YeeHa! for covert action

Review: "Charlie Wilson's war"


YeeHa! for covert action
by bahmani

I write a lot of stories. And I am still always amazed at how a story can be spun, to change the moral or message to suit the writer's preference and personal bias. As writers we are often guilty of putting our opinions and more often our aching wish for something to be true before the actual truth. It is very easy to fall for the seductive power of the seemingly powerless pen in your hand. As you will now see.

"Charlie Wilson's War" is a film chronicling the life of former Texas Senator Charlie Wilson. Specifically his hyper-active participation in enabling the Afghan rebels gain access to the infamous Stinger missiles now conveniently claimed as the primary turning point in the 9-year occupation at the very near end of the collapse of the giant Soviet era.

The film starring Tom Hanks as Charlie Wilson, portrays the brash action by a Senator who raised as a child frightened of imminent attack by the Soviet Union during the nuclear Cold War era (one of the damaging effects of "duck and cover" ad campaigns on this generation), takes it upon himself to push his counterpart buddy "idealists" in the CIA to covertly support the Afghan rebels to fight the Soviet Union with training and equipment. This is successfully spun as a heroic tale of Yankee ingenuity and dogged American determination. What bothers me about this kind of storytelling is that it tidily evades the real problems that this kind of illegal covert action leaves in it's wake. A few with the means, affect the many, leaving everyone else to clean up the rather large mess afterwards. For years and decades later.

Charlie, better known as "Good Time Charlie", was and is a prime example of this kind of rogue, who out of personal twisted conscience exploits loopholes in the system and decides to change things without forethought (or authorization) or the effect of the action and it's consequences. Then conveniently slips back into the shadows of obscurity with the grin of a job well done on his face. In this case resurrected by Hollywood Hanks as the sly smiling hero. He even gets the girl. Apparently many.

In this "perfect" story however, the real aftermath of Charlie Wilson's War was that it is dubious and doubtful that the crumbling Soviet empire spanked back home by public opinion against their own "Vietnam", would have been able to continue it's military campaign much longer with or without the few odd supply of Stingers that were actually fired. It is now obvious the erosion in the Soviet Union was far more advanced than anyone knew or wanted to admit. The same people that think Charlie Wilson won the Afghanistan war, also think it was Reagan who made Gorbachev "...tear down that wall...".

The truth is obvious today. As it is now known that the same kind of rogue covert operation in 1953 spun it's nasty web around Mossadegh's throat, and threat to cancel Iran's oil contracts and other "inconvenient ideas", namely democratic and puppet-Shah-less rule for Iran.

The damage of these illegal actions and the ultimate ineffectiveness of covert actions like this is evident only years later. It is akin to the dilemma of time travel to the past, where any slight change can effect the future. In the case of covert action, teaching rebels only to fight for the transparent  benefit of the US, has dire consequences visible now. The same Khyber pass that took his breath away and inspired Charlie Wilson's Alamo complex so many years ago, is in fact the same location of continued hostilities against the US today. Many innocent people have also had their breath taken away. Permanently. Because when you teach rebels only to fight, it comes off as for your benefit, not theirs. When you don't teach them how to make peace, you end up sitting on a very sharp double edge. The hell Wilson hath wrought.

By covertly subverting Mossadegh's mission towards democracy, the other Charlie Wilsons, namely Roosevelt and Shwarzkopf, changed the future of Iran from a peaceful, profitable, shiny and example leader in the region, full of the promise, prosperity, and potential that freedom and free choice can bring about, and turned Iran into more than 50 years of combined oppression, endemic suspicion by the people against each other, hopelessness, and counter productive wasted existence. The impact of denying Iran it's brief taste of freedom and destiny, now plays out it's destructive consequences fully. Where the Shah couldn't, I would bet (and I would win that bet) that a democratic Iran would have easily stood against the Shi-ist proposition in 1978, not because there is anything particularly wrong with Shi-ism (it's as good as any -ism), but under a democracy with basic freedoms (including religion) the oppressive conditions that gave Shi-ism the go ahead to rule, would have simply not existed. OK, maybe the Mullahs would have still complained about mini skirts and Discos. But the Mini was killed by the Midi, and Disco died mercifully on it's own.

Why some people with the power to play god, choose to wield that power so unwisely, and why the loopholes in a largely fair checks and balances system, can be so inconsequentially corrupted to allow these kinds of covert actions to be continually taken, with so many examples of their historic disastrous effect to draw from, is hopefully what the fine folks in Iowa and New Hampshire who for some reason are the real choosers of the US leadership, should really be asking the candidates as they smile, grin, and squeeze their hands with feigned (but Presidential firmness) sincerity on their way to the White House.

