Saturday, March 31, 2012

Completed: Charlie Wilson's War


You can shoot down a helicopter with this sucker.
Well. I went down to the wire on this one! Lots of bookish activity for this month, so I'm just happy I was able to finish it. It helped that it was a great read.

Charlie Wilson's War is one of those books that proves that truth really is stranger than fiction. This story is set during the last dying gasps of the Cold War. The basic story can be summed up in one sentence: A Texas Congressman, powerful because of his seat on the all-important Appropriations Committee, manages to funnel millions and millions of dollars through the CIA to help fund Afghanistan's mujahideen as they fight off the Soviet Invasion. However, it's the political twists and turns that make the story so interesting. Charlie and a CIA counterpart, Gust Avrakotos, manage to strong arm the entire Congress and CIA into funding the war, what they continually liken to The USSR's own Vietnam.

The reason the book is so interesting, of course, is because of the way we are currently embroiled in Afghanistan. One of the hallmarks of Charlie's War was the the US insisted on keeping American influence as secret as possible. Everything---arms, training, food, medicine, etc---was funneled through Pakistan. The CIA spent billions of dollars funding the armed resistance of militant Islam, and most of the actual fighters never knew that Americans helped them. The book makes a very strongest case I've ever seen for the impact of unintended consequences: the very arms that we gleefully provided to Afghanistan in the 80s are the very weapons they are turning against us now.

I don't really feel like I can do much more justice to the plot, because it is so complex and convoluted. However, it is a fascinating and interesting look at the inner workings of both Congress and the CIA. The way in which Charlie and Gust manage to basically make war without anyone actually having much of an idea what they were up to? It's an amazing story. Honestly, if you knew a history or war buff, this book would make a great gift. If you're interested in the short version, I'd also recommend the film with Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts.

My only complaint about the book is that it assumes that the reader has a great deal of background knowledge about the last 20 years of the Cold War. And, as we have previously discussed on at least a thousand occasions, we got super crappy history instruction. In other words, there's some gaps in my knowledge base. For example, I wish the author would have spent at least a page or two explaining why the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the first place. I mean, that seems sort of obvious, but I have no idea of what their basic objective even was. The book isn't a history of the war itself, but rather the incredible tale of Charlie and Gust, but it would have been nice to get a brief overview.

I wished I has stuck to my original plan, which was to read the books in roughly chronological order, because there was also lots of references to Vietnam. If I had followed my original sequence of books, I would have read The Best and the Brightest first, and maybe some of that would have made more sense. But the book is also continually referencing the Iran-Contra affair and the war in Nicaragua. I mean, outside of being vaguely able to pull the face of Oliver North into my brain...I've got NOTHING on those events. In other words, reading this has just made apparent new, unexplored areas of historical ignorance. Fantastic.

Finally, one last note about ebooks vs. pbooks. I read Charlie Wilson's War half on my Kindle (borrowed from the Kindle lending library for free!) and half in a paperback. I love reading on my Kindle, but I think it has its drawbacks, especially when it comes to non-fiction. The book has footnotes, at least a few in every chapter. I hate clicking down to the right line of text and then over to the footnote on a Kindle. When I was reading at home, I'd actually read with my Kindle and keep the book on my lap. When a footnote came up, I'd page forward to the footnote in the book while reading on my Kindle. That's ridiculous, I know, but it was easier and faster. Most damning is that the Kindle version doesn't have an index. This is a complex book, with lots of characters and places, many of those with confusing or similar names; complex references to specific branches of government; types of weapons and military terms. I can hardly believe this book didn't have a separate "cast of characters" list. But to not have an index? When I was reading, there were times I'd forget a specific term.  I guess I could have used the "Search this book" function, but again, it just seemed far more laborious than flipping to the index and finding it quickly. Not to mention an index will also break down a topic into subheadings. If I wanted to find something particular with reference to Pakistan's president, I could look up "Zia" in the index and scan through a list of subheadings. With the search this function, I'd be able to find every mention of his name in the text, but then I'd have to scroll through hundreds of references looking for the exact thing I wanted to find. I'm sure that the Kindle will make all this more seamless eventually, but I still prefer a pbook when reading this kind of complex non-fiction.

All in all, a great read. Remember that line from The Princess Bride: "Never get involved in a land war in Asia." Well, reading this book sure helps to explain why! Also, I think I want to know more about the CIA. Wonder where that will take me?

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like I would be *completely* lost with this one, as you have made far more of an effort to fill in the history holes over the years than I have! Might try the movie, though -- perhaps I could follow along there?

    Re: Footnotes in eBooks. Better than a Kindle device *or* pBook, I find that iDevices offer the best experience... when you tap the number, it takes you straight to the footnote and when you hit "Back" it goes back to where you were! It can be difficult to hit the number *exactly* right on the iPhone, but the iPad is perfect.

    Weird that there was no index in the eBook but there *was* one in the pBook, though. That sucks.

    Meanwhile, your post reminds me that I have forgotten to post *my* completed book for March! Gotta get to it. :)