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Cold Warrior Charlie Wilson Dies – Sadly, America’s Cold War Ethos Persists

Cold Warrior Charlie Wilson Dies – Sadly, America’s Cold War Ethos Persists

Former Congressman Charles Wilson, the title character of the 2003 book/2007 movie, Charlie Wilson’s War, passed away Feb. 10 of a heart attack.  He was 76 years old.

The Democratic representative from East Texas was one of Washington’s most colorful characters during his tenure.  Wilson was known best for two things:  First was his reputation as a playboy.  “Good Time Charlie” was seldom seen without a young lady on his arm possessive of most of the attributes prized by the superficial male.

Second, and infinitely more significant, was Wilson’s role in the covert effort to support rebel factions in Afghanistan fight against the Soviet army in the 1980s.

Charlie Wilson’s Role & Regrets

From Afghanistan: The Making of U.S. Policy, 1973-1990, introductory essay by Steve Galster:

In 1984, Wilson used his powerful position on the House Intelligence Committee to tack on an additional $50 million for Afghan covert aid and convinced the CIA to purchase high-quality, Swiss-designed Oerlikon anti-aircraft missiles, which could pierce the heavy armor of the USSR’s most formidable counterinsurgency machine, the Hind Mi-24 helicopter. The CIA went even further in 1985, purchasing the sophisticated British-made Blowpipe anti-aircraft missiles. And in 1986, due to pressure from several congressmen and a number of bureaucrats at the State and Defense departments, the CIA provided the mujahidin with U.S.-made Stinger missiles, the most effective shoulder-held anti-aircraft weapon in the world. It was the first time the CIA had provided U.S.-made weaponry as part of a covert insurgency support operation, and the legislative branch was largely responsible…

Wilson was the toast of Washington following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989.  His efforts in support of the Afghan mujahidin, however, would have tragic unforeseen consequences.  Wilson, himself, admitted as much in 2003 National Public Radio interview.

“I take my full share of the blame, but – and at the time I didn’t realize how serious it was, but the United States, once the Communist government had fallen, once the Russians had left, we sort of lost interest, the United States and other Western countries,”  Wilson lamented to NPR’s Terry Gross.  “And because of that, we created a vacuum.”

Supporting Pakistani interests in fight against Communism

That a power vacuum existed in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal and subsequent American neglect is true but only partially so.  What Wilson failed to mention was that in pursuit of America’s Cold War “triumph,” by allowing Pakistani intelligence (ISI) officials to distribute the American resources, that outcome was a foregone conclusion.

Melissa Roddy noted the consequences of allowing the ISI to select the beneficiaries of “American largesse” in a Dec. 2007 Alternet.org post.  Within it, Roddy scolds the filmmakers behind Charlie Wilson’s War for misrepresenting this historical aspect, particularly their failure to mention the substantial support– up to 40 percent of billions of dollars worth of American aid — given to “…a blood-thirsty, fundamentalist, loudly anti-American bastard named Gulbaddin Hekmatyar.”

Not only is Hekmatyar anti-American, but he and another anti-American fundamentalist, Abdul Rasul Sayaf, received lots of support during the 1980s from the Saudis. That support included cash and thousands of Arab volunteers, including a wealthy young engineer named Osama bin Laden. It was Hekmatyar and Sayaf who, with bin Laden, established terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That is why after 9/11, Wilson went on Fox News and said, “This was as much my fault as anybody’s.” He understood the link between U.S. support for these thugs and the events of that terrible day. But Wilson’s mea culpa is not included in Charlie Wilson’s War, nor is there any mention of Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, Abdul Rasul Sayaf or Arab volunteers.

Upon the news of Wilson’s death, Roddy – a documentary filmmaker with a focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan, past and present – published a post at ThePublicRecord.org entitled, “I Come Not to Praise Charlie Wilson, But to Bury Him.”  Her more recent condemnation pertains to the less romantic aspects of Wilson’s tireless efforts; namely, the Congressman’s ties to oil companies with regional interests and his lucrative, post-legislative career as a lobbyist for Pakistan.

Be sure to view the clip from Roddy’s documentary on the subject at the bottom of this post.  However, I’m less interested in the condemnation of Wilson than I am the Cold War mindset that facilitated him.

The destructive persistence of America’s Cold War Ethos

Historian H.W. Brands described the evolution of the American Cold War ethos in his 1993 book, “The Devil We Knew:  Americans and the Cold War.”

