“Charlie Wilson’s War”

In George Crile's thrilling tale of good intentions gone wrong, one boozing congressman convinces the U.S. to support the Afghan mujahedin -- many of whom 20 years later want to see us dead.

Topics: Afghanistan, Charlie WIlson, Books,

How do you react to a very funny book about something that isn’t funny at all? George Crile’s “Charlie Wilson’s War” is a classic story of good intentions gone wrong, a comedy of can-do Americanism loose in a world it really doesn’t understand. Crile’s protagonist, the boozing, womanizing Texas congressman Charlie Wilson, and his roster of allies ranging from socialites to dictators to CIA operatives, are figures who might have stepped out of one of the late Ross Thomas’ comic thrillers of Americans up to their necks in Third World skullduggery.

Crile, a producer at “60 Minutes,” has hold of a story here that everyone else missed, and his elation at having a big scoop dovetails with the enthusiasm that Charlie Wilson brought to his cause — arming the Afghan rebels to defeat the invading Soviet army in the ’80s. Crile has written an extraordinarily entertaining piece of reportage that has much to tell us about how the U.S. armed a group of people who are now using the weapons we provided them to kill us. A fiction writer would be hard-pressed to come up with a comparable tale of American shortsightedness, or one with more hairpin reversals and rich, comic irony.

But there is a contradiction at the heart of the book that Crile has not been able to resolve. He’s torn between seeing Charlie Wilson as a hero and knowing what his unconditional support of the mujahedin cost us. Crile has written a satirical epic of inadvertent hero worship.

Crile’s confusion over Charlie Wilson is likely to be the reader’s as well. You’d have to be very straitlaced not to like the guy. In the ’80s, Wilson was an east Texas congressman, a Democrat, a social liberal and a fierce anticommunist who had a seat on the House Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for funding both the Pentagon and the CIA. Wilson’s public persona was something of a joke. A rangy 6-footer (his cowboy boots added a few inches) with a booming voice and the demeanor of the prototypical confident American, Wilson was more known for his shenanigans than his statesmanship. The ladies in his life included a Playmate, a former Miss World contestant, an east Texas divorcée who became his personal belly dancer, and a Houston socialite who so endeared herself to the Pakistan dictator Mohammed Zia ul-Haq that Pakistan’s then ambassador to the U.S. made her the country’s honorary consul.

At the beginning of the book, Wilson is enduring the scandal of being found in the hot tub of the Fantasy Suite at Caesar’s Palace with two showgirls and a goodly supply of cocaine. “Both of them,” he remembers, “had ten long, red fingernails with an endless supply of beautiful white powder … The Feds spent a million bucks trying to figure out whether, when those fingernails passed under my nose, did I inhale or exhale — and I ain’t telling.” When he was later appointed to the House Ethics Committee (largely due to the machinations of then House Speaker Tip O’Neill) he told a reporter it was because “I’m the only one of the committee who likes women and whiskey, and we need to be represented.” There’s no getting around how refreshing that sounds now, following a period where the government went crazy because the president got a blow job.

It was just that sort of reputation that made people underestimate Charlie Wilson, and thus allowed him to work unseen. From the time he was a boy, mesmerized by the battles the Allies waged in World War II, Wilson saw himself as a man of destiny. Graduating from Annapolis (with more demerits than anyone in his class) and spending his time at sea chasing Russian submarines, Wilson was possessed of an unwavering patriotism and convinced of the Soviet threat. Inspired by John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, Wilson won election to the Texas Legislature in 1961 and then to Congress 12 years later. Never having seen combat duty, Wilson felt that he had, in Crile’s words, “cheated his country.”

In Congress, he became a passionate advocate of Israel. That advocacy left him heartbroken in 1982 when he went to a Palestinian and Lebanese Shiite refugee camp outside Beirut where Ariel Sharon had permitted Lebanese Christians to enter and begin a two-day slaughter. With that experience, and his lifelong hatred of the USSR, it was easy for him to transfer the need to find a heroic cause to the mujahedin, then fighting the Soviet invaders.

