I recently read and reviewed Winik's account of how the US won the Cold War (On the Brink), which described how the willingness of the US to fund and fight hot battles in Central America and Afghanistan would be the final component of the Reagan strategy that end the Cold War and the Evil Empire. "Charlie Wilson's War" tells the fascinating story of just how the US funded and fought--and won--the final battle in Afghanistan--and how it lead to the next war.
Unconventional Congressman Charlie Wilson--a little-known Texas Democrat embattled by alcohol, drugs, womanizing, and corruption charges--joined forces with rough-edged CIA operative Gust Avrakotos--sidelined in his own agency by his abrasive personality and willingness to take on unpopular causes. Wilson provided the funding, Avrakotos provided the planning and leadership, and their unusual alliance of behind-the-scenes rule-breaking fueled the secret CIA tactics funneling weapons, ammunition, and supplies to Afghan freedom fighters against the occupying Soviet Army.
The mostly unknown or forgotten history is fascinating. Wilson's unlikely crusade gave him the motivation to accomplish amazing things, and Avrakotos' ballsy bureaucratic maneuvering put the materiel into hands on the ground with a plan that proved its worth when the Soviets retreated from their own Vietnam. In fact I would rate the history 5 stars, but the telling only 1. Crile seems afraid to let this amazing story stand on its own, resorting to overwriting, repeated retelling of events from different angles, confusing overlapping time lines, and forced use of a gee-whiz attitude. He knows the story is too bizarre for words, but instead of letting the story convince us of that, resorts to repeatedly telling us the story is too bizarre for words.
Crile does have the advantage that Winik did not, that of writing after the September 11, 2001 attack that opened the new war, this time against the US by the very forces they had armed and supported. He spends a few pages at the end describing how the freedom fighters became terrorists armed by the best conventional weapons CIA money could buy (some with funding continuing even after Russia's troops had retreated and the Soviet Union collapsed). And throughout, looming over the success of the unlikely duo to arm the freedom fighters is the knowledge that things would eventually go sour.
Still, as in Winik's account, it is impossible to say that the winning of the Cold War was anything but an amazing success of American arms, politics, and political will. Charlie Wilson displayed all of those positive attributes, and won his own personal battle. And what a war it was!
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