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Films >> Charlie Wilson's War (2007) >>

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[1] Charlie Wilson was born Charles N. Wilson on June 1, 1933, in Trinity, Texas. Wilson was raised in the same Congressional district he eventually came to represent, the 2nd Congressional district in Texas. Wilson’s father was an accountant at a timber company whose greatest hope was that his son would attend the United States Naval Academy. After two tries, Wilson’s father’s lobbying was successful, and he got his son a nomination to attend Annapolis. Before entering the Naval Academy, Wilson grew up reading all of the books he could find about World War II, weapons, and American patriotism. Wilson admits, “During the War, I remembered all of Churchill’s speeches, and I memorized them.” At an early age, Wilson understood what it meant to serve one’s country. Despite his interest in history and the military, Wilson graduated eighth from the bottom of his class at Annapolis.

[2] When Wilson was a young man, his best friend was his dog, Teddy. Wilson had a neighbor, Charles Hazard, who disliked the neighborhood animals roaming onto his property. Hazard crushed glass into dog food and, when Teddy got into his flowerbed, fed the concoction to the dog. According to Wilson, “Teddy died a horrendous death.” In retaliation, Wilson set fire to Hazard’s flowerbed, but Wilson did not feel satisfied. However, Hazard was a town official who was up for reelection that year. Wilson decided that he would singlehandedly bring down Hazard. Wilson got his farmer’s license, drove his truck to the African American section of town, and recruited voters to participate in the election. Wilson knew that the African American population did not typically vote in Hazard’s election, and he drove 96 voters to the polls that day. Before each voter would exit the truck, Wilson would inform him or her that Hazard had intentionally killed his dog. Hazard lost his seat on the town council that year. Wilson delivered a message to Hazard that read, “I just want to let you know, your African American constituents just voted you out of office. Don’t poison any more dogs.” Wilson accredits Hazard’s loss to the moment he fell in love with the American political system.

[3] When Wilson graduated from Annapolis, he briefly worked for the Pentagon investigating Soviet nuclear arms, and he then became a representative for the local government. Wilson eventually made a bid for Congress, but issues regarding his personal life threatened to hurt his chances for election. Wilson ran for office on the tagline, “If it’s what’s good for politics or what’s good for America, I’ll pick America every time.” Wilson’s bid for Congress was successful despite the stories of hard partying and womanizing that circulated during the campaign, and Wilson took control of the 2nd Congressional district in 1972. Wilson immediately hired several attractive women to work as his administrative assistants who soon came to be called “Charlie’s Angels.” When asked why he set up his staff in such a way, Wilson would always reply, “You can teach them to type, but you can’t teach them to grow tits.” During his early years in Congress, Wilson earned the nickname “Good time, Charlie,” as he was known for his interests in liquor and women. Friends of Wilson claim that his apartment looked like the set of “Love American Style.” In spite of his reputation, Wilson also earned the respect of his colleagues for his moderation. While Wilson was a staunch anti-Communist, he favored many liberal policies and was even considered the “Liberal from Lufkin.”

[4] Wilson’s involvement in the Afghanistan mujahedeen cause began on July 27, 1980. Wilson was in a hot tub in Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas when he saw Dan Rather on television reporting from Afghanistan. Though he was entertaining strippers at the time, Wilson paid close attention to Rather’s report. Wilson recalls that it was “unusual to detract my attention at a time like that.” In the following weeks, Wilson doubled the CIA budget for covert operations from $5 million to $10 million. Though Wilson expected his budget increase to be debated and argued in Congress, he remembers that when the change was read at Appropriations, “nothing happened.” Despite the increase in funding, little difference was made on the ground in Afghanistan.

[5] Joanne Herring, a wealthy Texas activist and socialite, invited Wilson to a documentary viewing in her home soon after he increased the covert operations budget. One friend described Herring as having “a very sexual charm over powerful people.” Herring sponsored the party to honor the documentary created by her friend, Robert King, who spent time in Afghanistan filming and researching the situation on the ground. At the time in 1982, Herring was also in contact with President Zia of Pakistan. At the documentary viewing, Herring convinced Wilson that his “manhood” was on the line and that he must intervene. Herring arranged for Wilson to meet with President Zia in Pakistan to discuss the cause of the mujahedeen.

