Sunday, December 23, 2007

Hanks for the Memories

I am not a big movie fan. Very few motion pictures, regardless of the hype, compel me to surrender ten dollars to witness some director's faux-artistic vision. It's not a matter of snobbery; live theater leaves me just as cold, as do opera and the philharmonic. I like to think of myself as having a restless mind, but perhaps I suffer from that adult-onset A.D.D. that I keep hearing about on television. In any event, I have managed to avoid every film that generated buzz in 2007.

The buzz itself, however, cannot be escaped. Reading material in my doctor's waiting room is spare, and I periodically find myself perusing Entertainment Weekly and People Magazine during the cold and flu season. The only alternative is Reader's Digest, which remains little more than an imbecile's guide to life, filled with lame homespun humor and trite Middle American homilies. Thus, despite my lack of interest in the latest cinematic achievement, I inevitably learn which movies are hot and which stars are dreamy. This at least allows me to make conversation with those annoying strangers who want to continue to engage me beyond the basic weather report.

It was during my latest attempt to fleece my HMO that I learned of a new Tom Hanks/Julia Roberts vehicle called Charlie Wilson's War. According to the reviews, Hanks portrays Wilson, a former Congressman, as one of those swashbuckling, larger-than-life Texans who, from LBJ to GWB, have done so much damage to the republic over the past half century. In this movie, however, Wilson is evidently something of a hero, a middle aged playboy who finds his life's meaning in releasing Afghanistan from the clutches of the mighty U.S.S.R. back in the 1980s.

As opposed to today, when politics is scary and depressing, politics in the 80s was merely depressing. The Reagan era brought us the fourth uninterrupted decade of Cold War and still more ceaseless proxy skirmishes across the continents. History accurately records the Soviet Union as a malign presence in the world, but America's response to the Evil Empire generally involved arming a succession of vicious third-world thugs who were, by tactics and brutality, largely indistinguishable from their Communist oppressors. Despite what we tell ourselves today, there was very little that was glorious about Ronald Reagan's foreign policy.

This is particularly true with respect to Afghanistan, that benighted Central Asian nation that hosted the final battle between the forces of Good and Evil. Forgive the Afghanis, however, if they were unable to tell the difference. On the one hand, an increasingly desperate and repressive Soviet puppet regime found itself propped up by an unwilling army of young Russian conscripts who treated the locals with all the respect normally proffered by unhappy draftees. On the other hand, a ragtag coalition of Mujahedin waged fierce and unrelenting war against the Communists. Their ranks included thousands of foreign Islamic fundamentalists, including a young Saudi millionaire named Osama bin Laden. Many, if not most, espoused a fanatical brand of Islam that would eventually serve as the founding creed of the Taliban.

By the 1980s, we were no longer a naïve republic. An earlier generation may have believed that it was possible to transform a petty kleptocracy in Saigon into a flourishing Asian democracy. No such illusions existed during the Reagan era. The label of Freedom Fighter, granted to Osama and his brutal allies, possessed only cheap propaganda value, reeking of the same flagrant dishonesty as terms like People's Republic or Worker's Paradise. Our leaders did not care who won so long as the Soviets lost.

Democrats, having sacrificed their own credibility on the altar of anti-Communism during the 1960s, were reluctant to act precipitously when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Jimmy Carter, his presidency already unraveling, reacted mainly in symbolic terms, canceling American participation in the 1980 Moscow Olympics and reinstituting draft registration for young men over seventeen. Congressman Wilson, however, from his perch on a key defense subcommittee, took action and ordered an increase in the covert CIA funds directed toward the anti-Soviet fighters. (Did you know that individual members of Congress could do this? Neither did I.)

The election of Ronald Reagan gave Wilson an ally in the White House and he redoubled his efforts to send millions of taxpayer dollars to Afghanistan in support of the Mujahedin. The result was the Soviet Union's own Vietnam, an unwinnable and costly fight that alienated people on the home front and rocked the Russian aura of invincibility. The humiliating defeat may or may not have contributed significantly to the downfall of the U.S.S.R., but it certainly gave reformer Mikhail Gorbachev valuable leverage vis-à-vis the discredited military and intelligence services.

And of course, the victory by the Mujahedin also gave us the Taliban and al Qaeda. Osama bin Laden became a superstar among certain fanatical Muslims. In this era of Reagan-worship, it is popular to insist that nobody could have foreseen the perils of propping up Islamic fundamentalists in the fight against the Russians and their secularist puppet government.

That may be true insofar as it is impossible to know exactly where the strands of history will lead. Certainly, nobody celebrating the Soviets' defeat was aware that the World Trade Center would someday be in jeopardy as a consequence of their efforts. Nevertheless, the links between fundamentalism and terrorism were well established by the 1980s, and the fall of the Shah of Iran had already provided a glimpse into the dangers of westerners muscling their way around the Islamic world. The point, in any event, is not that Reagan and Wilson should have known every detail about the men whose war they were bankrolling; the point is that they didn’t even care.

For his part, the former congressman says he has no regrets. "We were fighting the evil empire," he tells Time Magazine. "It would have been like not supplying the Soviets against Hitler in World War II."

Then he added: "Anyway, who the hell had ever heard of the Taliban then?"

1 comment:

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