Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Reflecting on the agonies of Afghanistan

I'm spending some time time, during this holiday season, reflecting on the 30 years of misery that have been Afghanistan's current history and present state. I'm revisiting some books I read before and reading/viewing some new stuff.

The communist take-over of the country in the late 1970s, and the diaspora that resulted, are well documented in "The Kite Runner," a powerful book and a not-so-powerful film.

When the communist regime began to falter under assault by Jihadists, the Soviet Union sent in more than 100,000 troops to prop up the swaying regime. This gave the CIA its chance to engineer a Vietnam-style debacle for the Soviet Union. The USSR lost 25,000 dead and many more wounded and sickened soldiers, before finally retreating. The collapse of the "Evil Empire" followed swiftly. This is chronicled in fascinating detail by "Charlie Wilson's War," which was made into a reasonably good film with an outstanding cast.

Here's my review of the film, published on The History Place:
By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place

Charles Nesbitt Wilson, aka Good Time Charlie, served the Second Congressional District of Texas from 1973 until 1996. Reputedly a hard-drinking womanizer, Charlie Wilson is remembered in a couple of books, and as of Friday, December 21st, in a new Mike Nichols films mainly for funding covert arms to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. In the summer of 1980, while California Governor Ronald Reagan was making his second bid for the White House, Wilson reportedly read an Associated Press story about Afghan refugees fleeing into Pakistan to escape slaughter by the invading Russians. In the film, Wilson visits a refugee camp, where the children-amputees, in particular, move him into action.

That action, as a member of the House of Representatives Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, was to double the CIA's "black ops" funds for the Afghan resistance. If Wilson was the Mujahedeen's Lone Ranger, his Tonto was CIA operative Gust Avrakotos, the son of a Greek-immigrant soda manufacturer from Aliquippa, Pennsylvania. Avrakotos aggressively lobbied Congress for his cause, the defeat of the Russians. His tactic was simple: arm the resistance with Stinger missiles. The math, as Tom Hanks, portraying Wilson, points out to his subcommittee colleagues, is just as simple: a Soviet aircraft costs something in excess of $20 million; a Stinger costs something less than $70 thousand. Go figure.

The Charlie Wilson-Gust Avrakotos partnership stands on its own as the stuff of great buddy/adventure films. What makes the Mike Nichols take on their enterprise highly entertaining is the satirical way in which Director Nichols tells their tale. The film opens with Wilson/Hanks in a Las Vegas hot tub with naked showgirls. Throughout the film Hanks and co-star Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Avrakotos) exchange quips and jibes ala Crosby and Hope in a 'Road' movie. For Dorothy Lamour, substitute Julia Roberts. Roberts portrays Joanne Herring, a born-again rich girl from East Texas, who sleeps with Wilson, raises funds to bring down the Soviet Union, is the Honorary Consul to Pakistan, and refers to the Congressman's all-female staff as "sluts."

The humor in Charlie Wilson's War is welcome in the wake of a long series of grim post-9/11 films I've reviewed which include several about the fateful day itself, as well as Spielberg's gory and morally ambivalent Munich, and such cynical works of film-fiction as Syriana and The Kingdom.

Still, Nichols never lets us stray too far from the realities of war and real politics. Charlie Wilson is not the only one whose eyes fill with tears at the sight of Afghan toddlers lacking limbs, because they picked up devices they thought were toys. One refugee-camp worker tells the Congressman, "The Russians know that it's harder to deal with a wounded child than a dead one." And so, the implication runs, better to scatter small explosives, that sever arms and legs, rather than lethal mines.

Upon the Soviet evacuation of Afghanistan, Avrakotos, ever the realist, savors the ultimate victory at a party thrown by Wilson only briefly, before cautioning the Congressman that a Soviet-free Afghanistan must be rebuilt. Gust tells his sidekick in a balcony scene, the party in full flare behind them, that the radical fundamentalists are moving into the political vacuum left by the Russian retreat.