His chipper Virgil in this circle of hell was the aforementioned Houston socialite Joanne Herring. Like Wilson, she’s an easy figure to laugh off. She became acquainted with the plight of the Afghans through her then husband, a Texas oil tycoon. Her response to the poverty she encountered in Afghan villages was to persuade her designer friends, among them Emilio Pucci, Oscar de la Renta and Pierre Cardin, to come up with designs Afghan women could use as patterns to make dresses and rugs and thus lift themselves out of poverty. Meeting Wilson, she used her wiles to persuade him that the mujahedin were a cause worth promoting. And seeing his potential through Joanne Herring’s eyes made it easier for Charlie Wilson to believe he was on his way to being the man he’d always wanted to be.

It should be said that Wilson wasn’t entirely thinking with his pecker. The news reports of Afghan refugees fleeing into Pakistan by the thousands and helicopter gunships destroying villages while the mujahedin refused to give up were honestly appalling. For the right, it was a nightmare of Soviet imperialism, and for the left it was another chapter in the series of outrages against Hungary and Czechoslovakia and other countries. With the will to do something for the Afghan rebels, and in the catbird seat of the House Appropriations Committee, Charlie Wilson only had to find the people who could guide his efforts. The contacts provided by Joanne Herring were one channel. And Gust Avrakatos was another.

Avrakatos is the book’s second major character, emphasis on character. A Greek-American out of the steel towns of Pennsylvania, and like Charlie, stirred to public service by JFK’s “Ask not what your country to do for you” speech, Avrakatos was a cunning and ruthless CIA agent whose working-class crudeness kept him out of the Agency’s inner circle, the province of the “gentlemen spies” epitomized by Allan Dulles. With typical bluntness, Avrakatos says of the CIA’s old-boy network, “the only reason half of them got anywhere is because they jerked off Henry Cabot Lodge’s grandson at some prep school.”

If Avrakatos knows this talk sounds colorful, it’s also his genuine way of speaking. Crile notes that he still speaks the language of the rough Pennsylvania streets where he grew up. He called his black secretary (who adored him and who he rescued from financial ruin by co-signing a loan, cutting up her credit cards and putting her on a strict budget) at the CIA a “nigger” several times a day. Yet his working-class ethic led him time and again to champion the secretaries at the Agency (who were also an invaluable source of information). When Avrakatos was re-posted in late 1986, the black workers gave him their annual Brown Bomber Award, the only white man ever to receive it. The woman who presented it to Avrakatos said, “We want to give this award to the blackest motherfucker of us all.”

Avrakatos’ anticommunist ideology was the same as Wilson’s. In Wilson he saw a great opportunity to bypass the bureaucracy of the CIA as well as potential congressional oversight (the CIA was under a great deal of scrutiny at the time as Democrats tried to curtail Reagan’s romance with the Contras) and strike a crippling blow to the Soviet Union.

The machinations that Charlie and Gust went through included securing matching funds from the Saudis (so that any congressional appropriation to the mujahedin was automatically doubled), involving Zia (who didn’t want to prompt a Soviet invasion of his country by openly giving aid to the rebels), and finding a way to make sure that the weapons given the rebels bore nothing that would mark them of an American make. What it finally added up to was the largest and most expensive CIA covert operation of all time. And with the eventual withdrawal of the USSR from Afghanistan, Crile argues it was eventually central to the collapse of the Soviet empire.

It would be too complex, and deprive potential readers of the fun of the book, to go into the details of all the cloak and dagger enterprises here. But time and again, what strikes you is the riotous sense of culture clash at play. Given the strictures of Muslim countries, Charlie Wilson vowed never to visit one of those countries without liquor and a woman in tow. So Crile recounts hilarious scenes like when one of Charlie’s companions, in order not to offend the strict Muslim warriors, sat in on a meeting in her idea of a conservative outfit: a pink nylon jumpsuit with a zipper down the front. When Charlie and Gust arrange for Tennessee mules to be sent in to ferry the arms shipments to the rebels in the mountains, word comes back that though the mules are doing their job, they are also being buggered and eaten by the mujahedin.

It also strikes you that, dedicated and maybe cracked as they were, Charlie Wilson and Gust Avrakatos were, in the midst of the Reagan administration, measurably less nuts than the people around them. One of the schemes devised by Richard “the Prince of Darkness” Perle, Oliver North and NSC staffer Walt Raymond was to encourage Soviet soldiers to defect to the mujahedin. The Afghan rebels were to use loudspeakers to tell the soldiers that deserting was their passage to the West and freedom. When Avrakatos went to the Reagan White House to brief them on the efficacy of the plan, he took several photographic blowups to show what Soviets who defected could expect. The photos showed the Soviet soldiers being raped, hanged and castrated by the mujahedin. Crile also recounts Avrakatos’ attempts to derail the Iran-Contra scheme (including denying Oliver North access to a CIA Swiss bank account), not only because he thought it was crazy but because he knew it was illegal.

