"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

I just watched the above movie this morning and, apart from it being a highly entertaining film, thought it raised a good number of compelling questions. For those who aren't familiar with it, I'll summarize: it's based on a book of the same name and details the collaboration between Congressman Charles Wilson, the CIA, and a few other players to supply the Afghan mujahadeen with sufficient weaponry to destroy Soviet helicopters and generally make Russia's experience in that country utterly miserable. They succeeded, though some of the mujahadeen later organized into the group we know today as al Qaeda. Wilson himself is not an admirable man personally - he womanizes, drinks heavily, and dabbles in recreational drug use - but is virulently anti-communist and moved by the brutality the Soviets inflict on ordinary Afghans (up to and including their use of cluster bombs disguised as toys, designed to attract and then maim children so that adults who could be out fighting Soviet infantry are instead forced to care for their crippled offspring). Still, the pantheon of characters is fascinating, as are the machinations used to fund the mujahadeen without becoming directly involved.

And like I said, some compelling questions are raised. For instance: was the cause worthwhile? Against the backdrop of Cold War history, it's arguable that this was a vital component in the eventual downfall of the USSR, and the Soviet forces in Afghanistan certainly acted with remarkable cruelty. However, the 'end game', as Wilson points out at the end of the movie, was never played out, as the dissolution of Soviet Russia overshadowed any interest in getting Afghanistan back on its feet. At the time, I'm sure the fall of the Iron Curtain seemed much more important, though the movie provides an ominous foreshadowing of future Islamic extremism when Wilson's CIA partner warns him that the job isn't finished, as radicals are taking over Khandahar (a message chillingly punctuated by the sound of airliner engines overhead). Which brings me to another question that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (of A Few Good Men and West Wing fame) may or may not have intentionally raised: how should we play out the 'end game' in our current foreign interventions? Should we leave and risk radicals coming to power? If we stay, do we put in the effort required to win the end game? We shrugged off Afghanistan and had to come back later anyway, with several thousand dead Americans in the bargain and over a decade of oppressive rule by the Taliban. We shrugged off Iraq after Desert Storm and came back a second time; do we want to come back a third, especially when we've been on an upswing for the past year? Of course, the film doesn't answer these questions. But I think it's fair to say that we're in a much better position to influence the future of each country for the better right now, when we're here, and that any movie made of us shrugging of each country again would be far uglier than this one.

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