David, Goliath, Charlie Wilson’s War, and American Culture

The film “Charlie Wilson’s War” is about an American Congressman who in the 1980s organized the clandestine funding to fight the Russian Occupation of Afghanistan. Wilson arranged for over $1 billion to be sent to Afghan groups fighting the Russians on the idea that anyone who would fight the United States’ Cold War enemy was America’s friend, including the admittedly courageous fighters who would later become Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and who got their start on large dollops of money Congressman Wilson sent their way. The film itself describes how three renegades: Congressman Wilson a politician previously known mainly for his womanizing, drug use, and alcohol consumption; Gust Avrakotos, a disgraced CIA agent; and a manipulative Houston socialite Joanne Herring who had a passion for evangelizing Central Asia, arranged to have Mujahaddin groups supplied with and trained to use Stinger missiles to shoot down the Soviet Air Force then occupying Afghanistan.

Each of the three main protagonists have motives rooted in the emotions of the moment— Wilson’s heartstrings are pulled on by meeting Afghan refugee children maimed by war; Herring comes from the evangelical Christian right and wants to stop Communism; and Avrakatos is a staunch anti-Communist with experience in Greece, and three years of Finnish language who resents his demotion to the Afghanistan desk by higher ups at the CIA fed up with his bad temper. Notably, none of the three bring any particular cultural expertise to their understandings of Afghanistan—only a shared passion to kill the Russians who in turn were carrying out a brutal occupation of Afghanistan. The film correlates the use of the Stinger missiles Wilson and his friends funded with the withdrawal of the once mighty Soviet Air military from Afghanistan in 1989, and then the collapse of the Soviet Union itself over the next months.

“Charlie Wilson’s War” is a classic David and Goliath story in the sense that the little guy—the Afghan Mujahaddin—come out on top; albeit only with the assistance that the oddball American friends. The film though ends on a laconic note. In the penultimate scene, Wilson asks his Congressional colleagues to appropriate $1 million to build schools in Afghanistan. The request is dismissed—the same committee which had poured over $1 billion for military assistance to fight the Russians, would not offer 1/1000 of that to build schools. The film then goes onto imply that the end result of this failure is the victory of “the crazies”, i.e. the Taliban extremists.

I would urge you to see the movie; it is done well and is entertaining. Tom Hanks plays Congressman Wilson, and Julia Roberts is the socialite Joanne Herring. The story itself is based on a true story, and since Wilson, Herring, and Avrakotos all cooperated with the filmmakers, I assume that it is a pretty good representation of how they saw themselves, warts and all. But for the more anthropologically inclined, the bigger lesson is in the back story, which is about American world view, and how policy emerges out of the backslapping, favor-trading, ego-stroking world of Washington DC power politics. This world of course has little to do with the Afghan refugees who have roles as gun-waving walk-ons, or the Muijahaddin fighters who finally shott the Soviet Air Force out of the skies using American Stingers. Indeed, there is little indication of why the Afghans fought in the first place. Nor there is there any indications about the bigger questions anthropologists might ask, such as how alliances are formed, or about the tug between religious and secular forces that Afghanistan wrestles. Rather “Charlie Wilson’s War” frames the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan as simply another case of a foreign policy best fixed with American military technology.

So for anthropologists, the real lesson of “Charlie Wilson’s War” is not just the explicit David and Goliath story. Rather it is about how American culture persistently frames foreign policy dilemmas as being best addressed with technological rather than cultural know how. The odd twist in the story is that the filmmakers seem to believe that such technology is best wielded by renegades able to buck the system—even though they themselves are very much products of that system.

After all, where else but in Washington with all its wealth and self-absorption could three such oddball characters be considered heroes, and even be given credit for defeating the Russians in Afghanistan? That this happens says little about Afghanistan, or the nature of military force. But it says a lot about the American culture and the strange fascination of a super-power on David and Goliath stories.