The Latin saying ‘de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est’ is often used by civilized people, even when a particularly horrible specimen of humanity goes to meet his maker. ‘Don’t speak badly of the dead’ is a loose translation, but conveys the meaning precisely. But does the shade and memory – the life – of Charlie Wilson merit “don’t speak badly of the dead”? Should we ignore the most important facets of the Wilson character? Should we be benevolent and forgiving about the life of this man?
In 2003 CounterPunch published a review I wrote of the book ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’. Having been in Pakistan from time to time in the 1980s, and knowing President Zia, I learned a bit about Congressman Wilson, and, seized by distaste and mirth, came to despise his pompous ignorance and bizarre lifestyle. He was an immoral, fatuous and pathetic humbug.
So here, again, is the review, which could have been written today. Only a few words and tenses are altered.
‘CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR’, written by George Crile of ‘Sixty Minutes’, is a good book about a bad man who was motivated by vanity and arrogance to assist in producing billions of dollars to counter the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Crile describes people whose ethical decrepitude was complemented by unmitigated desire to be regarded as influential. There is hardly a person he mentions whom you would have in your house to polish your boots, but they have a weird fascination engendered by their total dedication to self-importance.
The main character in this rattling good yarn, Charlie Wilson, was a US Congressman when the Cold War was raging. Rarely can the prefix ‘The Honourable’ have been less appropriate. The man was a drunken, shiftless, ignorant, lying, drug-taking, zipper-flipping, corrupt, power-crazed cretin. His only value was his ability, through membership of influential Congress Committees, to move large sums of money, legally and often otherwise, as subsidies and to purchase weapons and equipment for groups fighting the Soviet army in Afghanistan. The fact that most of the cash was wasted meant nothing to him.
Enormous quantities of weapons and money were stolen by individuals and organizations within and outside Afghanistan. Recently [in 2003] I was asked how a Pakistani former brigadier could afford to live in the west in the style he does. His family was poor, he had no land, and retired early with a tiny pension. Yet he lives comfortably [in New York] with no apparent means of support – apart from the few million dollars he stashed away against a rainy day when he was involved in the US/Saudi-Pakistan-mujahideen supply chain. And he is only one of the many who took advantage of their positions to dip their fingers in that ever-open cash box, thanks to Wilson and his greasy associates. Little wonder Wilson is regarded as a hero by some odd people.
In 1991, after the Russians left Afghanistan, it was intended in Washington that the flow of cash should cease. And not only in Washington, as Crile records, for Bob Oakley, a most effective US ambassador to Islamabad who I much respect, “drew the conclusion that America’s national interests were not being served” by continuing to throw money and weapons into the eager grasp of the increasingly factious and murderous mujahideen. Congressman Wilson thought otherwise, and as a member of the House Intelligence Committee was able to waste many more millions of US taxpayers’ dollars propping up such luminaries as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar whom the CIA later tried to assassinate. [And who continues to be a major disruptive force in Afghanistan.]
Wilson was also a member of the Defense Appropriations Committee to which bunch of self-important prats the US armed forces pay court because they need money and the best way to obtain it was (and is) to cultivate committee members, no matter how nauseating and pompous they might be.
It was ever thus, and I am reminded of the wonderful ‘Don’t Go Near the Water’ written by William Brinkley (Jonathan Cape, 1957), caricaturing a US Navy public relations unit in the Pacific during the war against Japan. Brinkley’s description of dignitaries visiting the region is pointed. “VIP treatment”, he wrote, “varied according to rank. Ordinary congressmen, for example, were met by, in addition to a Correspondents’ Aide, a captain and a station wagon and given corner rooms in the VIP [accommodation], while a congressman who happened to be a member of the Naval Affairs Committee was met by flag rank and a Buick and put up in the guest room of Com-Fleets. When [the HQ] was alerted that the chairman of the Senate Naval Affairs Committee was en route, the preparations took on the aspects of those for the Second Coming . . .”
Steeped in tradition, the US Navy maintains its customs, and Crile notes that in 1985 the sleazebag Charlie Wilson was entertained for a weekend on the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga with a beautiful strumpet called Annelise Ilschenko, together with “three of his Texas drinking pals [and] his twenty-seven-year old defense aide, Molly Hamilton”.
According to Crile, “Hamilton . . . was not exactly a good-time girl, and was frankly appalled by what she perceived to be a clear abuse of congressional power.” Another objectionable aspect of this shoddy little jamboree was that although the Navy forbids alcohol on board, the slimy Wilson took his own large supply.
Rules don’t apply to those who make the rules.
Throughout his squalid career Wilson thoroughly abused Congressional privilege, misusing it to take luxurious jaunts round the world, and, on one occasion, in a particularly disgusting episode – even for Wilson – to escape prosecution for a drunk driving car smash.