In the end, Wilson is depicted struggling ineffectively to pry a million or two from his subcommittee to rebuild Afghan schools. "We always leave," he complains to his colleagues' deaf ears. Did Wilson really say that? Did he really see what was in store for a liberated Afghanistan? Or are Nichols and Aaron (The West Wing) Sorkin, who scripted the film, exercising poetic license with 20/20 hindsight?

No matter, Charlie Wilson's War, ends the laughter and elation of victory with the ominous foreshadowing of the Taliban terror in the offing. The look on Charlie Wilson's face, as his Congressional colleagues decline to invest so much as a measly million in the Afghan infrastructure, is reminiscent of the look on Dustin Hoffman's face at the end of the Nichols classic, The Graduate. Hoffman, having just run off with the love of his life, sits with her at the back of a bus, her groom and half her wedding party panting along behind them. Both Hanks and Hoffman tell filmgoers, "There's worse to come."

I can recall reading back in 1969 a magazine article speculating about what that look might have meant for Hoffman's graduate: the military draft, criminal charges of one sort or another brought by his girlfriend's fiancée and their families, financial destitution. With regard to Afghanistan no such speculation is necessary. Uncle Sam is there today and is likely to remain there for the foreseeable future, finishing the job only half accomplished by the vanquishing of the Soviet army.

A final note: Almost as intriguing as the film itself are the video clips included on the movie's official Website. These include snippets from a 1988 60 Minutes profile of the real Good Time Charlie, firing a machine gin and riding horseback in native costume on the Pakistan-Afghan border, as well as bits from Courage Is Our Weapon, the propaganda film produced by Joanne Herring in 1981.

Charlie Wilson's War may rekindle the controversy about how big a role he, and for that matter Ronald Reagan and the "Reagan Doctrine" of opposing the Soviets everywhere, played in the crumbling of the Evil Empire. But the 60 Minutes and Courage clips attest to the fact that Wilson, Herring, and Avrakotos were real-life Cold Warriors extraordinaire.

Rated R for strong language, nudity/sexual content and some drug use.

Jim Castagnera is the Associate Provost/Associate Counsel at Rider University. His novel about 19th and 21st century terrorists is available at

Then, of course, the Jihadists dislodged the Commies and the Taliban took over. Afghanistan became "terrorism central" with the climax coming on 9/11. Next came the US invasion. This war has been going on for some 9 years now. In 2009 it was thoroughly documented by two terrific writers.

Here is my review of "Restrepo":

By Jim Castagnera
Special to The History Place

Sebastian Junger hit the big time 13 years ago with The Perfect Storm, a non-fiction best-seller that morphed into a major motion picture starring no less a celestial light than George Clooney. Some reviewers dubbed Junger the new Hemingway. But since then, his output – at least on the bookshelves – has been modest. Fire was a collection of magazine articles, notably including a few on America's Afghan War. A Death in Belmont came next. A combination childhood memoir and murder mystery, the book recounts the Junger family's proximity to the Boston Strangler killings and speculates on whether Albert DeSalvo was 'who done it.'

With Restrepo and a new book entitled War, Junger raises his Afghan reporting for Vanity Fair from journalism to art. Reviewing War for The Washington Post back in May, Philip Caputo, whose 1977 A Rumor of War captured the grunt’s reality in Vietnam, wrote: “He thus becomes a kind of 21st-century battle singer, narrating the deeds and misdeeds of his heroes while explaining what makes them do what they do. These reflections, drawing on his wide-ranging research into military history, biology and psychology as well as on his personal experiences, overreach once or twice. Otherwise, it's the best writing I've seen on the subject since J. Glenn Gray's 1959 classic, 'The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle.' "

Caputo might also have mentioned War Historian John Keegan’s 1976 The Face of Battle, another Yeoman’s effort at putting our imaginations alongside the boots on the ground. But what now distinguishes Junger from all of these predecessors is Restrepo. Virtually a companion piece to War, the film was reportedly self-financed by Junger, until National Geographic stepped up to the plate late in the game. Tim Hetherington, Junger’s photographer on the Vanity Fair pieces, shares credit as co-director. The title derives from the outpost in the viciously contested Korengal Valley, where the two journalists/filmmakers were embedded. The base was named after a combat medic, Pfc. Juan Restrepo, who had been killed in action. As Junger told news media enroute to winning an award at the Sundance Film Festival, "It's a completely apolitical film. We wanted to give viewers the experience of being in combat with soldiers, and so our cameras never leave their side. There are no interviews with generals; there is no moral or political analysis. It is a purely experiential film."