When Crile writes of Avrakatos standing up to the mad schemes of his superiors, or when he details Charlie Wilson heading off yet another potential disaster to his program, there’s no doubt that he digs the ad hoc James Bondmanship of these two. And since they are such immensely entertaining personalities, Charlie a master of bullshit and Gust the kind of guy who could cut through a truckload of it with one sentence, you can’t help but dig them, too.

Nor is Crile coy about the effects of their efforts for the mujahedin. The book ends with a long epilogue detailing just how the great panoply of weapons that Wilson was instrumental in procuring for the Afghan fighters ended up being turned against us. Crile encountered stories about what the mujahedin were doing in 1991 when he went to Afghanistan for “60 Minutes.” He heard tales of mobs burning a free health clinic for women convinced it was promoting free sex, of murdering women working in Afghan refugee camps as teachers and nurses, of civilian populations being shelled to “liberate” them from the infidel.

But what nags at you reading “Charlie Wilson’s War” is the discrepancy between the admiration and affection it’s so easy to feel for Charlie Wilson and Gust Avrakatos and the way that they represent everything blinkered and duplicitous about American intelligence. Particularly in light of Sept. 11, you don’t have to be a right-winger to acknowledge that for intelligence to be effective, it has to operate, at least to some extent, in secrecy. But is it fair, as some conservatives were quick to do, to blame the failure of intelligence that allowed Sept. 11. on things like the Church Committee of the ’70s (which uncovered the CIA’s role in overthrowing Salvador Allende and installing Pinochet), or on the Democrats’ opposition to Reagan’s proxy wars in Central America during the ’80s? An institution funded by the public has to admit to some public scrutiny. It hardly denies the brutality of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to see the United States’ arming of the mujahedin as part of the anticommunist fervor that led Wilson to champion U.S. meddling in Chile and Central America. (He was an admirer of the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza.)

How are we to react when Charlie Wilson weeps at Zia’s funeral? Crile has done a fine job of relating what the man meant to Wilson, how much of a friend and ally he had become, and he doesn’t shortchange his hero’s emotion. But knowing Zia had Pakistan leader Ali Bhutto murdered, and that he was working toward building a nuclear bomb, you can’t help but feel that the tragedy of Zia’s death is that it didn’t come by strangulation in the cradle.

Military and intelligence officials and politicians are not mind readers. Not every consequence of every action can be foreseen. But surely someone as shrewd as Gust Avrakatos, someone who recognized the warlord culture of Afghanistan for what it was, was not incapable of seeing the consequences of arming a group that included more than its fair share of fundamentalist Islamic wackos. If there’s anything worse than a rube, it’s a rube with a Stinger missile.

It’s reasonable to conclude that both Wilson’s and Avrakatos’ fervent desire to bring down the USSR was tragically, comically, ignorantly shortsighted in terms of the potential danger to the United States. And it seems to me that both they and Crile overestimated the power of the USSR at the time of the invasion of Afghanistan. Of course, it was the Soviet Vietnam, and Crile is particularly good on how ordinary Russians turned against their government which, in the face of young men returning from combat minus limbs, denied there was even a war going on. But the question of just how much of a played-out power the USSR was by the ’80s is not addressed.

So “Charlie Wilson’s War” is a book divided against itself, Crile’s enthusiasm and his large gifts as a storyteller pitted against his critical intelligence. (The book never strikes the balance of satire and celebration Philip Kaufman achieved in his film of Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff.”) But you can’t condemn Crile too harshly for that as it divides the reader in the same way. Charlie Wilson and Gust Avrakatos come off as attractive, shrewd, lusty, larger-than-life characters who blundered us right into arming people who now want nothing more than to see us dead. Perhaps the best way to honor them is with the same toast Charlie Wilson gave when he watched Soviet Cmdr. Boris Gromov, the last Russian to leave Afghanistan, make his departure on TV: “Here’s to you, you motherfuckers.”

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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