I first heard of Wilson in the mid-Eighties in connection with the US embassy in Islamabad where he behaved in a bizarrely immature fashion. Pakistan’s President Zia ul-Haq knew how to manipulate Americans in the game of flattery, and lushed up Wilson and his floozies (who rotated, as it were, on all his publicly-funded junkets) in order to obtain more and more weapons and cash. Zia was clean and incorruptible – not even Benazir Bhutto, who hated him deeply, ever suggested otherwise – and knew human weakness very well. He played on the egos of ingenuous knaves like Wilson and turned a blind eye when his own in-house jackals corruptly stashed away the goodies, in cash and kind. Pakistani officers and Afghan leaders who became rich during the Wilson-CIA-Saudi years of fabulous generosity may have thought their activities discreet, but Zia knew what was going on and quietly laughed up his sleeve while continuing to fool the Unbelievers.
Wilson controlled the cash taps, and Zia wasn’t going to turn them off even if it meant acting contrary to his own principles. Zia sometimes remarked that lying and dissembling in the interests of Islam is permissible, and he saw Wilson as just another vulgar oaf who could be useful to further his long-term plans. Crile seems to understand this, but doesn’t quite come out with it all. (His statement that one of Charlie’s trollops, Joanne Herring, “was awarded [the] country’s highest honor, the title of Quaid-e-Azam . . .” is regrettably absurd, as the honorific is that of only one person: Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, but the slip doesn’t detract from the overall picture.)
At the end of 1986 Wilson had another Congressional freebie to Pakistan, this time with a tart called ‘Sweetums’ in tow. (He later wanted to marry Sweetums, but went on a political junket without her. When Sweetums telephoned him in the early morning she was answered by another tart. No wedding bells for Charlie.) Wilson intended to fly from Rawalpindi to Lahore (for a party) by the embassy aircraft, which is provided by the Defense Department, and took it for granted that politicians’ tarts were allowed on board. The defense attaché said words to the effect of Not on your life: she is not a member of a branch of the US government, nor is she the spouse of such a member; she is not on anyone’s staff in any capacity other than that of floozy so she is not going to travel on a DOD airplane. (I know of this incident from first-hand sources.) The attaché was in the right. But Wilson shrieked his fury at the ambassador, an honourable man who agreed with his DA: official airplanes are not for transport of tarts. So no go for Sweetums.
Wilson managed to get his bimbo to Lahore on a plane provided by Zia, who laughed at the vulgarity of his antics, and when he got back to Washington, as recorded by Crile, Charlie took revenge by having the DOD aircraft withdrawn from the embassy. His words to his fellow buffoons in his US Congress Committee were “They have insulted me and they have insulted my true love, Sweetums. I want you to give me my revenge”, which they did. (It is a sobering thought that these people were America’s legislators.)
There are other splendid descriptions in Crile’s book, including some of CIA officials who believe in witchcraft (and actually try to use it; quite amazing) and have chips on their shoulders the size of telegraph poles. (In particular a man called Gust [sic] Avrakatos who is unbelievably crass and boorish and very scary indeed.) The book is a thoroughly good read, and adds to understanding of the corrupt committee system on Capitol Hill and the attitude of some CIA employees. These freaks are not representative of the CIA, for which organization I have considerable regard; but Crile’s account of aberrations sends shivers up the spine when one realizes that there are many oddballs still working for the Agency – some of them in Afghanistan and Iraq. But the wonder is that a piece of Neanderthal filth such as Charlie Wilson could have exercised influence on the foreign policy of the United States for so long.
Are there other Charlies still around?
That was the piece as written in 2003, not long after the US invasion of Afghanistan. And as I complete this endnote there comes news that “US rockets killed 12 Afghan civilians on Sunday, the second day of an offensive designed to impose Afghan government authority on one of the last big Taliban strongholds in the country’s most violent province.”
It was Charlie Wilson who helped create the Taliban. They grew out of the old mujahideen who benefited from Wilson’s cash and lust for admiration. What a legacy, to be sure.
And are there still people like Gust Avrakatos in the CIA? I said in the original piece that I had respect for the CIA, but that was over six years ago, and the Agency seems to have gone completely out of control, probably because its recruiting standards have been lowered to the point of absurdity and there have been grotesquely inappropriate promotions to senior positions, because these had to be filled by virtue of fast expansion. The CIA motto is “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” By that declaration, they are the self-styled guardians of truth for their country.
So let’s end with another Latin tag — quis custodiet ipsos custodes–“Who shall guard the guardians themselves?” Remember: nobody guarded Charlie – least of all the Congress of the United States of America. And nobody is supervising the CIA, either.
BRIAN CLOUGHLEY’s website is www.beecluff.com