Saturday, September 4, 2010

Review: Charlie Wilson's War (book)

After I read three books about Afghanistan (Taliban, Stones Into Schools, Three Cups of Tea), Jayne Martin of injaynesworld, suggested that I read George Crile's 2003 book Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History.

So, what do I say? I've been pondering it for days. I guess I'll start by talking about what I thought and felt as I read it...

I wondered, throughout the book, about the author's political leanings. But this was as hard to discern as Charlie Wilson's (Wilson's Wiki). Wilson was a Democratic US representative from Texas (of all places) and an advocate of typically liberal issues such as utility regulation, ERA, the pro-choice movement, Medicaid and minimum wage. At the same time, he was an unapologetic and even proud womanizer, drug user and alcoholic. But he was also a fervent anti-communist with a strong dislike of the Soviets and a friend of right-wing dictators like Nicaragua's Somoza and Pakistan's Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Nobody is a purist, but this guy seemed to be all over the map. But what lured him into the plight of Afghanistan's insurgency against the Soviet occupation was his strong passion for the underdog, particularly his own. His childhood dog, that is. A politician poisoned his dog, so Charlie drove to the black neighborhoods and picked up enough voters to make the politican lose by just 16 votes. That was when Charlie first learned, at the age of 13, how to kick somebody's ass through politics.

It's interesting, my use of the words "kick somebody's ass." Ass kicking seemed to be the overriding theme of the book and such an attractive phrase in America (just look at our film industry) and yes, in my own mind. Because once, I was the underdog and was saved by a couple of ass kickers.

From 1985 to 1991 I worked for a Huntsville, Alabama engineering software and hardware firm called Intergraph. Intergraph is and was a major defense contractor and while there, I gave some electronics design demonstrations to several nameless US government or military "spooks." Intergraph was heavily involved with NASA and the space program but also involved in mapping, GIS and Patriot missile systems for the first gulf war. It was full of the swashbuckling, cowboy, no-holds-barred kind of guys - starting with the company owner. I was saved twice, by two different guys, from abuse and harassment on the job. In addition to having a kind of slavering admiration of manly men men, I was really grateful to these two for helping me.

So, when I started reading this book about Charlie Wilson, I could feel all those old feelings bubbling up inside of me. Awe. Attraction. Admiration. But I'm older now. And not so easily seduced. I now know the down side of hanging out with these types of guys and it's not pretty. After the victory and glory, they still are fallible, sometimes dangerous, human beings.

Charlie Wilson and his counterpart in the CIA, Gust Avrakotos, were portrayed as the quintessential stereotypical American cowboys: fearless, rough necks, socially crass, rule breakers, straight talkers (i.e. no bullshit), patriots and manly men. They cussed, they worked around obstacles or pushed them roughly out of the way and they crusaded fearlessly to help the underdog Afghans defeat their mutual enemy - dirty commie Soviets. Using politics, spy-novel secrecy and American money and technology (i.e. Military Industrial Complex), they dual-handedly fought and won a proxy war against the meanies by helping Afghan tribesmen shoot down Soviet jets and helicopters who were implementing a scorched-earth policy: destroy everything (people, homes, dogs, crops...) in their path, from the air.

It's a high, being a cowboy. It's like cocaine - short spurts of genius followed by longer periods of depression and neurosis, which makes us want more cocaine. It's like sex - the more perverse we get, the more we seek out bigger perversions. And war is just as addicting as cocaine and sex. It's an adrenaline rush. It's manly. We get to kick some (insert enemy here) ass! We get to rule over our sex partners. Compared to this, peace is a sad and dull replacement. It's no wonder that the peace movement is looked upon as ineffective and weak. I suppose you could get high meditating, but I've never gotten THAT high meditating.

I may be anti-war, but I have war inside myself. I don't fight with guns, just words. But words can be as harmful as bullets and my anger can sometimes be nuclear. In the face of my declared enemies (neoconservatives, Bush, Cheney, AIPAC/Zionists, fundamentalists of all types, organized religion, Palin, Beck, Limbaugh, Malkin, Colter, Fox News...), I don't wish them dead, but I want them to just "go away." I seek their annihilation from public discourse. I want MY world view to be THE world view and everybody who doesn't agree with me just needs to get the fuck out of my way. It's why I and the author of this book and many Americans, secretly or openly admire ass kickers. I suppose I'm tame, since I'm just an unknown blogger and not bombing buildings, but I'm not productive. I'm not getting anything done. I'm not helping people evolve towards peace.

According to the book, the unsung hero of the Afghan/Soviet war was a low-level, nerdy (meaning, not a swashbuckling, sexy cowboy) CIA desk jockey named Michael Vickers. Avrakotos was smart enough to know that Vickers was smarter than him and thus employed him in Charlie Wilson's War. Vickers was the antithesis of Wilson and Avrakotos: quiet, polite, calm, methodical, a friend of numbers, taking the time to analyze all possible facets of a situation and then defining the perfect, and I mean perfect, strategy. Then he could quietly and methodically sell that strategy, anticipating every objection and backing up all premises with facts and numbers. If it wasn't for Vickers, Wilson would have made an expensive mess of things, crashing through the world visiting weapons manufacturers, both viable and not so viable, until he found the right camel-mounted heli-killing cannon. Avrakotos, even though he pushed the CIA way beyond their hands-off approach, leaned in the direction of secrecy. Vickers was smack dab in the middle. He took big risks that were backed up with facts instead of Charlie-style emotion and he convinced CIA elite to more openly support the fight.

The book didn't really say whether Vickers joined in on all the emotional war dances inside Avrakotos' CIA war room. I don't know if he too had life-sized posters above his desk of romantic, exotic, Lawrence of Arabia-style Afghans sitting on camels toting their Stinger missiles. But, I doubt he did. The interesting thing about Vickers is that he knew the precise moment when his plan began to work and because his plan was perfect, he knew when he was finished. He also looked around at the structure and history of the CIA and knew he would never go anywhere there. He was not just a war strategist. He applied his skills to his own life. He quietly and calmly left the CIA and left Avrokotos feeling like he'd lost his right arm.

Where would the world be if somebody hadn't kicked Hitler's ass? Would the Soviets still be in power and currently running the Middle East if the Afghans and our Stinger missiles hadn't kicked their collective ass? Where would I be if my two Intergraph anti-heroes hadn't kicked some ass to save me? I don't know the answer to the first two questions. I'm not a scholar of history, international relations or war. But I do know the answer to the last question. I might not have needed to be saved, if I had developed my inner Vickers. I didn't need to kick anyone's ass or find someone to kick ass for me. I just needed to pluck the war out of my own body, set aside my emotions and calmly, like a nerd, plot my career strategy and leave that crazy place.

I don't blog much anymore. I got too emotional. I didn't feel like I was moving anything or anybody towards any kind of new world view. With a little time and some deep thought, I've achieved a broader vision. Like Charlie and his addiction to self-destructive behavior, today's world is addicted to the myth of the Charlie Wilson style warrior. Charlie Wilson and his pals unquestionably assisted in the downfall of the Soviet Union, so there is some merit in this story. But until the world evolves towards a more peaceful approach to world affairs and takes the war needle out of its arm, nothing much will change. When the mystique of the peaceful warrior becomes more powerful in the world's collective consciousness, more time and money and energy will be spent building than destroying.

Until then, I need to go inward, point my finger back at myself and replace my hidden but waning admiration for war power and my addiction to the false power behind my own war of words, with the attitudes and building blocks of peace.

As an interesting aside, when I entered keyword tags for this post, all the keywords I needed to use - war, Afghanistan - had been used before in my previous posts. Except for peace.