[6] In the fall of 1982, Wilson traveled to Pakistan. Those present at the time remember that Wilson was a “swashbuckling figure” who looked and acted quite powerful. While in Pakistan, Wilson met with freedom fighters and visited the refugee hospital. He was moved by the patriotism of the mujahedeen. Herring explains, “If you’re a Texan, you grew up on the Alamo, and so somebody fighting for freedom against big odds appeals to you.” Wilson donated a pint of blood at the refugee hospital and later met with mujahedeen elders who begged Wilson for guns and other weaponry. Wilson returned to Washington obsessed with the cause of the mujahedeen and began lobbying Congress for appropriations and weaponry.

[7] The CIA became an important player in the covert operation. The organization’s main goal, obviously, was to avoid war with the Soviets. Thus, the CIA and Wilson had to make it appear as if Soviet weaponry had fallen into the hands of the mujahedeen, not as if the United States was supplying the fighters with arms. Gust Avrakotos, a CIA agent, became involved in the Afghan cause. Colleagues remember that Gust “didn’t come out of those ticky-tack boxes.” Charlie recalls that Gust “made it a habit to look as thuggish as possible.” After burning a bridge with his boss, Gust took on the Afghan desk within the CIA.

[8] In January of 1983, Prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani launched an investigation that included Wilson. Wilson was accused of using cocaine in Las Vegas while holding public office, an offense that could cost him his job and the mujahedeen its champion in Congress. At the time in Afghanistan, the Soviets had killed 10% of the population in the three years they had occupied the country. In spite of the drug investigation, Wilson traveled to Egypt, where he had to win over the nation’s defense minister. Egypt was in possession of the Soviet weaponry the CIA needed to help the mujahedeen. Wilson brought Carol Shannon, a friend from Texas, to belly dance for the defense minister. Wilson had been close with Shannon since he discovered that her husband was abusive. To defend Shannon, Wilson slept with her and had her husband beat in his reelection campaign for public office. The two remained friends over the years, and Wilson knew she would be perfect to entertain the minister in Egypt. After the successful meeting, Wilson took Shannon to the front lines of the fighting in Pakistan. He escorted her to the refugee camps and hospitals, as well. The two returned to the U.S. together, where Wilson remained under investigation for drug use.

[9] Wilson, at the time, was the center of the Justice Department investigation. The authorities’ witness was Liz Wickersham, a young woman who was present at Caesar’s Palace the night Wilson was in the hot tub there. The prosecution was counting on her testimony to incriminate Wilson, however Wickersham would only admit to seeing Wilson use cocaine outside the United States. All of the charges against Wilson were effectively dropped.

[10] To secure unlimited funding for the mujahedeen, Wilson had to convince Congressman Doc Long, Chairman of the Foreign Operations Subcommittee, that the Afghan cause was of the utmost importance to American interests. Together, Wilson and Herring plotted to take Long on a lavish trip to Paris and then stop in Pakistan, where Long would witness the refugee camps and hospitals. On the night before the group was supposed to leave for Paris, Wilson was involved in a hit and run. Wilson had been drinking and, while crossing a bridge in his car, struck another vehicle and left the scene. Wilson’s staff convinced the DC police to let Wilson leave the country the following morning despite the drunk-driving accident.

[11] Long, Wilson, and Herring traveled to Paris and Pakistan, where Long was honored like a hero and a socialite. Both Wilson and Herring knew that expensive restaurants and important people were the key to Long’s interests. Thanks to his first-class experience in Paris, his reception in Pakistan, and the devastation he witnessed in the refugee hospital, Long agreed to fund the mujahedeen cause liberally. At the time, Saudi Arabia also agreed to match every dollar the United States contributed to the cause. Back in America, Wilson and Avrakotos worked tirelessly to research weaponry and get the Afghans the equipment they would need to take down Soviet tanks and helicopters.

