Thursday, October 18, 2007

BOOK REVIEW - Charlie Wilson's War

Charlie Wilson's War
George Crile
Grove Press, 2003
550 pages

Charlie Wilson's War is the tale of how one man managed to work around and within the American government to bring unprecedented assistance to the mujahideen in Afghanistan during the 1980's and in turn remake the world. In the summer of 1980 Charlie Wilson was early in his second term representing Texas' 2nd congressional district when he read an AP dispatch describing the waves of refugees fleeing Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion which began on December 25th of the previous year. After reading this release he called the staffer responsible for "black operations" appropriations and instructed him to double the five-million dollar appropriation the CIA requested for Afghan operations. This phone call was the opening salvo in Charlie Wilson's war which pitted Charlie Wilson and an unlikely band of allies, including Israeli generals, Texas socialites, Congressman and Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, Pakistani generals, Swiss arms manufacturers, the Saudi Royal family, the Egyptian Minister of Defense, and an outcast CIA agent against first the CIA itself and then the Soviet's 40th Army in Afghanistan.

We all know how the Afghan conflicted ended for the Soviet Union. After close to a decade of pyrrhic victories and untold billions of dollars spent, the Soviet's began withdrawing troops from Afghanistan on May 15th, 1988 and completed their withdrawal nine months later when Lieutenant General Boris Gromov walked across the Friendship Bridge which stretches across the Amu Darya River and links present-day Uzbekistan with Afghanistan. Less than three years after General Gromov crossed that bridge the Soviet Union would collapse. Many believe this is as a direct result of the blood and money the Soviets were forced to spend fighting the mujahideen. While several characters in the book refer to the war in Afghanistan as Charlie Wilson's war, this is not what the book is really about.

Charlie Wilson's War is about the war behind the war. It is about Charlie Wilson and his allies fighting on several fronts to provide the mujahideen with the weapons and training they needed to take on the might of the Red Army. For Charlie Wilson himself this war would encompass the floor of the House of Representatives, closed-door sessions of appropriations and oversight committees, meetings with the CIA bureaucracy, and even long dark moments where he had to fight himself. Charlie Wilson had a reputation as being a ladies man and a bit of a party boy a reputation and lifestyle that would both open doors for him as well as cause trouble.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and cannot be effusive enough in my praise. I found it to be compulsively readable and considering the current state of affairs in the world incredibly enlightening. I suggest you read the book before the movie comes out in December. Much like Sylvia Nasar's A Beautiful Mind and the subsequent adaptation by Akiva Goldsman the forthcoming Aaron Sorkin-penned movie will not hold a candle to the book. The events in this book are too crazy not to be true.

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