Sunday, January 27, 2008

Charlie Wilson and the Economics of War

Imagine for a moment that you consider yourself a pacifist, as I do. Then imagine that one day you find yourself inwardly cheering when you see a helicopter blown out of the sky by Islamic militants, and chuckling when the vanquished have the following toast proposed to them: "Here's to you, you mother****ers."

Such is the effect of the film, Charlie Wilson's War, in which the occupying Soviets are oh so evil, and in which the poor downtrodden Afghanis are oh so good and pathetic and heroic. Not to mention that a congressman and a CIA operative are somehow subversive radicals who manage to divert huge amounts of government funds into military aid without public notice. Yes, you even find yourself cheering for that.

The characters are so likable, and the story of protecting the weak from the strong is so compelling, that it is impossible not to go along for the ride. Never mind that the oddly reversed roles of the conflict made the Islamic radicals our allies in the Cold War, and that Osama Bin Laden (who is never mentioned) was among them.

There is an even more pointed moment, in case anyone hasn't got on board yet. After a scene in which Julia Roberts, as a wealthy Texan raising funds (and Cain) for Afghanistan, has to be asked to tone down the religious nature of her appeals, we jump to a montage of Soviet armor being destroyed to the soundtrack of "And He Shall Purify" from Handel's Messiah. Yikes! This makes "Onward Christian Soldiers" sound like a Boy Scout campfire song.

In a lot of ways the film only turns serious at the end. After the Soviet army has to admit defeat and leave, Wilson continues to push for aid to rebuild Afghanistan. But this task is not so easy as fighting a war, and he is unable even to get funding to construct some schools. The historic consequences are plain, and don't have to be spelled out.

There is a subtext, however, which I found interesting, whether it was intentional or not. In one of the planning sessions, the point is made that the hand-held anti-aircraft missiles that are being supplied to the Afghanis are a small fraction of the cost of the helicopters that they are bringing down. The ratio means that the "evil empire" can be vastly outspent, and for a bargain price.

Obviously the same math can work just as well when the shoe is on the other foot, as it is now in Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan. Every time another suicide bomber detonates himself, the casualty rate is bound to tilt in his favor. And every roadside bomb that goes off exchanges a few dollars worth of explosives for a vehicle costing tens or hundreds of thousands--not to mention the cost in lives and caring for the wounded. The implication is that the sheer expense of modern weaponry is now a disadvantage to the side that is better equipped. As long as some influx of low-cost weapons exists, the cost to the stronger side will be hugely greater.

This is not necessarily to say that the United States is losing the fight for control of Iraq and Afghanistan; but it insures that the price of success will be enormous, as we are finding out--as the Soviets found out, and as we should have remembered from our own experience in Vietnam. Eventually, if our foreign policy demands continued military interventions elsewhere, the expense may have such a crippling effect on our economy that we will be forced to change our behavior in order to survive.

In short, military domination may have become too costly to work in the modern world. A huge and expensive army may be what you need to destroy another huge and expensive army, but it is not the right tool for controlling a population, or creating real social change. This trend is likely to become more pronounced as new technologies continue to make the old ones more vulnerable at lower cost.

And maybe, in the long run, that really will be something to cheer about.

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