Hollywood, History and Afghanistan

Last night I finally got a chance to watch Charlie Wilson’s War, the true story about how a hard partying Texas Democratic Congressman pushed the US into the largest covert operation in history, supplying the Afghan mujaheddin with weapons able to prevent the Soviet Union from stabilizing Afghanistan.  The movie has a number of good points.  It’s extremely well cast, with Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffmann perfectly cast and offering excellent performances.  The movie is entertaining, a bit nostalgic, and gets most of its historical facts correct.  However, its interpretation of history is vague at best and misguided at worst.

Essentially, the movie argues that Charlie Wilson virtually single handedly (or with help from the Roberts and Hoffmann characters) pulled the strings that funded the Afghan resistance, ultimately playing a major role in bringing down the USSR and ending the Cold War.  There are also strong hints that this set up what came next in Afghanistan – “the crazies” would come to power and we’d experience ‘blowback’ on September 11, 2001.  Apparently the stript originally was more overt on the latter, having an image of the 9-11 Pentagon attack at the end of the film.  Protests by Charlie Wilson and Joann Herring (played by Hanks and Roberts) got that and other allusions to 9-11 removed.

While Democrats might feel good about credit for ending the Cold War shifting from Ronald Reagan (who the Republicans consider the cause of the Soviet defeat) to a liberal yet hawkish Texas Democrat, the reality is far more complex.   The war in Afghanistan did not bring down the Soviet Union, nor did Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (which the Soviets decided was not a threat by 1987), nor should one credit the military buildup started by Carter and continued by Reagan after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.   The Soviet economy was in early collapse by the mid-seventies, as the KGB under Yuri Andropov reported.    The unworkability of the bureaucratic communist system doomed the USSR more than anything the US or any individual could do.  Such economic contradictions can be ignored for awhile, but ultimately they extract their price — as we’re learning here in the US as well.

Did Afghanistan play a role?  Clearly it did weaken both the regime and public support for it at a very important time for Gorbachev and his reform agenda.  However, by effectively preventing the Soviets from stabilizing the country, the US and Soviet Union doomed Afghanistan to a decade of destruction, Soviet atrocities, and shattered lives.  It set up the post-war rise of the Taliban and the country has never recovered from the decades of war that started in the mid-seventies.  Given that the Soviets invaded after getting rid of a more radical Communist to put in place one that would compromise with the Islamic groups, refusing to supply the Mujaheddin might have saved the people of that country from suffering immense hardships.

Moreover, it’s unlikely that an easier time for the Soviets in Afghanistan would have prevented Gorbachev’s rise to power or hindered his reform agenda.  In fact, a less beaten down Soviet Union may have made more stable reforms to democracy.  Instead Yeltsin drifted towards anarchy, anarchies inherently mean mafias and instability, and soon the Russians cried for a Putin.  Was this really the best result?

Another question concerns the way the Afghan conflict ignited Islamic extremism, and brought Muslims from all over, especially from the Arab world, to join the fight.  It’s what lured the young playboy Osama Bin Laden to adopt a rigid religious belief that he was the instrument of God to destroy first Communism and the Soviet Union, and now capitalism and the United States.

So if we want to credit this all to Charlie Wilson, he becomes an axial figure in modern human history.  His push to aid the Mujahideen in Afghanistan might be credited/blamed for ultimately bringing down both major late 20th century world empires, and assisting the rise of an extremist movement that, in an era of globalization, could prove extremely resilient.

And that’s where Hollywood history indeed falls short.  Reality is complex, human destinies interweave and interwine, both with each other, and with the vast and complex social structures we are born into.  Figures like Charlie Wilson are individuals, but also entail collective expressions that get put into reality.  If that sounds too esoteric, think of it in more practical terms.  There was in Germany in the late 20s and early 30s a national sense of anger, frustration, fear and a low sense of self-worth that manifested itself in the rise to power of Adolf Hitler.  One can’t simply say that we’d all be better off if only Hitler hadn’t lived.  Rather, he was able to exist and act because he connected to the culture and context in a way that empowered him.  If Germany had been different, he would have remained a persuasive would be artist drifter.

Hollywood cannot get into the social fabric with much intellectual success, though even in the film on Charlie Wilson, the snippets of culture and society, especially as shown by the characters Joanna Herring and Gust Avrakatos.  One can experience that sense of reality’s cultural construction if you let yourself.  The mind has to reach out a bit, feel the complexities, and see the characters as more than just discrete individuals.  Indeed, the way Wilson was driven from being a go lucky partying career, where the big favor he wanted from Tip O’Neill was to be on the Kennedy Center board so he could get free tickets, to suddenly undertake a major policy initiative defies the simple individualist narrative.

Yet individuals do matter, they also aren’t mere conglomerations of cultural ideas and social structures.   Humans have a spirit or soul, I believe, that drives us.  Thus I cannot accept the social theories that view discourse and social development as driven simply by text or narrative, with humans being themselves constructed by cultural worlds in which they find themselves.  Those worlds could not have existed without spirit or a spark of creativity — you don’t get something from nothing.

