Blogging the Bookshelf

Blogging my bookshelf – one book at a time

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"Charlie Wilson’s War", George Crile

June 13th, 2009 · No Comments · China, History, Politics

charlie-wilsons-warSynopsis: Alcoholic philanderer, good time guy and congressmen funds personal war against the Communists in Afghanistan breaking multiple principles of governance and ethics and (allegedly) winning the Cold War.

My Take: Last year I saw the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War”. To be honest, while it was a great story, I didn’t exactly love the film (other than Amy Addams who was gorgeous as usual).

However, a Canadian mate at the University of London War College strongly recommended that I check out the book. He was right.

The eponymous Charlie Wilson used his seats on the Defence Appropriations Committee and the Intelligence Committee to control the entire US foreign military aid budget. From this position, Rep. Charlie Wilson managed to:

  • Increase secret US military aid for the Mujahedeen in their war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan from $5 million per year to $1.2 billion at a time when the US congress was cutting off all funding for secret wars in light of the Nicaragua/Contra scandals;
  • Negotiate an arms agreement between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Israel, China and the United States at a time when Israel didn’t even have diplomatic relations with most of the countries involved;
  • Win re-election seven times despite it emerging that he had (allegedly) snorted cocaine in a Las Vegas hot tub with a Playboy model, been involved in a hit and run and organised a series of spectacularly indiscreet tax-payer funded junkets with a string of nymphets (including one first class trip to the Amalfi Coast, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Shanghai, the Great Wall and Tahiti with a former Miss World called “Sweetums”);
  • Win a seat on the Congressional Ethics Committee (as the “representative of representatives who like whiskey and women”);
  • Engineer the Red Army’s first international military defeat, precipitating the collapse of the Soviet Union; and
  • Train and arm the fundamentalists who are now at war with the United States.

Part Tom Clancy, part West Wing, part Naked Gun the book was a rollicking good read. It felt much more authentic than the movie (though maybe this is just my Tom Hanks vendetta talking here). Most importantly though, a tale with this much intrigue deserves a medium in which a good investigative journalist can really show his stuff; the film really didn’t do justice to the backroom machinations that really made this story tick.

I’ll leave the merits or otherwise of Wilson’s activities to the foreign policy experts (personally I like Hoffman’s character’s take on it all). Needless to say though, his impact was substantial.

However, what struck me the most while reading the book was the fact that Wilson was a Democrat – something that the movie neglects to mention from memory. Not only was he a Democrat, but he was a communist hating, pro-gun, pro-choice, FDR social democrat who represented a conservative Christian electorate in rural Texas. Not only that, but he was re-elected seven times despite a string of public sex and drug scandals and universal ignorance of his clandestine international escapades. Truly, he was an extra-ordinary political figure.

I kept asking myself, why don’t we have more Charlie Wilsons in progressive politics? Not in the sense of the sex scandals and the international intrigue, but in the sense of eccentric candidates that win seats outside of traditional party strong holds. I think the political lesson from Charlie Wilson is that where the locals are a little ‘eccentric’ themselves, you need to pre-select an ‘eccentric’ candidate. Sometimes, professional political organisations need to pick unprofessional candidates to have a chance of winning seats outside their traditional heartlands. Undoubtedly you need diligent and disciplined candidates for marginal seat campaigning; but maybe long shot campaigns need long shot candidates?


A boy is given a horse on his 14th birthday. Everyone in the village says, “Oh how wonderful.” But a Zen master who lives in the village says, “we shall see.” The boy falls off the horse and breaks his foot. Everyone in the village says, “Oh how awful.” The Zen master says, “We shall see.” The village is thrown into war and all the young men have to go to war. But, because of the broken foot, the boy stays behind. Everyone says, “Oh, how wonderful.” The Zen master says, “We shall see.”

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