I saw the delightful new Tom Hank’s film last night, Charlie Wilson’s War (director Mike Nichol’s). First, it’s a terrific and funny film. The ladies will get a thrill watching Hank’s bare bottom, and the guys will enjoy watching him slurp Scotch in a hot tub full of naked models. But enough of the important things, let’s talk about why this is a subversive, anti-Bush message.
Wilson (who is alive and well after a recent heart transplant) was a Democratic congressman from Texas. He fell victim to Tom Delay’s redistricting in the mid-1990’s, which flipped Texas from a majority Democratic delegation to majority Republican. He describes himself as a liberal, but he fell victim to the philosophical and physical charms of a wealthy right-wing Christian conservative played by Julia Roberts.
The thrust of the film is to show how policy is made in Washington, by trading favors and making deals among the members. The Afghan War against the Russians was financed by the United States; billions of dollars were funneled to the Afghan tribal fighters, allowing them to swap their Lee-Enfield rifles for Stinger missiles. The US entered into deals with Israel to obtain Russian-made weapons from Egypt and elsewhere, and with Pakistan’s dictator Zia al-Haq to transport the Israeli-Russian weapons over the Northwest Frontier border to Afghanistan. The entire war was financed off the books by secret CIA budget resolutions, so no one knew how the money was spent, or on what.
In the final scenes of the movie, the Russians leave and the Taliban set up in the ensuing chaos and power vacuum. When Wilson asks for money for reconstruction of schools and hospitals, he is turned down by his colleagues. After the Russians are out of Afghanistan, and they mistakenly believe war helped bring down the Iron Curtain (not true it turns out, but that is another story), Congress said “who cares?” Bush I is reported to have asked, “Is that war still going on?”
Charlie Wilson’s War joins Ken Burns’ documentary The War’ as a very slick and clever subversive attack on the Republicans and specifically on their conceit and cowardice as warriors. In Charlie Wilson’s War, we see how the Republican administration incompetently staffs its embassies abroad with cowards and know-nothings. Policy is made based on mistaken assumptions, incompetent or missing intelligence, and the CIA is unable to provide information on even the largest troop movements and military events, like the five divisions assembling on the border to invade Afghanistan. Its important to see the CIA portrayed in an historically accurate manner: biased, racist, willfully ignorant, and usually lacking in any helpful intelligence at all.
In the Burns documentary, we heard fifteen hours of testimony from Americans living and dead about national unity, personal and community sacrifice, and financial cost-sharing during wartime. No one watching the film could fail to make the connection between the figures in the film, and the incompetent and selfish Republican war strategy. The War also put to the lie the many myths of invincibility and superiority surrounding American military history. On the contrary, Burns made the point that US strategy was seriously flawed, saved only by the vast amounts of men and materiel the nation threw at the enemy’s guns. D-Day was a near disaster, with US troops landing at the wrong beaches, and American weapons and equipment were inferior to both the German and Japanese weapons. MacArthur was an idiot, refusing to prepare defenses in the Philippines because he considered the Japanese incapable and racially inferior (and ignoring the evidence of their military superiority in China). The subsequent surrender of the US Army at Bataan and Corregidor, and the internment of thousands of Allied citizens (MacArthur refused to evacuate them) is entirely on his ignorant Republican head. It is my personal hope that his reputation has been smeared, and corrected, forever.
Both films, and you could count in Clint Eastwood’s Flag of Our Fathers, are subversive attempts to correct the historical record. They celebrate the courage and humanity of individual soldiers, while indicting the US and particularly the right wing Republican historical spin machine and their incompetent and ignorant stewardship of anything military. These are people who shouldn’t be allowed to use guns, much less make military policy.
These films attempt to correct the military history myth machine of the old John Wayne films, and hundreds of others that failed to explain the lack of competence, the poor quality of American weaponry and equipment, and the poor quality of American general staff. US soldiers stealing boots and coats off dead Germans in the Ardenne, throwing away their malfunctioning rifles in North Africa, throwing thousands of soldiers at the guns of the racially inferior Japanese throughout the Pacific and Asia. The US lacked maps, lacked language specialists, lacked experience, and had no effective strategy in 1941, or in 2001.
Let’s hope that the subversive messages in these films will have some influence down the road.