The responsibility and moral reputation of the US as the beacon of pure freedom and fairplay is sullied far more than can be explained by a result labeled simplistically as mere evil. The result is much worse than evil, because the result snuffs out hope. When you have nothing, you at least have hope. But things really suck when you don't even have hope anymore. The only thing about hope is that it can be easily resurrected by doing the "right thing".

Maybe if one day we can all see a movie called "Charlie Wilson's Trial", or "The Cleansing of Operation Ajax" (or how about this title" Kermit & Shwarzkopf: The Really Odd Couple"), that would resurrect and restore the hope that if you aspire to freedom, you can actually achieve it without an alcoholic womanizing Senator from Texas, or the inept nephew of a former president deciding it would be "funny" to pull the rug out from under you right when you take the very first step.

Or maybe a better name for this movie would be "Atonement".


more from bahmani

What covert activity are you

by Anonymous4now (not verified) on

What covert activity are you talking about with regards to 1953 Iran? The CIA agents went into Iran with suitcases full of Dollar bills and bought Iranians $1 each. How much more open can it be? Iran was a pathetically weak and meek nation which was just coming out of the coma induced by the rule of the Ghajar era. The British and the Russians manipulated that weakness to their advantage, as any one else would. Since time immemorial, the strong have manipulated the weak. How the weak use their intelligence to get the upper hand and protect themselves is up to them. Don’t be so narcissistic as to keep blaming others for your shortcomings. Look inside and try to learn and improve yourself.
I just posted this response elsewhere, on, which might benefit you immensely.

Dr. Mossadegh, was neither the saint some want to make him out nor the leftist traitor others want to portray him. Just like the Shah he was a human being and fallible. He was a democrat and a charismatic leader but he did violate the constitution by dissolving the parliament. By the time there was unrest on the streets he realized that his movement had been high jacked by the left, and fearing that the left, aligned with the Soviet Union, may be poised to take over, he made a public announcement asking his supporters not to come out in the streets and not to support the leftists.

He made one other mistake. The Brits had grown used to taking oil from Iran as if it were in their own back yard. Despite the monumental progress during the Reza Shah era, Iran was still not strong enough to challenge them. Mossadegh thought he could. Faced with the threat of nationalization, the Brits offered a 50-50 deal. The British policy was to keep Iranians in administrative roles, in the oil industry, so that Iran depended on them to extract oil. Mossadegh played hard headed, and instead of being a diplomat and considering the long term good of his nation, he opted for the short term gain and rejected the deal. Accepting the deal would have meant immediate income for Iran which had meager earnings from oil, but much more importantly it would have meant the birth of democracy and the victory of his movement in Iran. The Brits and their American friends staged a coup and ousted Mossadegh. The Shah accepted the 50-50 deal and in 20 years, by 1973, he had managed to change it to 25-75 from a position of strength. History is full of monumental mistakes like these. The Shah himself made many of those and in particular, his desire to keep Iranians unexposed to the politics of the left and the Islamists (he had banned leftist literature and Khomeini's writings), he brought about his own demise.


A silly movie anyways.

by the-time-wasiting-machine (not verified) on

I believe that the movie "Charlie Wilson's War" is a very silly movie, riddled with bad history and with a surprisingly (even by Hollywood's standards) weak and superficial plot and character development, which IMHO, makes it completely unreliable to be taken as a basis for a serious discussion (in which you folks are engaged). The topic, the covert US involvement in the Afghan war in 80s, is an important one, nonetheless. So, keep going!

Kouroush Sassanian

Espionage, not esfenage!

by Kouroush Sassanian on

You said,  "[t]he responsibility and moral reputation of the US as the beacon of pure freedom . .. is sullied." Are you kidding me? You present a very simplistic view of the World. I do, as well, when I play Aryan Boy v. Lizard Eater! You must believe everything you read or watch!

Espionage is one of the oldest, and most well documented, political and military arts. It is here to stay - forever! It is an absolute necessity for an Empire to survive.  Some 6,000 years ago in Persia, institutions and persons devoted to the security and preservation of their ruling regimes engaged in covert operations.

Of course, clandestine and covert operations hold the most intrigue, but the history of espionage is better described in terms of the evolution of its more mundane components of tradecraft. Throughout history, intelligence has been defined as the collection, culling, analysis, and dissemination of critical and strategic information. 

The Romans possessed a fondness for the practice of political espionage. So, this is nothing new! 

An Empire has to engage in both domestic and international espionage and covert operations to maintain power or to increase it. Daiejan Napelon faced the Brits in the mamassanee campaign. Of course, he dealt with the British's woman's husband, Sardar - remember! Pendareee, doud shoud...