Good historical movies pull that off that sense of balance.  Lawrence of Arabia was about Lawrence, but also about the times and the region.   The Killing Fields was not just about Dith Pran and Syd Schanberg, but about the larger issues they were swept up in.   Movies, like any art form, have the power to illicit emotional connections to the characters, and get one to feel the situation as well as just to understand it.  Given my view that modern social science (and perhaps modern academia in general) is too focused on “the head” and materialism; art and film represent a powerful way to inject emotional insight into our understanding of history and culture.

I’m not sure Charlie Wilson’s War was able to pull that off.  I enjoyed it, but the real issues were left unspoken.  It was assumed that Wilson’s war was a moral crusade to help the Afghans against the Communists, and little if anything was said about what this meant for the Afghan people.  It was frequently noted that we were there to “kill Russians;” since the Russians had invaded Afghanistan to begin with, the possibility this could be bad for the Afghans wasn’t even considered.

Still, the idea that historical change can come from a very unlikely and unexpected source is a powerful and accurate message.   Few thought in 1989 that protesters from East Germany and a mistake in a press secretary’s reading of his documents on November 9th would lead to a rapid dismemberment of the Communist bloc in East Europe.   This shows that individuals matter and can make a difference, and also that the flow of history is outside the control of any particular individual or group of individuals.   So in the end I guess I’d say Charlie Wilson’s War is a good film.  Not a great film, but a pretty good one.

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  1. #1 by Ron Byrnes on March 23, 2009 - 18:14

    You wrote, “. . . a mistake in a press secretary’s reading of his documents on November 9th. . .” Can you elaborate.

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on March 23, 2009 - 19:56

    I’ll cut and paste the description from my book *German Foreign Policy: Navigating a New Era*, pp. 95 – 96. Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003.

    “At about 6:55 PM on November 9, 1989, near the end of his daily press conference in East Berlin, Politburo spokesman Günter Schabowski was asked a question by an Italian journalist about whether travel restrictions on East Germans would be eased. As a Politburo member, he had been given a draft of a plan to be discussed that evening at a Politburo meeting outlining how travel restrictions between East and West would be eased. It was to be implemented at the earliest the next day, and only after procedures had been detailed and border crossings prepared. The measure was an attempt by the new regime of Egon Krenzto convince East German citizens that the new government was bringing glasnost and perestroika to East Germany. They had reason to think that loosening travel restrictions could work. As late as 1987 1.2 million of East Germany’s citizens had traveled to the West, and all but 0.3% of them returned. Allowing travel would hopefully stop the exodus of East Germans through the suddenly porous borders of Czechoslovakia and Hungary. It wasn’t even clear that this would include intra-Berlin travel, since Berlin affairs required approval from the four powers.
    Schabowski had only glanced at the plan, and when asked the question, remembered he had been given something about that very issue. He answered the journalist by reading from the draft stating that visas would be granted unconditionally to East Germans who wanted to visit the West as long as they had a valid passport. The journalists were stunned and skeptical; surely he couldn’t mean completely free travel between East and West? One puzzled correspondent asked when this would start. Schabowski glanced at his papers, puzzled, and then found a sentence that said unverzüglich, “immediately.” The changes, he assured journalists, would take place immediately.
    Despite Schabowski’s carelessness, East German citizens didn’t rush for the border, having learned that what the government says did not always reflect what they do. West Berlin mayor Walter Momper understood the importance of the moment, however, and went on West Berlin television, which could be received by nearly everyone in East Berlin, praising Schabowski’s statement and calling it a historic day for Berlin. Goaded on by Momper’s air of celebration, East Berliners tried to use their new right, crowding border crossing points and demanding access to the West. Not only were the border guards not yet prepared for such crowds, they had not been informed of any change in policy. Most border stations had a normal complement of guards who had expected a quiet night simply making sure that no one tried to cross the wall. They were in no position to deal with demands for travel visas, and had no idea how to react to the growing mobs demanding access to the other side of the city. They tried to get instructions, but no one knew what to do. With the Politburo locked away in a meeting that lasted until 11:00 PM, none of the top leaders were informed about events on the street until it was too late to prevent them. In this confusion, guards got word to let the citizens pass, with or without valid passports and visas, and within hours the people of East Germany had accomplished what many had thought impossible — they brought down the iron curtain, and dramatically signaled that the cold war was over. Within weeks the Communist states of Eastern Europe would fall like dominos. What the arms race and threat of nuclear annihilation could not do, some careless words by a government press secretary and bold actions by a public accomplished.”

  3. #3 by henitsirk on March 24, 2009 - 02:30

    Well of course Hollywood told the story as if Charlie Wilson brought the Cold War to an end and brought down the USSR…that’s the same self-centered thinking that caused us to fund the mujaheddin in the first place. Not because we wanted to help the Afghans, but for our own purposes (thwarting the USSR). Yet another instance of the US meddling for its own benefit.

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