnamese nationalism and mobilizing abilities of the revolutionary leadership. Said would likely argue that Charlie Wilson’s War is the latest Hollywood blockbuster to promote underlying cultural stereotypes of Third World peoples and Muslims, while sanitizing the American record and its promotion of imperial violence.

Based loosely on true events, the film focuses on the efforts of a Congressional representative from Texas, Charlie Wilson, to raise funds for mujahadin “freedom fighters” seeking to “liberate” Afghanistan from the Soviets. A playboy renowned for his womanizing and high-lifestyle, Wilson becomes a lonely voice in support of the CIA’s covert war. He works closely with Gust Avrakatos, a master of the clandestine arts and supporter of a fascist coup in Greece (a fact unmentioned by the director), who uses underhanded methods to funnel supplies through intermediaries in the Pakistani secret service. In the mould of Dirty Harry and Rambo, both Wilson and Avrakatos are portrayed as heroes for circumventing bureaucratic constraints and confronting the Russians – even if it entails making a quid-pro quo with the murderous Pakistani dictator Zia Al Huq as well buying arms from a shadowy Israeli black-marketer.

While the film is accurate in portraying the ends justifies the means philosophy embraced by the CIA and its alliance with murderous dictators, one major distortion is that the directors portray U.S. policy in Afghanistan as being largely reactive to the Soviet threat and a product of a well-intentioned desire to “save” the Afghan people. This ignores the aggressive policies pursued by Washington throughout the Cold War, its sponsorship of massive state terror in Central America at this time, and its long-standing desire to exploit the Middle-East’s oil supply. It further ignores comments made by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the National Security Adviser under Jimmy Carter, who told Le Monde in a 1998 interview: “According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the mujahadin began during 1980, that is to say after the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan, 24 December 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until now, is completely otherwise. Indeed it was July 3, 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion the aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.” He added: “What is more important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred up Muslims or the liberation of central Europe and the end of the cold war? Now we can give the Russians their Vietnam War.” Where exactly does the well-being of the Afghan people fit in this grand design?


Afghan villagers conferring with Western advisers during the Afghan-Soviet War.

The most egregious misrepresentation of the film is in its portrayal of the mujahadin as being inexperienced in the handling of weapons and idealistic refugees fighting for the salvation of their people. This obscures that the CIA often shunned legitimate nationalists like Abdul Haq in favor of militant Islamic fundamentalists seeking to impose a fascist theocratic state along the mold of the Taliban. Among Washington’s key favorites was Gulbuddin Hikmatyar of the Hizb-Y Islami, who was valued for his hard-line anti-communism in spite of a reputation for abject ruthlessness. Hikmatyar was also a renowned opium smuggler and warlord, and was alleged to have sprayed acid in the faces of women who did not wear the veil. One of his colleagues referred to him as “a true monster,” though he allegedly impressed the CIA (revealing something of its character) by wanting to take the war against the Soviets to Central Asia and roll back communism in Kazakhstan, Azerbajaan and Uzbekistan. One CIA officer said, “We wanted to kill as many Russians as we could, and Hikmatyar seemed like the guy to do it.”

Whitewashing these facts and over-sentimentalizing the CIA-mujahadin alliance, the film makes it seem as if they were genuine “liberators” who did not harm any civilians and whose ultimate victory over the Soviets represented a great moral triumph. The producers also imply that the chaos that ensued in Afghanistan after the war resulted from rogue forces taking over the country – ignoring the impact of their training in terrorist methods by the CIA (including specialization in high explosives). The agency of Afghans, moreover, is denied. In one telling scene, which fits with Said’s model, a group of rag-tag Afghani refugees beg Wilson for weapons and financial aid. After Wilson is able to deliver on his promise through intensive lobbying, the same men are shown struggling to maneuver a stinger missile and finally succeed in destroying a Russian aircraft bombing their village. Within a short time, a huge number of Soviet fighter planes are shot down and the mighty Russian Army is forced to retreat. Wilson’s support coupled with Avrakatos’s street savvy and guile appear as the key determining factors shaping this outcome – rather than the ingenuity of the Afghan resistance and will of its people.

