Open Steve Coll’s aptly titled book, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, at almost any page and you’re likely to find something that makes a mockery of the film Charlie Wilson’s War. There, on p. 90, for instance, is the larger-than-life CIA director of the era, William Casey, the “Catholic Knight of Malta educated by Jesuits,” who “believed fervently that by spreading the Catholic Church’s reach and power he could contain Communism’s advance, or reverse it.” And, if you couldn’t have the Church do it, as in Afghanistan in the 1980s, then second best, Casey believed, were the Islamic warriors of jihad, the more extreme the better, with whom, in his religio-anticommunism, he believed himself to have much in common. (The enemy of my enemy is my friend, after all.) Casey was, in fact, an American jihadi, eager in the 1980s not just to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, but to push “the Afghan jihad into the Soviet Union itself.” His CIA, while funding activities like translating the Koran into Uzbek (Uzbekistan being, then, an SSR of the Soviet Union), was also, through Pakistan’s intelligence service, funneling a vast flow of advanced weaponry regularly to the most extreme (and, even then, anti-American) of Afghan jihadis.
I could go on, starting perhaps with the president Casey served, Ronald Reagan, who declared the Afghan anti-Soviet fighters his CIA director was running, partly with Saudi money, to be “the moral equal of our founding fathers.” None of this was exactly secret information, or even hard to find, at the time that the movie Charlie Wilson’s War was being made — which makes it a top candidate for the most politically bizarre, consciously dumb film of our era.
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. Leaving out the crucial cast of characters was, in this case, comparable to, but far stranger than, what the propagandists of the former Soviet Union used to do in airbrushing discredited leaders out of official photos. Ronald who?
Coll’s book was published in 2004. Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire came out in 2000, 18 months before the attacks of 9/11. Its prescient analysis made it a prophetic text — and propelled it onto bestseller lists after the 9/11 attacks (and “blowback,” a CIA term of trade, into popular culture). Even though he wrote that book well before those towers came down, Johnson saw clearly that, while “American policies helped ensure that the Soviet Union would suffer the same kind of debilitating defeat in Afghanistan as the United States had in Vietnam… in Afghanistan the United States also helped bring to power the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic movement.” Even more important, he noted that the “mujahideen, who only a few years earlier the United States had armed with ground-to-air Stinger missiles, grew bitter over American acts and polices…” — with consequences that were, even then, becoming apparent and would soon enough culminate in a horrific blowback from a CIA-run operation that had been deemed a great success.
Thank heavens, then, that Chalmers Johnson, whose magisterial book Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic (the final volume of his Blowback Trilogy) will be appearing in paperback this month, puts a little history back into Charlie Wilson’s War in his own inimitable manner. Tom
By Chalmers Johnson
I have some personal knowledge of Congressmen like Charlie Wilson (D-2nd District, Texas, 1973-1996) because, for close to twenty years, my representative in the 50th Congressional District of California was Republican Randy “Duke” Cunningham, now serving an eight-and-a-half year prison sentence for soliciting and receiving bribes from defense contractors. Wilson and Cunningham held exactly the same plummy committee assignments in the House of Representatives — the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee plus the Intelligence Oversight Committee — from which they could dole out large sums of public money with little or no input from their colleagues or constituents.