Charlie Wilson's War, the Culture of Imperialism, and the Distortion of History

By Jeremy Kuzmarov

History News Network
December 31, 2007

In his provocative 1993 book, *Culture and Imperialism*, Edward W. Said
examines how cultural representations in the West have historically helped
to stereotype Third World peoples as being passively reliant on foreign
aid for their social and political uplift, thus engendering support for
imperial interventions ostensibly undertaken for humanitarian purposes.

This was true, he argued, even in works critical of Western interventions,
like Joseph Conrad’s *The Heart of Darkness* and Graham Greene’s *The
Quiet American*, where the indigenous characters appear to be either
incidental to the story or dependent on Westerners (as is exemplified in
the Vietnamese character Phuong who latches onto the “quiet American”
Alden Pyle as a means of escaping a life of poverty and prostitution).

Said’s final chapters focus on Hollywood’s promotion of demeaning
stereotypes of Arabs as religious fanatics and terrorists and universally
oppressive towards women. He highlights, further, how the Vietnamese
people in most American films on the war have been deprived of human
agency, with the U.S. defeat frequently blamed on ineffectual liberal
bureaucrats and incompetent senior officers rather than the strength of
Vietnamese nationalism and mobilizing abilities of the revolutionary

Said would likely argue that "Charlie Wilson’s War" is the
latest Hollywood blockbuster to promote underlying cultural stereotypes of
Third World peoples and Muslims, while sanitizing the American record and
its promotion of imperial violence.

Based loosely on true events, the film focuses on the efforts of a
Congressional representative from Texas, Charlie Wilson, to raise funds
for mujahadin “freedom fighters” seeking to “liberate” Afghanistan from
the Soviets. A playboy renowned for his womanizing and high-lifestyle,
Wilson becomes a lonely voice in support of the CIA’s covert war. He
works closely with Gust Avrakatos, a master of the clandestine arts and
supporter of a fascist coup in Greece (a fact unmentioned by the
directors), who uses underhanded methods to funnel supplies through
intermediaries in the Pakistani secret service. In the mold of "Dirty
Harry" and "Rambo," both Wilson and Avrakatos are portrayed as heroes for
circumventing bureaucratic constraints and confronting the Russians --
even if it entails making a quid pro quo with the murderous Pakistani
dictator Zia Al Huq as well buying arms from a shadowy Israeli

While the film is accurate in portraying the ends justifies the means
philosophy embraced by the CIA and its alliance with murderous dictators,
one major distortion is that the directors portray U.S. policy in
Afghanistan as being largely reactive to the Soviet threat and a product
of a well-intentioned desire to “save” the Afghan people.

This ignores the aggressive policies pursued by Washington throughout the Cold War, its
sponsorship of massive state terror in Central America at this time, and
its long-standing desire to exploit the Middle East’s oil supply.

It further ignores comments made by Zbigniew Brzezinski, the National
Security Adviser under Jimmy Carter, who told *Le Monde* in a 1998

“According to the official version of history, CIA aid to the
mujahadin began during 1980, that is to say after the Soviet Army invaded
Afghanistan, 24 December 1979. But the reality, secretly guarded until
now, is completely otherwise. Indeed it was July 3, 1979 that President
Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the
pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the
president in which I explained to him that in my opinion the aid was going
to induce a Soviet military intervention.”

He added: “What is more important to the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the
Soviet empire? Some stirred up Muslims or the liberation of central
Europe and the end of the Cold War? Now we can give the Russians their
Vietnam War.”

Where exactly does the well-being of the Afghan people fit
in this grand design?

The most egregious misrepresentation of the film is in its portrayal of
the mujahadin as being inexperienced in the handling of weapons and
idealistic refugees fighting for the salvation of their people. This
obscures that the CIA often shunned legitimate nationalists like Abdul Haq
in favor of militant Islamic fundamentalists seeking to impose a fascist
theocratic state along the mold [sic] of the Taliban.

Among Washington’s
key favorites was Gulbuddin Hikmatyar of the Hizb-Y Islami, who was valued
for his hard-line anti-Communism in spite of a reputation for abject
ruthlessness. Hikmatyar was also a renowned opium smuggler and warlord,
and was alleged to have sprayed acid in the faces of women who did not
wear the veil.

One of his colleagues referred to him as “a true monster,”
though he allegedly impressed the CIA (revealing something of its
character) by wanting to take the war against the Soviets to Central Asia
and roll back Communism in Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan. One
CIA officer said, “We wanted to kill as many Russians as we could, and
Hikmatyar seemed like the guy to do it.”

Whitewashing these facts and over-sentimentalizing the CIA-mujahadin
alliance, the film makes it seem as if they were genuine “liberators” who
did not harm any civilians and whose ultimate victory over the Soviets
represented a great moral triumph. The producers also imply that the
chaos that ensued in Afghanistan after the war resulted from rogue forces
taking over the country -- ignoring the impact of their training in
terrorist methods by the CIA (including specialization in high

The agency of Afghans, moreover, is denied. In one telling
scene, which fits with Said’s model, a group of rag-tag Afghani refugees
beg Wilson for weapons and financial aid. After Wilson is able to deliver
on his promise through intensive lobbying, the same men are shown
struggling to maneuver a Stinger missile and finally succeed in destroying
a Russian aircraft bombing their village. Within a short time, a huge
number of Soviet fighter planes are shot down and the mighty Russian Army
is forced to retreat. Wilson’s support coupled with Avrakatos’s street
savvy and guile appear as the key determining factors shaping this outcome
-- rather than the ingenuity of the Afghan resistance and will of its

The stereotype of Afghan dependence on the West remains entrenched at the
end of the film. The lack of effective governance after the Soviet
withdrawal and resultant suffering of the Afghan people is blamed on
Congressional unwillingness to carry on the crusade further and build
hospitals and roads for the country. One Congressmen is quoted as saying,
“Who the hell cares about building hospitals or schools in Pakistan?”

While this quote may convey where the true priorities of the government
lie, there is no implication that the U.S. had contributed significantly
to the destabilization of the country by helping to induce the original
Soviet invasion, or would go on to support the Taliban while seeking to
construct an oil pipeline through the country (as is documented for
example in Mahmood Mamdani’s book, *Good Muslim, Bad Muslim*). Neither is
there any recognition that indigenous leaders might be able to develop the
country independent of Western patronage or support.

Viewers are left with the image of Afghans as being a helpless people,
whose fate is dependent on political actions in the United States. The
message is that Americans should intervene more in foreign countries to
alleviate their miseries -- notwithstanding the reality that U.S. policy
is usually based on underlying geo-hegemonic and economic agendas and
frequently contributes to mass human-rights violations and suffering, as
in Afghanistan and Iraq today.

By sanitizing and distorting history, and
presenting Western militarism as a force for good, films like "Charlie
Wilson’s War" ultimately help to perpetuate the ideological mindset
shaping continued foreign policy blunders and crimes of historic
dimensions, which the American public has yet to fully come to terms with.

--Mr. Kuzmarov is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Bucknell
University. His first book, *The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and
the Modern War on Drugs*, will be published by the University of
Massachusetts Press, Amherst.