The stereotype of Afghan dependence on the West remains entrenched at the end of the film. The lack of effective governance after the Soviet withdrawal and resultant suffering of the Afghan people is blamed on Congressional unwillingness to carry on the crusade further and build hospitals and roads for the country. One Congressmen is quoted as saying, “Who the hell cares about building hospitals or schools in Pakistan?” While this quote may convey where the true priorities of the government lie, there is no implication that the U.S. had contributed significantly to the destabilization of the country by helping to induce the original Soviet invasion, or would go on to support the Taliban while seeking to construct an oil pipeline through the country (as is documented for example in Mahmood Mamdani’s book, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim). Neither is there any recognition that indigenous leaders might be able to develop the country independent of Western patronage or support.

Viewers are left with the image of Afghans as being a helpless people, whose fate is dependent on political actions in the United States. The message is that Americans should intervene more in foreign countries to alleviate their miseries – notwithstanding the reality that U.S. policy is usually based on underlying geo-hegemonic and economic agendas and frequently contributes to mass human-rights violations and suffering, as in Afghanistan and Iraq today. By sanitizing and distorting history, and presenting Western militarism as a force for good, films like Charlie Wilson’s War ultimately help to perpetuate the ideological mindset shaping continued foreign policy blunders and crimes of historic dimensions, which the American public has yet to fully come to terms with.

Mr. Kuzmarov is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Bucknell University. His first book, The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs, will be published by the University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst.

Originally at George Mason University’s History News Network

[For further elucidation of this topic, see pertinent comments accompanying the original post and spotlighted by the editors below.]
8 comments on “Charlie Wilson’s War, the Culture of Imperialism and the Distortion of History
  1. [NOTE: THIS IS PART OF ORIGINAL COMMENTS AT HNN]

    Edward Said? You must be kidding (#117331)
    by N. Friedman on December 30, 2007 at 10:10 PM
    Charlie Wilson’s War does not demean people. Wilson’s effort to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan may or may not have been good one. One has to wonder about whether it was such a good idea.

    On the other hand, the movie portrayal of the Afghanis is extremely sympathetic. It shows the suffering such people endured at the hands of the Soviet military. And it shows Afghanis risking limb and life to drive the Soviets out.

    The movie’s portrayal of General Haq of Pakistan, a religious fanatic, is not sympathetic. He was, for the record, a vicious dictator who did much to bring Islamist politics front and center in his country.

    Some people really are fanatics. Some cultures have been overtaken by fanaticism. Islamist ideology, which has large numbers of adherents in the Muslim regions, is a fanatical ideology, willing to use any means to advance its aims. Denying that reality is a delusion.

    Saidist BSing makes it more difficult to investigate this fanatical ideology, not to mention a serious study of the Muslim regions and Islam. The impact of pseudo-analysis such as the Saidist one is eliminate critical examination of a society, by making believe that descriptions of fanaticism serve a political, rather than a scholarly, agenda.

    In fact, Saidists have a political agenda which, at present, is served by not criticizing the Islamist agenda. Hence, nonsense articles such as the one here.

    As for the movie, it was not bad. In fact, it was pretty good as entertainment and as a study of a particular type of politician.

    Re: Edward Said? You must be kidding (#117345)
    by Lorraine Paul on December 31, 2007 at 4:06 AM
    Friedman, you should be ashamed of yourself! Edward Said wrote a book that became a text for any serious student of mid-East studies. To denigrate his work only brings your own shortcomings in understanding the world outside of the US into sharp focus!!

    Grow up, Friedman, and throw off your prejudices and bigotry and look at events in the cold light of reality.

    If one believes that the US lured the USSR into intervening in Afghantistan, and they, the USSR, had refused at least twice to do so, and then the US used that intervention to intervene on the side of the bloodthirsty mujahadeen, as I do, then your post becomes an empty and sad denial of the truth.

    Why didn’t you quote Brzinszki when he said that what are a few Muslim fanatics compared to the downfall of the USSR. Well, I can’t remember the last time the USSR attacked a NYC and killed three thousand innocent people going about their every day lives.

    Even though it may get me banned from HNN, I have to attack your pathetic utterances on a personal level as well as a historical level. I hope you don’t have the audacity to claim to be a historian – if so, I can only tremble for the students you indoctrinate with your half-truths and bigotry!

    The US has been the greatest danger to the planet for the last 50 years. This danger has now culminated in a President who knows less about the rest of the world than any President preceding him! A fool who took the advice of bigger fools.

    It is the age of mediocrity – and you fit in beautifully!!

