When Osama bin Laden speaks at a pep rally for his war against the West, he boast of his past successes, namely the idea that mujahideen in Afghanistan brought down the Soviet Union through a war of attrition. The film Charlie Wilson’s War echoes this claim. It open with Charlie Wilson being recognized as an “Honored Colleague” by members of the clandestine services for his efforts in finding funding for the mujahideen. By turning Afghanistan into the Soviet Union’s “Vietnam”, Wilson is credited with delivering a “body blow” to the Soviet Union that eventually brought it down. Ok, so the credit for bring down the Soviets goes to the film’s title character, but it maintains that the mujahideen were the instruments of destruction.

The film ends with the now pro-forma mea-culpa that says despite changing the world by bring down the Soviets through a proxy, we, in the words of Charlie Wilson “fucked up the end game.” Although Wilson was able to strong arm military aid for Afghanistan, he is unable to raise even a fraction of the amount for redevelopment and education.

The film takes pains to explore the possible religious motivations of the Americans behind the war. Wilson is a philandering drunk whose favorite saying about his all female office staff is, “You can teach them to type, but you can’t teach them to grow tits.” Further, when a constituent asks for help to defeat an ACLU lawsuit to remove a Crèche from public land in a small Texas town, Charlie tells him to just move it to a church and then brings the constituent’s prim and proper looking daughter back to his apartment for a bit of sex and drugs.

Religion pops up again as representatives of Israel and Pakistan trade barbs of the “God Loves us Best” variety. Further, he asks his sometime bedmate Joanne Harring to stop using religious (of what sort is unclear) rhetoric to raise funds for Afghanistan. When Charlie and Joanne bring the Head of the House Appropriations Committee, Doc Long, to Afghani refugee camps in Pakistan, he is so moved that he pledges support to the struggle of the people of Afghanistan and leads the people in a change of “Allahu Akbar.” He then switches to English “God is Good” and repeats that as the crowd continues its chant. This clearly suggests that the United States accepted the religious motivations of the mujahideen or even encouraged them.

An International Crisis Group report suggests that the US did more than this. It discusses a math curriculum created for use in madrasah on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border that has the students counting Kalashnikov rifles and dead Soviet soldiers.

The film fleshes out the epic myth of our times. It is a creation myth that closely echoes Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein – in our zeal to defeat the Soviets, we created the monster that is now attacking us. The film focuses on Frankenstein (Wilson) and his monster (the mujahideen). It leaves to our post-911 imagination and memory the actual destruction caused by the monster. It clearly intimates that the Taliban were able to gain control of Afghanistan because of the lack of humanitarian aid from the US after the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

I rented this because I wanted to review it for possible use in classes. I doubt its real utility in an anthropology course on Islam or the Middle East. It is not really about Pakistan, Afghanistan, or the people of these nations. It is about Charlie Wilson. In fact, it reduces the people of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Israel for that matter, to little more than tools in Wilson’s workshop. As for the notion that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are monsters of our own creation, I still think 15 minutes of lecturing communicates that point and students will either choose to believe or disbelieve and I am not sure that a feature length film would change their minds.

Ron Lukens-Bull