January 12, 2008
Whose War? Separating Fact from Fiction in 'Charlie Wilson's War'By Paul Kengor
"Reagan specifically urged the supplying of U.S. shoulder-launched, heat-seeking missiles that can shoot down Soviet helicopter gunships."
-Martin Schram, Washington Post, January 10, 1980
Last evening I drove to a nearby theater to catch Charlie Wilson's War, starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. The hit movie, which is based on George Crile's book about how former Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-TX) helped fund the Afghanistan Mujahedin back in the 1980s, is written by Aaron Sorkin, of the television drama, "The West Wing," and directed by Mike Nichols.
I'm an historian, not a film critic. My objective here is to show where the movie is inaccurate -- at times, woefully so.
Simply put, the movie vastly exaggerates the influence of Charlie Wilson at the expense of individuals who were equally or even far more influential, and who somehow are not mentioned whatsoever -- a gross, intentional, and rather shameless oversight.
Here's the situation: The movie, and the book, is about a moderate-to-conservative Democratic Congressman, a profane, hard-drinking, womanizing, anti-communist politician who was indeed -- as the movie makes abundantly clear-- very important to providing a huge amount of covert financial and military support to the Mujahedin rebels who resisted the Soviet Union after the Red Army invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The USSR brutalized the nation and its innocent people. Charlie Wilson's goal was to give the Afghan "freedom fighters" the supplies they needed to defeat the Soviets.
While all of this is true, this is (at best) half the story -- maybe even a quarter of the story. It helps explain what happened in the Democrat-controlled Congress, where the likes of Charlie Wilson were a godsend to counter the San Francisco Democrats and Massachusetts liberals who would have let Central America become a Soviet-Cuban outpost.
But the rest of the story, which receives no mention, is that it was the Reagan administration, and specifically CIA director Bill Casey, National Security Adviser Bill Clark, Secretary of Defense Cap Weinberger, and Ronald Reagan himself -- plus numerous aides -- who were the driving force behind supplying the Mujahedin. This movie could have been made 10 years ago about Bill Casey, whose actions were even more dramatic than Charlie Wilson's -- albeit not as obscene -- or about Bill Clark.
It is an obvious reflection of the liberal biases of Aaron Sorkin and Mike Nichols -- and the CBS News / "60 Minutes"-affiliated staff-that Casey, incredibly and unforgivably, is not referenced even once. This is an outrage, and yet another stunning example of how liberals in Hollywood literally create their own fictional versions of history, totally airbrushing conservatives they never liked and forever refuse to credit even in the face of overwhelming evidence. The movie-makers don't seem to realize, nor care, that this undermines their overall work -- including the parts that have merit. Their lack of fairness works against them.
Ironically, conservatives have been fair in telling this story. For instance, in a book where I laid out the Reagan administration strategy of funding the Afghan rebels, I paused to shoehorn in a paragraph acknowledging the input of Charlie Wilson and his sidekick, Gust Avrakotos, who is portrayed colorfully in this movie by Philip Seymour Hoffman. My editor suggested that I remove the paragraph, but I argued that it was crucial -- even ethical -- to give credit where credit is due, even when editorially awkward.
This movie isn't nearly so fair-minded. In one maddening scene, Charlie Wilson asks Gust Avrakotos about America's strategy in Afghanistan. "Well, strictly speaking, we don't have one," says Avrakotos, "but me and three others are working on it."
Hollywood's Drive-by Shooting
That simply was not true -- a drive-by shooting of Reagan policy and the truth itself. The Reagan administration was formally on record doing precisely what Wilson and Avrakotos wanted. There is a huge volume of indisputable evidence and testimony to this effect, widely known by anyone with any rudimentary knowledge of the Reagan years or Cold War history. For instance, on January 17, 1983 Ronald Reagan signed NSDD-75 -- produced by Bill Clark's National Security Council -- which stated on Afghanistan specifically:
"The U.S. objective is to keep maximum pressure on Moscow for withdrawal and to ensure that the Soviets' political, military, and other costs remain high while the occupation continues."
That was bland, official language, likewise expressed in other directives, like NSDD-32, released May 20, 1982. But it led to real-world actions that changed the course of history -- such as Clark and Reagan quietly authorizing the rebels to cross the Amu Dar'ya River that marked the border between Afghanistan and the Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, where the rebels fought the Soviet Union on its own territory. This was extremely bold and dangerous, and might have launched World War III if it had made the front pages. Ditto for Bill Casey's brash declaration to CIA officers: "go out and kill me 10,000 Soviets until they give up."
For the Reagan administration, the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan was part of a multi-layered assault -- involving about a dozen different initiatives, from Poland to Nicaragua, from SDI to the MX, from economic warfare to public diplomacy -- to take down the Soviet empire and win the Cold War. As NSDD-75 stated in its two principal objectives, the Reagan strategy sought,
"To contain and over time reverse Soviet expansionism.... To promote, within the narrow limits available to us, the process of change in the Soviet Union toward a more pluralistic political and economic system."