  2. Max Boot loves Charlie Wilson’s War

    Source: Max Boot at his Commentary blog (12-23-07)

    I once wrote a column congratulating a well-known Hollywood liberal—George Clooney—for making “neocon” movies, i.e., movies like “Three Kings,” “The Peacemaker,” and even “Syriana” that support active American intervention in the world in support of our ideals as well as our strategic interests.

    Now we can add some more Hollywood liberals to the “who knew they were neocons?” club. To wit, Mike Nichols, Aaron Sorkin, and Tom Hanks.

    This is the trio responsible for “Charlie Wilson’s War,” which I just saw and loved. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure yet, the movie tells the story of how a conservative, hard-partying Texas Democratic Congressman named Charlie Wilson got together with a right-wing Texas socialite and a blue-collar CIA officer to vastly increase the amount of American covert aid being delivered in the 1980s to the mujahideen fighting the Red Army in Afghanistan.

    Some conservatives have been caviling about “Charlie Wilson’s War” on the grounds that the role of President Reagan, CIA Director Bill Casey, and other Republicans has been slighted to make it appear as if a Democratic congressman defeated the Red Army all by himself. It’s true that the role of senior administration officials isn’t portrayed, and should have been. But it’s also true that Charlie Wilson pushed through a major increase in aid beyond what the administration had requested or what many clueless spooks at the CIA had supported. (There’s a great scene in the film where the smarmy CIA station chief in Islamabad explains to an incredulous Charlie Wilson why it would be a bad idea to increase support to the mujahideen.)

    In any case, you’ve got to love a movie in which the Soviets are the bad guys and we’re the good guys, a movie in which the main characters talk unapologetically about how much they love killing Russians. How many other pro-American Cold War pictures has Hollywood made?

    Even the ending is a perfect encapsulation of neocon foreign policy thinking. After the Red Army has been driven out, Charlie Wilson is trying to get his colleagues on Capitol Hill to fund schools and other projects to rebuild Afghanistan. They’re not interested. Neither was the administration of George Bush Sr., because they were governed by a realpolitik imperative: Now that the Soviets were out of Afghanistan, who cared what happened next in this backwater country? Of course we know that the inadvertent result was to allow the Taliban to take power—a fate that might have been averted had the United States stayed more actively involved in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. The movie’s closing line sums up my own view of U.S. policy in Afghanistan:

    “These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world. Then we fucked up the endgame.”

    Let’s hope that we don’t similarly mess up the endgame today in Afghanistan or Iraq, countries where victory is within our grasp, if we’re willing to make a long-term commitment.

    Posted on Saturday, December 29, 2007 at 6:22 PM

  3. The above post, by Max Boot, seems to underscore, half-facetiously, the reality that there is no really discernible and significant division within the establishment: both wings, “conservative” and “liberal” end up supporting the same thing, the American establishment’s designs. And liberals—no matter how well intentioned— simply can’t tackle the whole truth about American imperialism without hedging their bets. It wouldn’t hurt if they understood history a little better, too.

  4. Who Charlie Wilson’s War appeals to

    Source: Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH blog) (12-31-07)

    (A MESH member who prefers to remain anonymous submits the following comment on the film Charlie Wilson’s War.)

    This is a movie made by a highly sophisticated political and artistic mind, someone—the director—who knows all the arguments and charges and nuances of what this important episode has come to mean to various interpreters. I came away feeling that the film is aimed at four different audiences, the last of the four being the most important.

    The first and most inconsequential audience is people like us, who know a lot about all of the doings covered in the story and who, like me, will find the movie to be a rather charming bad-boy fairy tale comedy involving some preposterous assertions.

    The second audience, I imagine (I’m hardly knowledgable about the cinema “industry”) is the famous 18 to 29 demographic. They will like the sex scenes and proliferation of the F word. They also will delight in the parodies of Washington authority-figures. The battle scenes in Afghanistan will also be attractive to them as almost as good as video games, and about as meaningful. The geopolitics of it all will be utterly lost on them, as they wouldn’t be able to tell you what a “Soviet” was anyway.

    The third audience would be those in East Texas and elsewhere across “real” America, where the story will seem to be a delightfully stirring tale of how a Good Ole Boy from Nagadoches took on the effeminate Washington establishment bureaucracy and whupped those Commies.

