Charlie Wilson's War

AUSTIN, Texas -- Well, cut off my legs and call me Shorty. I'll be go to hell. Danged if Charlie Wilson didn't win the Cold War singlehandedly.

That would be the same Charlie Wilson we've known all these years as a rascal, reprobate and roue -- and also, a semi-decent congressman from East Texas, a dead-serious patriot and a lot more fun than the average bear.

The thesis of George Crile's book "Charlie Wilson's War" is that Wilson, by brilliantly leveraging his position on the Defense Appropriations Committee, funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, where they gradually bled the Red Army to death and caused the collapse of the Soviet Union. End of Evil Empire, all courtesy of Charlie Wilson.

Crile has boatloads of evidence to back up this improbable thesis and a whale of a tale. This is both a heroic and a comic story featuring the most improbable cast of characters outside a Flashman novel. (Harry Flashman is the swaggering hero of the series by George McDonald Fraser, one of Wilson's favorite writers.)

The comic set pieces are irresistible. Who could miss with material like the time Charlie took a belly dancer from Fort Worth to perform for the Egyptian minister of defense? Or, my favorite, the time he dragged the wildly eccentric chairman of the Appropriations Committee, a guy who spits all the time and looks like the mad scientist from "Back to the Future," off to meet Zia ul-Haq and the Mujahideen.

Accompanied by gorgeous females known as Snookums and Snowflake, Wilson and his assorted accomplices, including a rule-busting CIA op and a born-again Houston socialite, pull off this fantastic, improbable coup.

One thing I especially like about Crile's treatment of all this splendid material is his almost tender portrait of Wilson himself, warts and all. Charlie is awfully easy to caricature or dismiss, though I think he is not quite as exceptional as Crile does. Brilliantly talented alcoholics are rather common in Texas public life, including Bob Bullock, Ann Richards, Oscar Mauzy, Warren Burnett, etc. I believe I am safe in claiming that at one time almost half the Texas Senate consisted of drunks. But Wilson was never the cartoon figure he liked to play. For one thing, most of those gorgeous women who worked for him over the years, known as Charlie's Angels, of course, were smart as hell.

I also appreciate Crile's excellent account of the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan. It certainly helps one understand why we have made zero progress there. He is also superb on the ethos and bureaucratic infighting at the CIA.

One cannot, in this account, help siding with Charlie and his sidekick, Gust Avrakotos, "the blue-collar James Bond," against all the stuffed shirts, wusses and pompous bureaucrats who worried about silly stuff like breaking the law and setting off World War III. Far be it from me to side with the grown-ups -- makes me happy just to think about the hot fantods Charlie and Gust must have produced amongst the mopes at the State Department.

On the other hand, dismissing "blowback" from CIA operations should not be done out-of-hand. It seems to me that even the CIA's "successes," like returning the Shah to Iran and the 1954 Guatemalan coup, produced hideous results. There was good reason to be anti-anti-communist during the Cold War. In this case, we are left with the unfortunate fact that Wilson's War armed a bunch of people who are now shooting at us. While Crile does not neglect that delicate topic entirely, his treatment of it is slight and defensive.

The CIA has made quite a few messes in quite a few places over the years (I know, we never hear about the ones it pulls off), and being concerned about it does not automatically make one a wuss. Ollie North and his crew of right-wing ideologues conducting secret foreign policy did us no good.

As Bethine Church, Frank Church's widow and political partner, reports in her memoir, "A Lifelong Affair," heading the Church Committee was the job from hell for the senator. He did it out of a patriotism just as pure as Charlie Wilson's. It's not hard to make the case that reckless "cowboys" have done this country more damage over time than cautious lawyers. It's just that the cowboys make much better stories.

Crile is much struck by the "destiny" in all this. That such an improbable collection of characters should have had such an impact on world history may seem unlikely. But I've always thought history was mostly luck, chance, accident and human stupidity. It's a whale of a tale, and I recommend it highly. You'll never find another history that reads more like a cross between Flashman and a Tom Clancy novel.

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