[12] In 1984, Wilson was up for reelection and the likelihood of a victory was slim. Only the bad, and not the good, was publicized about Wilson. While the precincts looked abysmal the night of the election, as more numbers came in the tide began to turn. Wilson was saved by the African-American vote in the 2nd district and was afforded the chance to continue working for America and for the Afghans. On June 1, 1985, Wilson suffered heart trouble and, once hospitalized, was given 18 months to live. Avrakotos visited Wilson in the hospital and brought condoms, scotch, and satellite photos of the front lines in Afghanistan. The photos that Avrakotos gave to Wilson as a gift depicted the success of the Afghans.

[13] When Wilson was released from the hospital, he got to work convincing the CIA and Congress that the Afghans could actually defeat, and not just stall, the Soviets. Anti-aircraft Stinger missiles were sent to the front lines and the fighters began taking down helicopters. In the four months following the release of the Stinger, 100 Soviet helicopters were shot down. On February 15, 1989, the Soviet forces retreated from Afghanistan. Despite the surprising and overwhelming victory, Wilson lamented, “[The fighters] will never get the credit they deserve.” However, many felt that Wilson was the most deserving of praise for the Afghan victory. President Zia proclaimed, “Charlie did it!”

[14] Wilson was honored by the CIA with the Honored Colleague Award. He was the first civilian ever granted such an honor by the CIA. The Soviet Union collapsed two years after the Afghan victory. Despite Wilson’s great success, it is important to put such events into context with recent history. Wilson sums up the post-war years when he admits, “We left a vacuum.” The United States, according to some, failed to aid the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Many argue that this failure created a poverty-stricken population that turned to extremism.

Print Resources

Borovik, Artem. The Hidden War: A Russian Journalist's Account of the Soviet War in Afghanistan. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press 1990.
Borovik's book aims to subjectively account the stories of Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan while also examining the causes for the Soviet invasion. Borovik captures the restlessness and helplessness of soldiers fighting a war against an unclear enemy for unknown purposes. Critics say that Borovik's account echoes similar books on the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. Borovik details atrocities on both sides, including the killing of innocent civilians by Soviet soldiers. As a result, the book is subjective and haunting and clearly aims to portray the true grisly nature of war.
Crile, George. Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History. New York: Atlantic Monthly P, 2003.
Crile's book sets out to detail the entire story surrounding "Charlie Wilson's War." Crile's research is far-reaching and thorough, as the author explains the history surrounding each key player and the events. Crile takes the reader from the beginning of Wilson's career through the end. He explains how each key player came to be involved in "Charlie's War" and what impact each character had on the situation at home and abroad. Crile begins his book with Wilson's early career and the story of Caesar's Palace. He subsequently reviews the history of Herring and Avrakotos and takes the reader through each move, nearly minute by minute. The entire plight of Wilson and his colleagues is outlined by Crile, right through to the end. Crile's book is crucial for any scholar who seeks to learn the true story of Charlie Wilson and the war in Afghanistan. Crile creates a masterful blend of characterization and history, so that the reader can understand each player and the implications of his or her involvement. It seems that nothing is left out of Crile's account. Crile's book is the primary source for the film Charlie Wilson's War. The film's opening credits indicate that the script is based on the book, and many lines from the book can be found in the film verbatim. Crile's book includes a section of photographs that are re-created in the film with the actors. These photos come to life on-screen with the costumes and backgrounds copying the photographs exactly. It is important to note that the book is dense and packed with information, and obviously some parts have been left out of the film. However, the book reads like an extended script of the film and is a crucial read for any scholar of Charlie Wilson's War.
Galeotti, Mark. Afghanistan: The Soviet Union's Last War. Portland: Frank Cass 1995.
Galeotti focuses on the argument that the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan played a major role in the fall of the empire. To that end, he delves into great deal about the reporting of the war in the Soviet Union and its effects. He not only explains the invasion itself but the impact the military expedition had on the Soviet Union as a whole, including that on citizens at home. In addition, Galeotti provides insight about the war on the ground in Afghanistan, though he appears more interested in its outcome and aftermath.
Girardet, Edward. Afghanistan: The Soviet War. New York: St. Martin's Press 1985.
Girardet's book is based on five trips by the author into Afghanistan during the war. Not only does his account seek to explain why the Soviets invaded, but the book also attempts to illustrate why the Soviets felt the invasion was defensive. The book features interviews with Afghan resistance leaders who explain the logic and goals behind the resistance movement. However, it is important to note that the book argues that the West failed to aid the Afghans' cause appropriately. As such, it appears a bit outdated, as it was written before the covert nature of U.S. involvement is fully revealed.
Kakar, M. Hassan. The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response: 1979-1982. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.
Hassan's book is available online in its entirety. The content reads like an encyclopedia, in the sense that there is no slant or political motivation behind the writing. The book covers the Soviet's invasion of Afghanistan from its early days. The content also includes information about the resistance movements within Afghanistan, both Islamic and nationalistic. Military operations are examined by the author, and the book discusses the refugee situation as a result of the invasion. The book is extremely helpful in terms of the conflict's background and beginnings. However, the book only follows the conflict through 1982, when U.S. involvement was making little visible impact on the ground in Afghanistan. As such, the book is not helpful in terms of understanding U.S. involvement in the conflict with respect to the film.