Within the book (and it should be noted that this pertains to a minuscule segment of Brand’s sweeping Cold War treatment) the author describes how the good vs. evil dichotomy became entrenched in American politics, foreign and domestic.  It was a black and white caricature of a gray-scale conflict, easily digestible for the American electorate.  Perhaps necessary at the time, it allowed Americans to collectively pat themselves on the back for “winning” the Cold War while ignoring the consequences, here described in the above linked National Security Archive essay from Galster:

Six thousand miles away from the celebrations, however, the war in Afghanistan raged on. Washington and Moscow’s clients, using U.S. and Soviet-supplied weapons, continued their internecine struggle for power, adding more civilian casualties to the 1 million who had already died. Although peace had broken out between the superpowers, the legacy of their long and bitter rivalry lived on in the rocket-prone city of Kabul, Pakistan’s crowded refugee camps and the war-ravaged villages in the Hindu Kush mountains.

Similarly, American ignorance of these conditions allowed for simplistic notions of the Cold War to persist in domestic politics.  “Few American voters cared to take the time to educate themselves to the nuances of the possible positions candidates might adopt on issues relating to national security,” Brands wrote.  “For the majority who didn’t, the question of whether an individual was reassuringly hard or suspiciously soft on communism simplified the sorting process.”

Also on the domestic front, this paradigm was exploited by “persons and organizations that had hidden behind the Cold War to oppose social reform…”  Brands notes that these constituencies would have no problem finding another mechanism following the Soviet Union’s collapse, however, “… red-baiting would be hard to match for its capacity to change the subject, and to throw advocates of reform on the defensive.”

There can be no doubt that these Cold War tendencies continue to poison America’s political climate.  The success of Charlie Wilson’s War at the box office is evidence that Americans were, and continue to be, willing to cling to their romantic notions well after the supposed Cold War’s end.  

Replace communism with terrorism, the Soviet Union with Al Qaeda, in many of the above paragraphs and the extension of American Cold War sensibilities into the present becomes plain.  To be sure, the death of Charlie Wilson will do nothing to change this state of affairs.  Absent an American awakening to nuance in understanding U.S. foreign and domestic policy, it’s a shame that that we can’t bury the Cold War ethos with him.

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Image - Flickr.com User:  ProgressOhio - by way of CreativeCommons.org

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16 comments

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5:22PM PST on Mar 12, 2010

Many Americans continue to prefer a simplistic "good guy-bad guy" view of the world to the more complex realities of politics. This has been ruthlessly exploited by Fox News and the far-right of the Republican party.

8:30AM PST on Mar 1, 2010

He may have had good intentions...but he was in bed with oil. Can't say I'll miss him.

6:53AM PST on Feb 26, 2010

Who cares (except historians) ?

1:06AM PST on Feb 25, 2010

Throughout the ages leaders have conjured up bogeymen to scare their brainless followers into supporting their cynically ruthless agenda. In my youth it was "the horrible Hun"; then came "Reds under the beds"; now we have "imams on the divans". Were it not so disastrous, murderous, racist, xenophobic, arrogant and ignorant it would be absolutely hilarious.

3:59PM PST on Feb 21, 2010

Russia went broke on their war. We armed our future enemy and now are repeating the Russian mistakes and then some.
Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

6:34PM PST on Feb 20, 2010

good comments ty

4:46AM PST on Feb 18, 2010

Very good article!

11:14AM PST on Feb 17, 2010

didnt know about it...thanx

10:59AM PST on Feb 17, 2010

Most likely the CIA urged him on but the Carter-Brzezinski finding of 07/06/79 to fund the opposition forces in the hope of drawing the Soviet Union into occupying and supporting their client state must have lite the fuse. That was at least a secular feminist friendly government. But direct US Congressional funding is no covert war, it was an invitation to full scale war if the Soviet Union had wished to. And mark my words they have not forgotten it and we could be being destabilized right now, particularly given the Paulson contention that they were dumping fannymaes.
But using the Afghan people in this way is exactly the opposite of the help to freedom fighters aura we have generated around it in addition to the freedom fighters going rogue on us. we are only making things much worse using the Predators and Hellfire missiles!

9:53AM PST on Feb 17, 2010

I think there is a growing number of people who know, and feel powerless to do anything. Chalemers Johnson's books, Blowback, about unintended consequences of secret wars and missions, and The Sorrows of Empire, about how constant war / a war economy destroys first democracy and then economy, should be required reading.

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