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Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

How was Charlie Wilson, a good-old-boy Democratic Congressman from East Texas, like James Bond?  Let me count the ways.  Both were inveterate womanizers and proud of it.  Both enjoyed their alcohol.  Both were expert at creating a suave facade that cloaked much darker and more ambitious intentions.  Both worked for the secret intelligence services of their
respective countries, yet were not listed on any official agency rosters.  Both had licenses to kill.  Both took on the Great Red Menace with self-satisfied glee.  Yet, in one critical aspect, they were very different.  007 was the figment of a hack mystery writer, and Charlie Wilson was real, all-too-real.

Charlie Wilson rose out of the same hardscrabble ground as another larger-than-life Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson.  Wilson went to Congress at the height of the Cold War, and became increasingly frustrated because the rules of engagement for that silent war prevented him from participating.  Evewn though he was on the House Appropriations Committee, where the real power
resided (the power to disburse money), he often felt that the American side limited its effectiveness with petty legalistic constraints.

Then came Afghanistan.  The Soviets invaded, though not officially acknowledging this to their own citizens.  America began funding a ragtag army of Afghan tribal warlords who suddenly became freedom fighters because they were taking on the Great Russian Bear.  Charlie Wilson's heart ached when he heard reports of the pitiful World War I rifles that the brave
mujadheen used against sophisticated Soviet weaponry.  But it was strict administration policy not to supply American weapons, not to acknowledge that America had a vested interest in this war.  A captured M-16 rifle or rocket launcher would hand the Soviets a propaganda coup, one that would seem to justify the Soviet invasion.

Charlie Wilson and his CIA friend Gust Avrakatos set about to change this.  George Crile, a veteran 60 Minutes producer with many forays into Afghanistan and Pakistan under his belt, has put together the previously-untold story of how Charlie beat the bureaucrats and got to fulfill his James Bond fantasy by using the mujadheen to stick it to the communists.  It is probably fair to say that without Wilson's bravado, there would have been no driving of the Soviets out of Afghanistan, and perhaps a great delay in the collapse of the Soviet Union as well.

How Charlie and Gust got Stinger missiles produced by General Dynamics in the San Gabriel Valley of Southern California, into the hands of the freedom fighters, makes a great story and highlights an overlooked truism of world history - the things that go on unseen frequently have as much effect as the "official explanation" offered to the public.

But, as Crile points out, this is not just the story of an oversized flawed hero.  It is also a story that perfectly illustrates the law of unintended consequences.  Charlie Wilson's feudal freedom fighters became 20th Century techno-guerillas without shedding their radical Islamic fundamentalist tendencies.  Somke banded with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda after the expulsion of the Soviet Army, and other swith the brutal warlords who, to this very day, resist the imposition of Western-style, Kabul-centered
democracy into Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is a Western construct which throws together into one country many rival ethnic factions that have been warring among themselves for centuries.  These factions are better at fighting than they are at uniting.  Crile reminds us that, in the Afghan language, the same word is used for "cousin" and "enemy."  Crile's story of the biggest covert operation in American history is a tale from the 1980s whose chilling relevance to today is obvious.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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