Culture: Why we're warming to the Cold War

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The Independent Online

With five Golden Globe nominations and seven on the Bafta longlist, Charlie Wilson's War looks set to be a big winner come the awards season. This is partly thanks to the star turns delivered by Julia Roberts (pictured) and Philip Seymour Hoffman, but also because it harkens back to a period in America's post-war history when its foreign policy commanded much more support. It is the first example of what may become a new cultural trend: Cold War nostalgia.

Charlie Wilson's War is a light-hearted romp based on a true story about the part played by a renegade congressman in kicking the Russians out of Afghanistan. Charlie Wilson was a hard-partying member of the House of Representatives who, in addition to being implicated in a number of scandals, was instrumental in increasing the budget for the CIA's covert funding of the Afghan Mujahideen. If any single individual can be credited with bringing down the Soviet Union, Charlie Wilson is that man.

What is fascinating about the film is its revisionist attitude toward the Cold War. The conventional view of this conflict, as propagated by novelists such as John Le Carré, is that it was characterised by psychological unease and moral uncertainty in which both the Soviet Union and its Western opponents were fatally compromised. Not so, according to Charlie Wilson's War, which depicts the 1980s as a period of almost carefree innocence. Back then, we knew who our enemies were, where they were and, most importantly, how to defeat them. Contrast this with the geopolitical quagmire we find ourselves in today.

Of course, one of the main reasons we can now look back on the Cold War era as the "good old days" is because the West came out on top. Waging a covert military operation — and winning it – seems infinitely preferable to waging an actual war and losing it. Nowhere is this more apparent than if you contrast the record of the West's intelligence services in Afghanistan in the 1980s with the record of their armed services in the same region 20 years later. No wonder we feel nostalgic about the recent past.

The other appealing thing about Charlie Wilson's War is that it conjures up a period when the public did not require its leaders to be quite so virtuous. Wilson's scandalous personal life didn't stop the voters of Texas' 2nd Congressional District re-electing him (nor should it have done). Perhaps the lesson is that if we want to win the war on terror we'll have to replace men such as George W Bush and Tony Blair with men more like Charlie Wilson.