I started out well-disposed towards the book. I haven't seen the recent film of the same name, but was already feeling quite defensive towards it, having heard one too many right-on reviews complaining that it didn't draw the 'correct' conclusions about the supposed blowback from America's support of the Afghan rebels. Having recently read Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower, I knew that you couldn't draw a straight line from US backing for the mujahadeen to the rise of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban a decade or so later. Wright's book demonstrates that bin Laden's rag-tag army of volunteers was almost comically peripheral to the defeat of the Russians. At the same time, Wright shows that the US had little choice but to support any force that would halt the Soviet advance to the Gulf and their potential control of the Arabian oilfields.
For the first few chapters of Crile's book, I was intrigued by the character of Charlie Wilson, a Democratic congressman with impeccable liberal credentials, who just happened to be a dedicated anti-communist to boot. (Some would argue that he was an anti-communist because he was a true liberal.) It's a combination we're not used to in Europe, where dedicated anti-communist views have tended to be found mostly on the right. But with my 'progressive anti-totalitarian' hat on, I was interested to see how things played out in the US context.
However, Wilson's anti-communism, and his one-man campaign to arm the Afghan rebels, led him into alliances with some distinctly unsavoury characters, including ultra-rightist millionaires and CIA agents with CVs that included propping up South American dictatorships, rigging elections in Italy, and working for the Greek colonels. My sympathies for their efforts to defeat Soviet totalitarianism diminished as I realised that these were the same people who funded the Contras and engineered the invasion of Grenada. Even Wilson himself had championed Somoza, as a bulwark against communism. Now he and his fellow conspirators were throwing in their lot with Pakistan's General Zia for similar reasons.
E.P.Thompson once wrote an essay (sorry, I can't find the reference right now) in which he argued that anti-communism (in its rabid, dictator-supporting form) was as great a menace to the world as Stalinist communism. This was back in the days when memories of the CIA's overthrow of Allende's democratically elected government and its support for a clutch of murderous autocrats from El Salvador to the Philippines were fresh in people's minds. As I went on with Crile's account, I began to wonder if Thompson might not have been right.
I wrote here about my gradual disillusionment with the Sandinista revolution, but I'd still take Ortega and his cronies, for all their faults, in preference to the Contra death squads supported by Wilson and his friends. Closer to home, I still think the PCI (which more closely resembled the British Labour left than it did the Soviet CP) would have made a better job of running post-war Italy than the corrupt cabal of Christian Democrats propped up by the CIA. Greece is a trickier case: Mark Mazower's brilliant book suggested that the wartime communist resistance, for all its bravery against the Nazis, would probably have turned the country into another Albania, or at least another Yugoslavia, had they come to power.
But as you read about the CIA's anti-communist exploits down the years, you find yourself asking: couldn't they have found some nice centrist liberal or social democratic party to support as a bulwark against communism, rather than yet another military thug whose regime was often at least as repellent as the Stalinists?
These days, I'm happy to describe myself as a member of the anti-totalitarian left. But Crile's book, and Wilson's story, remind me why I still feel uncomfortable with the label 'anti-communist'.