Saturday, May 31, 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History
George Crile
Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 0-87113-854-9

Halfway through reading Charlie Wilson's War I went out and rented the movie. I had the picture of Tom Hanks on a white horse firmly entrenched in y mind the rest of the way through. It was an interesting exercise to see how much of a Cliff's Notes version of the story the movie really is. Charlie Wilson's War, the book, is a much more complete story than the film, and much more exiting.

Charlie Wilson's War has a cast of characters, real world people, who are like some demented screenwriter's idea for a film version of the A-Team. First is Wilson himself, a hard drinking playboy, who always has a beauty queen on his arm while jet setting around the world at the taxpayers' expense, who represents a straight laced, bible belt district in Congress and who gets the money to run the operation by wheeling and dealing on the hill; Gust Avrakotos, a rogue CIA case officer, working undercover inside his own agency, undermining the stated Afghanistan policy by overstepping his authority at every opportunity; technical wonder- boy Mike Vickers, Green Beret, weapons expert, he is a lowly GS 11 who isn't supposed to even know what's going on and he's the commanding general at CIA headquarters, calling all the shots; Muohammed Zia ul-Haq, dictator of Pakistan, he has a secret program to develop an atomic bomb , meanwhile he is doing everything in his power to help the CIA defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Despite the movie tie-in, this is not a work of fiction. This is the story of a real CIA operation, which became the largest in history, thanks to the efforts of a congressman from east Texas who made it his business to find a way to shoot down the Soviet Union's Hind helicopters. Charlie Wilson, on a trip to Pakistan, was shown the devastation caused by these flying tanks, which were invulnerable every weapons that the Afghan Mujahideen had.

The CIA was providing the Afghans with World War I era Enfield rifles and some light machine guns to fight the Soviet Army with. The had a $5 million a year budget at the time. Their goal was to annoy and bleed the Russians and keep them on edge, as part of the longstanding policy of containment. Wilson thought that, with a way to shoot down those helicopters, the Afghans were capable of driving the Soviet Army out of Afghanistan altogether. He wanted to abandon containment and attempt to defeat the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. He was only a congressman. He succeeded.

By the time the Soviets left Afghanistan the CIA operation there was spending over a billion dollars a year, half of it provided by Saudi Arabia. Kalashnikov rifles, Stinger missiles, mortars, Swiss Oerlikon anti aircraft guns, and millions of rounds of ammunition were streaming in through Pakistan.

Those Afghan "freedom fighters" who defeated the Soviet army with the help of Charlie Wilson and the CIA, helping to precipitate the fall of the Soviet Union, are the same Afghans who now are fighting again in Afghanistan, some with us and some with the Taliban. The Arab volunteers who went to Afghanistan to join in the jihad against the Soviets are the core of Alkaida. The challenges we face today are a direct result of our success in facing down the last perceived existential threat to or way of life. The biggest shortcoming of the movie is that it mentioned none of this. Instead there was a scene where Wilson fails to get a pittance appropriated to build schools in Afghanistan. In fact there was a multi million dollar AID effort that went on for three years after the defeat of the Soviets, which was finally cut off because the Mujahideen were robbing the aid convoys.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The World Without Us

Alan Weisman
St, Martin's Press
ISBN-13: 978-0-312-34729-1
ISBN-10: 0-312-34729-4

What would happen on the Earth if, one day, all the people suddenly disappeared? Alan Weisman suggests some kind of Universalist rapture or mass exodus with the help of space aliens as a vehicle for our departure so that he can continue with his thought experiment. How would nature deal with everything left behind by 21st century humanity?

Weisman looks at several places in the world,remaining vestiges of the of the pre-human world and case studies for his thought experiment. Bialowieza Puszcza is a vestigal old growth forest on the border between Poland and Belarus. It is not untouched by man, of course, but has been preserved since the middle ages as a royal hunting preserve and as a national park. The wisent, the European bison, is still in residence there along with deer, wild boars an other European large mammals. No aurochs, sadly. Weisman suggetsts that a forest like Bialowieza Puszcza could once again cover most of Europe.

The subways, tunnels and buried streams on Manhattan would suddenly fill with water. New York pumps thousands of gallons of water every day out of it's underworld. When the pumps stop all would go underwater. This water would rust out the steel structure holding New York up, cause the streets to become canals, the buried streams to re-emerge and the tall buildings to fall. Central Park would become the source of seed to reestablish a forest on the island, wildlife would cross the bridges, soon to collapse from rust and lack of maintenance, and repopulate the island. Rats and cockroaches would die off without the support of their human hosts to feed them and heat their homes. - That's a good thing, Martha.

Houston would become a huge oil and chemical spill which would pollute the ship canal and cause problems for life far out into the Gulf of Mexico. Over time, Weisman hopes, nature would heal the mess, as it is doing for Prince William Sound. It could take centuries.

Nuclear power plants need us to keep them from melting down. Nature would move right in to te contaminated areas, however, as it has done at Chyrnobl An article that he wrote about the aftermath of Chernobyl is, in fact, the inspiration for this book. Grasses, trees, animals and human squatters have occupied the contaminated zone around the ruined nuclear plant, and will pay the inevitable penalty in increased cancers and birth defects.

The worlds oceans would recover, over time, coral reefs would come back and, interestingly, Weisman predicts that the oceans would soon be filled with huge sharks and other large predators. Some studies have suggested that, in a healthy, balanced ocean, much of the biomass is stored in large carnivores, and not is the smaller herbivores and plants as on land. This is because to the rapid rate of reproduction of small fish and of plankton, corals and other marine life, which is quickly eaten. The large carnivores live longer and store that energy, to be recycled years later, when they die of natural causes.

There is no big message in The World Without Us, no doomsday prophecy. Weisman simply wanted to think about the effect humanity has had on the world and his method for doing so was to imagine our sudden withdrawal. He does suggest that the Earth might miss us if we went away. Humanity is a part of nature, too.