See Also

Coll, Steve. Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Cordovez, Diego. Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.

Mendelson, Sarah Elizabeth. Changing Course: Ideas, Politics, and the Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998.

Video/Audio Resources

The True Story of Charlie Wilson. A&E Home Video, 2008.
Like Crile's account, The History Channel's The True Story of Charlie Wilson covers the entirety of the tale. The DVD touches on the background of the war but is not as thorough in doing so as Crile's book. The DVD focuses mainly on Wilson's history and his role in shaping the conflict in Afghanistan. The DVD tells the story of Wilson's dog, Teddy, and the hot tub incident in great detail. All of the quotes in the historical context section come from the DVD, which features one-on-one interviews with Wilson and Herring. The DVD does not take a position or provide a thesis on the subject but simply serves to deliver the facts as they happened. The DVD takes the viewer right through the conflict and even puts the conflict into perspective with regard to the current situation in the Middle East. The DVD, like Crile's book, would be helpful to any scholar looking for the full story of Charlie Wilson, since it covers the entire situation in great detail. Perhaps most important, in terms of the filmic context, is the interview with script writer Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin provides extensive commentary about writing the screenplay, researching the history, and his own opinions about what happened in the 1980's. Sorkin's interview is crucial to the understanding of the development of the film and helps scholars to understand the mind of those who created the script and the film.
U.S.-Afghanistan Relations: Gaining Perspectives. Films for the Humanities, 2002.
Shows how they Arabic adage "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" sums up America's relation to Afghanistan since the Cold War.