This, in my view, is both the strength and the weakness of the 93-minute film. On one hand, you are indeed there. Restrepo includes some great battle footage. Its directors obviously took some serious chances to take us into the fray. The downtime scenes also are instructive. One gets the sense that these soldiers – who, after all, did volunteer for this experience – sometimes missed the action, when the boredom of garrison life took hold.

But, at the same time, these men cannot escape the horrors of war. The interviews with individual soldiers, that intersperse the film, are very revealing. For instance, one enlisted man confides that he's tried four or five different sleeping pills and he still can't sleep. He adds that, actually, he no longer wants to sleep, because he relives the bad parts in his dreams.

We also see scenes in which the CO meets with village elders, assuring them that, if the Taliban are subdued, a road will be built. With it will come newfound prosperity. When the elders ask, what about the civilian dead we've endured, the CO says that happened on his predecessor's watch and they need to get past it.

No narration accompanies these powerful words and images. No experts – no talking heads – help us make sense of what we are seeing and hearing. This to some degree is also the film's greatest weakness. Junger, in an interview, indicated that the soldiers seldom discussed policy. Granting that in a Republic such as ours, this role falls to our elected civilian leaders, still some reflection on the meaning of it all would seem to be healthy.

Of course, this soldierly contemplation can't be done out loud, risk-free, in a public forum – as General Stanley McChrystal learned the hard way following his disastrous interview with Rolling Stone. All the same, McChrystal’s self-destruction may not have been a useless gesture. His doubts about the war's prospects are informative, and therefore valuable. Restrepo gives us a look at the adrenalin rush of combat, the occasional flashes of bloodlust that presumably accompany any military campaign, and the intense bonding and camaraderie of camp life.

But do the soldiers care – should they care – about the apparent futility of the 50 lives lost in taking and holding Restrepo? The outpost has since been abandoned. The promised road has never been built. The parallels to Caputo’s Vietnam, as he noted in his review of War, seem more and more compelling. Was Restrepo the Outpost another Hamburger Hill? If so, shouldn't Restrepo the Film explore that overarching issue, even if, as in McChrystal’s interview, the line between military and civilian roles is crossed?

The Hurt Locker, 2009’s Best Picture, which I also reviewed for The History Place, presents its director's point of view. When the protagonist finds it impossible to reintegrate into his former home life and returns instead to the war in Iraq, we get the message. Junger and Hetherington deliberately try to avoid interjecting a point of view. I wonder if they have been a bit too hands-off here, given that their film stands almost alone as a cinematic voice in the crucial national debate about the future of America's Afghan incursion.

Bottom line, I’d like to make three points.

One: For a taste of what the war in Afghanistan is like for the American combat troops, who experience it every day of their tours, this film can’t be beaten. We owe the filmmakers a debt of gratitude for risking their necks to take us there.

Two: If you want some help in making sense of what you will see on the screen, you should read War, either before or after you see the film. The book makes up for the deficiencies of the film that I have suggested in this review.

Three: If you want to see Restrepo on a big screen, you had better act quickly. In the whole of my hometown of Philadelphia, I was able to find it playing in only one downtown art house. I doubt it will be around for long. (However Netflix promises that it will be available soon, in case you can't find it in a theater near you.)
Rated R for language throughout including some descriptions of violence.

Jim Castagnera is the author of "Al Qaeda Goes to College: Impact of the War on Terror on American Higher Education" (Praeger 2009) and Handbook for Student Law (Peter Lang 2010). He is a Philadelphia lawyer and journalist. Visit his Webpage.

Jon Krakauer's book about Pat Tillman is my most recent armchair foray into Afghanistan and is also the best so far.

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