Spies engaged in both foreign and domestic political operations, gauging the political climate of the Empire and surrounding lands by eavesdropping in the Forum or in public market spaces and if necessary engaged in covert operations. Several ancient accounts, especially those of the first century, mention the presence of a secret police force like the Savak, Savama.

Of course, in The Prince, and The Art of War, Machiavelli advocated that rulers routinely employ espionage tradecraft, engaging in deception and spying to insure protection of their power and interests. The IRI is doing in Iraq - countering U.S. efforts!

Freedom is a relative term. You can never have absolute freedom. There simply isn't enough freedom pie to go around. It is easy to sit in the U.S. comfortablity enjoying your chai and your movie passing judgement. Pleezee! 

Now, I would say  there should have been followup with Charlie's successful operation - abandoning Afghanistan cost the U.S. and continues to haunt all concerned.

I love how Iranians evalute the Mossadegh situation in a vaccum. Are you aware of the plans the Russians had for Iran? Did you know how poor Iran was coming out of WWII? Do you know what had happened during the Qajars? You really believe Iran would have been allowed to nationalize its oil? What plans do you think the Tudeh party had for Iran and what role the Soviets would have played in those plans?

Empires use small weak countries like Iran with non-renewable natural resources to fuel their might.  Of course, they don't need to have any natural resources.  The Brits created Afghanstan and took Herat from Persia so they could stay on the door steps of Russia.

We did it when we could - the U.S. and other countries do so now and will continue this behavoir. In the name of National interest or security. or a King or Queen or 12th Imam, greed or a frog!

So now the mullahs are looting and whoring Iran and have new alliances, like Russia, China, N. Korea! The mullahs and their supporters get rich while ordinary Iranians have to work at three jobs to put food on the table.

Now, Charlie handed the Russians their Vietnam. What the Russians were doing to Aghanis was simply horrific. They left Afghanistan with their babushkas[I know it means grandmother, but this is one of a few Russian words I know!] between their legs. This was the right result, but as he said recently in an interview he wished Afghanistan was not left out to dry!

BTW, I have not seen the movie, but when it is offered here I will glady see it!


Private Pilot

Typical Iranian Commentator - IGNORANT

by Private Pilot on

Mr. Mororn:

At least either watch the movie (or have someone explain it to you when watching it) or learn the basics about the American system of government before you copy crap that you have heard on TV.  Charlie Wilson was not a "SENATOR" from Texas.  He was a "Congressman". 

Private Pilot


I wonder if you even saw the movie.

by Dan (not verified) on

You have so much emotional bias effervescing in you that you completely missed the point of the movie -- which I doubt whether you've even seen -- merely because it didn't jibe with your idea that America has only ever done terrible things.

First of all, it's rather absurd that you should link the events of the Cold War to the 1953 coup d'etat in Iran. The coup d'etat may fall under the category of "illegal actions," but that is hardly the case for the movement championed by Wilson. The Soviets murdered innocent Afghans and they were left at the mercy of the mighty Soviet army. Wilson helped them fight back -- he didn't force them to fight back -- and his efforts saved many Afghan lives. To hold Wilson accountable for the rise of the Afghan warlords and the Mujahideen is simply far-fetched; there were other factors that led to factional clashes, both before and after the Soviet occupation.

You say "when you teach rebels only to fight, it comes off as for your benefit, not theirs. When you don't teach them how to make peace, you end up sitting on a very sharp double edge." Let me say one thing: the people of Afghanistan weren't fond of the Soviet occupation of their country, and there were good reasons for it (i.e., the Soviets deliberately committed carnage). Wilson helped drive out the Soviets; that subsequently the people of Afghanistan initiated onslaughts against each other for more power is hardly his fault. You make it sound like he recruited people for his personal army to do his personal bidding, and didn't take the time to teach them about love and goodness and butterflies, and that is simply preposterous.

That also brings me to my second point: I am seriously doubting whether you've even seen the movie, because your review isn't so much a review of the movie as it is an exposition of your political thoughts. I have this doubt because if you had seen the movie, you would know from the last scene that Charlie Wilson sought money for building schools within Afghanistan after the Soviets were driven out, and he was turned down. The movie even ends with a quote from the real Wilson, which I quote from memory, "These were real and glorious things... And then we fucked up the end game."

Besides that, the broader point of the movie was a character study of Charlie Wilson and his "good time" habits. As A.O. Scott of the New York Times so wonderfully put it, "there is [...] a bracing, cheering present-day moral to be found in Charlie Wilson’s story, a reminder that high principles are not incompatible with the pleasure principle. The good guys are the ones who know how to have a good time, and who counter the somber certainties of totalitarianism with the conviction that fun is woven into the fabric of freedom."

I suggest you actually pay the ten dollars and go see this movie before composing a bogus review.