    The fourth audience is the one that really matters to those who produced and directed the movie. That would be people like themselves: well-to-do, highly educated, politically active “Progressives” who proclaimed in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that “We (America) brought it on ourselves.” To them, the underlying story is that the US supply of weapons to the Afghan Mujahedin virtually created the movement which would later emerge as the Taliban, would energize Al Qaeda by proving that holy warriors could win a world-historical victory over a powerful industrailized imperial power, and would launch the religiously-driven terrorist war against America.

    Finally, as an example of the sophisticated fine touch of the makers of this film, there is the vignette early on when Congressman Wilson in the corridor of the House is told that The Speaker wants to put him on the Ethics Committee looking into the charges against John Murtha. Wilson snaps back, saying that the charges against Murtha are baseless. Only those closely following the 2006 anti-Iraq War movement, in which Congressman Murtha’s calls for the US to pull the troops out in acceptance of defeat were central, would recognize that the film makers here are trying to refute the re-emerged criticism of Murtha for being involved in the “Abscam” scandal of the time in which the movie is set. In Charlie Wilson’s War every little scene has a meaning all its own.

    Posted on Monday, December 31, 2007 at 2:40 PM

  5. The movie inadvertently reminds us that this is yet another great foreign intervention against “communism” driven by a good ole Democrat. Tell me how much sense it makes to vote for Democrats again?

  6. The fiction sold in Charlie’s War gives the CIA a free pass

    [Melissa Roddy, like several of the principals in the saga of Afghanistan, is a native Texan. An actress based in Los Angeles, she is currently producing and directing a documentary film on the history of Afghanistan from 1979 to 9/11 entitled The Square Root of Terror.]

    Charlie Wilson’s War purports to be the true story of a hard-partying U.S. congressman from Texas who engineered the defeat of the Soviet Union by the Afghan Mujahiddin. Now there are true stories, and there are true-ish stories. It is a given that, in creating a film narrative, sometimes the truth gets a little bent, but it’s against the rules to change facts that change the outcome of history. When telling the story of Antony and Cleopatra, they gotta die at the end, n’est pas. It’s inappropriate, for example, to tell the story of World War II and pretend that, because the United States might have given a box of guns to the French Underground, there was no Holocaust. That’s a pretty good analogy for what’s been done in Charlie Wilson’s War.

    In the latter half of the movie, there is one big lie and one item of anti-Afghan propaganda. The lie is that U.S. support to the mujahiddin went only to the faction led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Afghan leader who was assassinated on Sept. 9, 2001. I spoke with Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-Texas, in 2002, at which time he called Massoud “a Russian collaborator.” I find it disingenuous that Wilson and his Hollywood biographers now want to throw their arms around him. (Note: George Crile’s book does not make this false claim.) Moreover, if this movie succeeds in convincing Americans that the U.S. support went to Ahmad Shah Massoud alone, it will have effectively let the CIA and Wilson off the hook for their contribution to the circumstances leading up to 9/11. During the 1980s, Wilson engineered the appropriation of approximately $3.5 billion to help the Afghans fight the Soviets. According to Milt Bearden, CIA chief of station to Pakistan, Massoud received less than 1 percent of it.

    So, if Massoud was not receiving the $3.5 billion that Congress was sending, who was? There were seven factions based in Pakistan who were the recipients of American largesse, but about 40 percent of it went to a blood-thirsty, fundamentalist, loudly anti-American bastard named Gulbaddin Hekmatyar….

  7. Racketeers and Crooks never looked so good. The film rather obviously left out the fact that we intentionally lured the Soviets into Afghanistan in the first place. This was a precurser to Bush luring Saddam into Desert Storm. Then, of course, there was only a vague reference to the evils of the Mujahadeen at the end. Propaganda – very well done. Perhaps it has the ultimate aim of getting us to think of Busheviks as just cute adventurers.

  8. No doubts about it, History is all bunk.
    No man is more enslaved ,than an American that thinks he is free.
    Today ,the soviets get rich off the folly of the Americans in Iraq. Both Russia and china build up their army.While Americans are getting a tan from DU in Iraq, and goes Bankrupt. The
    only reason for Iraq war is Oil and how oil is denominated. this is only a secret in America where everyone there still thinks it is about Iraqi freedom .
    The Russians have of course beat America to the pipelines, when the Americans eventually build their pipeline it will be blown up inside of a week of completion.
    Is it any wonder why the red men have continually warned the white man of their shortcomings. yet we still stumble from crisis to crisis.

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