Online Resources

"Afghanistan: War without End?" The MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour. PBS. 27 December 1985.
The news special covers the Soviet conflict in Afghanistan in 1985, six years after the invasion. Judging by the transcript of the program, producers and panelists do not represent any one angle on the conflict, though some panelists, like Senator Gordon Humphrey, demonstrate clear opinions. The news program reports that in 1985, the U.S. had given $250 million in covert aid to Afghanistan. The program discusses death tolls of civilians and freedom fighters and explains the refugee situations that existed in Iran and Pakistan. Several panelists discuss the situation in terms of genocide. At the end of the program, the reporters interview Senator Gordon Humphrey, who insists that the government should set up a separate body to oversee U.S. involvement. The program provides a great overview of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan but, because of the covert nature of the operation in 1985, provides little insight into the true extent of U.S. involvement.
Carlson, Peter. "Sticking to his Guns: Charlie Wilson: The Wild Card Image was the Real Deal." Washington Post 22 Dec. 2007.
Carlson's article provides insight regarding the history of Charlie Wilson. Carlson does not take a specific angle in his reporting; he simply provides an overview of the events leading to and including the war in Afghanistan. He begins his article with interviews with the real "Charlie's Angels" and moves into the personal history of Wilson. Carlson outlines Wilson's image as a party-goer and then outlines his history as a Congressman. Carlson provides detail about both Wilson's personal and professional life. He provides interviews with Wilson's colleagues that reveal details not found in other sources. Carlson also explains what Wilson has done from the age of 60 on, which is hard to come by in other sources. Overall, Carlson provides good insight and detail about the life of Charlie Wilson. This article is extremely helpful to any scholar looking to understand Wilson the person and also Wilson the professional.
Charles Wilson Congressional Papers
Catalog of the collection at Stephen F. Austin State University.
Charlie Wilson's War
News, photos, and a blog about Charlie Wilson and the movie from Charlie Wilson's hometown newspaper.
Danahar,Paul. "Afghanistan's New Militant Alliances." BBC News 17 April 2006.
References Wilson's work. "The guns and training camps Wilson's funding paid for drove out the Soviet troops but also radicalised and armed a generation of young Muslim men. It helped create the instability in Afghanistan that produced the Taleban and al-Qaeda. And it eventually brought America back into an Afghan war but this time with many old friends as the enemy."
Joanne King Herring
Joanne Herring's personal website provides pictures of the real Joanne Herring with the real Wilson and other important political figures in the 1980's. Herring's site extensively explains her religious beliefs and includes interesting quotes from Herring, but most of the site's content refers to her religious and political beliefs. Herring does include links to sites about the film but does not discuss its history much on the site. The site is best used for pictures of Herring with Wilson and members of the cast.
Johns, Michael. "Charlie Wilson's War Was Really America's War." Michael Johns blog. 19 January 2008.
"But it is the thesis of this film--that there exists an undeniable correlation between the ultimate victory of the United States-supported resistance in Afghanistan, known as the mujahideen, in their war against the Soviet Union's invasion and occupation of Afghanistan--that makes this film a hugely important leap in greater understanding of the truth behind the late 20th century American-led effort, under Ronald Reagan's Presidency, to win the Cold War, liberate millions, and usher in the great hope of peace and freedom that exists in our current post-Cold War world."
Leopold, Todd. "The Real Charlie Wilson: ‘War' Got it Right." CNN.
Leopold's article addresses the heart transplant underwent by Wilson around the release of the film in theaters. The article is brief and does not express an opinion about the history or the film; it simply provides information and outlines an interview with Wilson. The article describes Wilson's health problems and a brief, vague overview of Wilson's involvement in the war in Afghanistan. The article then provides an interview with Wilson about the film. Wilson explains that he spent time on the set, though had no authority over the script or production. Wilson insists that the film is in keeping with the book. He addresses the idea of "blowback" with regards to the conflict and the current situation in the Middle East, but Wilson argues that the blowback is not too significant to the film. Wilson adds that he thinks the movie provides sufficient history and is enough for viewers hoping to get an accurate idea of what actually happened. The article itself is not too helpful but the interview provides insight from Wilson unavailable in other sources.
McElwaine, Sandra. "Charlie Wilson Regrets Nothing." Time 6 Dec. 2007.,9171,1692047,00.html
McElwaine's article is incredibly narrow and does not focus on the events of Wilson's life before the release of the film. The piece does have a bit of opinion, as the author expresses surprise that the "saga" was not released to the press at the time. In terms of content, McElwaine reveals the details surrounding Wilson's heart transplant when he was 74. The article also touches on Wilson's marriage to Barbra Alberstadt. McElwaine only mentions the war in Afghanistan in context with the release of the film and reveals that Wilson hoped to attend the Los Angeles premier. The article would be useful to a scholar looking to know what Wilson had been doing at the time the film was released, but nothing regarding the history is involved.
"Timeline: The Soviet War in Afghanistan." BBC.
The BBC timeline details 1978-1979 in great deal, particularly the month of December in 1978 and 1979. The timeline after these years becomes vague, only including a brief paragraph for each year of the conflict. The timeline helps as an overview but is extremely vague and insufficient for deep knowledge of the conflict.