I cannot say that Charlie Wilson believed he would actually win the Cold War by winning the war in Afghanistan. Perhaps he did, but I'm not aware of such evidence. Do the makers of this movie have that evidence -- a paper-trail? Did Wilson go on the record saying this? Ronald Reagan and his administration did. Recall, of course, that Reagan was widely considered out of his mind-particularly by liberals in Hollywood, the media, and the Congress -- for believing the Soviet Union was in its final days.
Granted, it isn't a stretch to say that Wilson felt the war could be won in Afghanistan. But did he feel that way about the broader Cold War? This may be a grand case of liberal writers fabricating an individual (one of their own) who predicted and accomplished the end of the Cold War.
Thus far I've only noted Reagan actions under Bill Clark in 1982 and 1983. I haven't gotten to the haymaker, NSDD-166, signed by President Reagan and released in the spring of 1985, which dealt solely with killing the Soviets in Afghanistan, and which was so explosive that to this day the entire document is redacted. While the directive remains completely classified, we know (from those involved) what it sought: Soviet defeat and withdrawal. It was through NSDD-166 that the onslaught of weapons desperately needed by the Mujahedin finally flowed, and through which the silver bullet to the Soviets was alas unleashed: Stinger missiles. The Stingers -- the arrival of which is portrayed in the movie -- utterly and nearly instantaneously reversed the war, and led to an ultimate Soviet retreat and surrender.
As the quote that opens this essay shows, Ronald Reagan had floated the idea of Stingers as early as January 9, 1980, while campaigning for president in Pensacola, Florida -- a year before he was sworn in as president. This was reported by Martin Schram the next day in the Washington Post. Reagan, Schram noted, said the United States should supply the weapons through Pakistan -- an idea that the movie maintains was first broached to Charlie Wilson by the leader of Pakistan. That's just not correct.
Remarkably, Reagan made this suggestion only two weeks after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and well before the moment in the movie -- which begins its chronology on April 6, 1980 -- when Charlie Wilson asks, "Tell me what you need to shoot down those Soviet gunships." Ronald Reagan had answered that question well before Wilson thought to even ask it. Once he became president, Reagan and his team fought like dogs to get those Stingers into rebel hands.
What Reagan told Gorbachev
Likewise, the movie short-changes credit on the human-rights side. While it shows that Charlie Wilson had rightly and quite commendably informed Congressional liberals about the horror of Soviet-made booby-trapped toys blowing limbs off Afghan children, Ronald Reagan went much further, directly excoriating Mikhail Gorbachev for this vicious tactic. Reagan courageously did so, to the shock of his moderate advisers, in his first one-on-one with Gorbachev at the Geneva Summit in November 1985.
An angry, seething Reagan -- as emotionally attached to the Afghan suffering as was Charlie Wilson -- concluding his reprimand of Gorbachev by snapping at the Soviet leader: "Are you still trying to take over the world?" Gorbachev was visibly shaken, staring at Reagan in silence, mouth agape, with a stunned expression. Reagan arms control director Ken Adelman, a witness, called Reagan's words in that exchange the most "harsh indictment of Soviet behavior ever delivered to the top Soviet man." Reagan biographer Edmund Morris reported that the only person who appeared more flabbergasted was the State Department note-taker.
The movie's total slight of the Reagan administration's irreplaceable role is its fatal flaw. The only nod to Reagan that I could find was near the end of the movie, when Charlie Wilson justifiably boasts: "I got a Democratic Congress behind a Republican president." Yes, he did. By then, however, the uninformed viewer is left to ponder: Which Republican president? Behind whom? Did a Republican president support this, too? I'm confused!
Regrettably, that obfuscation of the timeline -- surely intentional -- has created a second major error related to the movie. This one is by conservative critics, and it's an error I stupidly repeated until I saw the movie myself. As one leading conservative reported, "the movie promotes the left-wing myth that the CIA-led operation funded Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda and ultimately produced the attacks of September 11." Bloggers and pundits claim that the movie blames the Reagan administration for 9-11. In fact, it does not.
The movie makes no reference to Osama, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, or 9-11. Instead, it wraps up with a saddened Charlie Wilson failing to get Congressional colleagues to support reconstruction aid for post-war, ravaged Afghanistan. This exchange comes during a period not dated by the movie, but which (given the content of the exchange) could not be earlier than November 1989, and more likely 1990 or 1991, well after Ronald Reagan left the Oval Office. The movie concludes, alternately quoting Wilson and the book, by noting that America's aiding of the rebels was "glorious" and "changed the world" -- which is correct -- but that we "f---ed up the end game." (The f-word at the end is fitting, since this is far and away the most common word in the script.) Nothing else is said, and no images are shared. If the viewer wants to make a link (really, a leap) to September 11, the viewer can do so. If the movie intends to make that suggestion, it is far more subtle than I had been led to expect.
There is much more that could be said about this movie, pro and con. Overall, however, it is a shame that in their zeal to elevate Charlie Wilson -- whom I do not begrudge his due credit --Sorkin and Nichols and crew demote to the point of oblivion the folks who deserve the most credit for defeating the Soviets in Afghanistan. If they are interested in telling the full story, I recommend any number of sequels: "Bill Casey's War," "Bill Clark's War"-or maybe simply "Ronald Reagan's War."
Paul Kengor is author of The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and professor of political science at Grove City College. His latest book is The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand.