Issue Briefs

America Needs Maverick

By Paolo von Schirach

WASHINGTON – Recently I happened to watch three movies and a short docudrama that left a strong impression. The stories are quite different and yet they have a central theme. In different ways they are an inspiring celebration of American resourcefulness, sometimes against the rules, resilience and dogged determination: the “can do” Maverick spirit.

Maverick stories

In the movie Top Gun: Maverick, a very experienced but sidelined Navy pilot, call sign Maverick, is called back into action to train the best US Navy pilots for mission impossible: bombing and destroying an extremely well defended nuclear facility created by a hostile power before it could become operational. This is a real emergency. There is very little time. The chances of success are minimal. Maverick does his best, including using unorthodox methods frowned upon by his superior officer. His trainees do their best. In the end, despite huge setbacks, it all works out. The mission succeeds. The facility is destroyed. But there is high drama. Two of the trainees save Maverick’s life. One in the middle of the action. Another one at the very end. Maverick the instructor achieves the impossible by making all his trainees Mavericks. In a very moving scene, Maverick’s old friend, now an admiral, says to him: “The Navy needs Maverick”. Indeed it does.

We can do this

In The Martian, we have a science fiction plot. An American astronaut mistakenly is left behind, all by himself, on Mars. The situation looks desperate. He has a base to go back to. But no food supplies. He is going to die there, all alone, on another planet. And yet, and yet, his own ingenuity makes him realize that he can grow edible plants on his little Mars base. At the same time, his companions back on planet Earth realize that he is alive and decide to launch a Mars rescue mission, even though the chances of success are minimal. In the end, notwithstanding snafus and bad luck, they make it. the Martian is rescued. Once again, grit, determination, resilience and team work worked.

The underdog prevails

In Django Unchained we have another very improbable story, yet captivating and also moving. It is set in America’ South before the Civil War. There is slavery. A black slave, Django, is freed by an eccentric white bounty hunter. Through various adventures they end up on the estate of a white plantation owner. The former slave realizes his wife is there. The mission is to find a way to free her. The whole thing gets messy. Before that we are exposed to graphic scenes of horrible white gratuitous brutality, including the practice of having strong black slaves fight each other to death, with their bare hands, just for the entertainment of their white owners. In the end, while his companion and benefactor gets killed, Django prevails. He rescues his wife. He kills the people of the plantation and destroys the whole thing. Again, another story of the ultra underdog who, against all odds, eventually prevails, thanks to his ingenuity, dogged determination and courage.

Baltimore was saved

And the last story is a short docudrama played shown every day at For McHenry in Baltimore that reenacts the most critical episode of the War of 1812: the British (failed) effort to take over the port of Baltimore on September 13, 1814. The people of Baltimore knew that the British were coming, with an enormous fleet and an invasion force, after having taken over Washington, DC. The situation looked desperate. The dramatization shows a city in semi-chaos. Many citizens wanted to flee to safety.

But most of the people of Baltimore decided to resist. Most of them were not professional soldiers. And yet they would not surrender. A quickly assembled American militia would try to stop the British soldiers who had landed, so that they could not take the city from behind. Fort McHenry’s guns would prevent the mighty British fleet to sail into the Harbor. A young officer, George Armistead, was in charge of the fort. He had ordered an enormous American flag to be made, as a symbol of American dogged determination in the unequal fight against Great Britain.

The defenders of Fort McHenry

What follows is a gripping description of the efforts to defend Fort McHenry. The British relentless bombardment of Fort McHenry from the many ships of their mighty fleet went on for 25 hours, in the middle of torrential rain. And yet in the docudrama reenactment, you see no fear among the defenders. You see the American gun crews at Fort McHenry never giving up. They gave it all, and then more, soaked to their bones, in the middle of the rainy night and a heavy bombardment. “Heave, Heave”, screams the man in charge of a gun. And the men, together, pull the ropes, load the gun and then fire. On their faces, you read grit and determination.

Our Flag was still there

Francis Scott Key, temporarily prisoner aboard a British ship, watched the whole thing from a distance. At dawn, the guns fell silent. There was mist that prevented him to see Fort McHenry. But then, among the clouds, Key saw a flag on the Fort’s mast. “It is ours, Mr. Skinner. it is ours”, says Key with joy to a companion. Yes, “In the Dawn’s Early Light”. Key saw the American banner. indeed, “Our Flag was still there“. The brave defenders of Fort McHenry had resisted. The British abandoned the invasion effort. Baltimore was saved. The poem written almost immediately by Francis Scott Key titled “The Defense of Fort McHenry” –but almost immediately renamed “The Star Spangled Banner”— encapsulates America at its best. Resistance, courage, resilience. It enjoyed instant popularity across America, and eventually it became the US National Anthem.

So, here is the common thread among all these stories, fiction and history. “We Americans are never beaten”. “We shall always find a way”. “We can do this”. “And we always do it together”. Yes, there is often a Maverick, a leader with a twist who is in charge. Mavericks are good leaders because they do things differently and they inspire others. In the end, success is the result of team work.

America needs Maverick

And here we go, America. If success comes with Mavericks, then we need more Mavericks. They are the gutsy original thinkers; but also men and women of action. Unconstrained by staid norms and conventions, they do it their own way. And yet they are fiercely loyal to the basic values of the United States. They love their country. Yet, they are not romantic heroes. They are determined fighters who can think creatively, strategize, delegate, lead, and win.

Yes, what I described here are only movies, works of fiction. And perhaps the Fort McHenry docudrama is a bit exaggerated in its portrayal of the heroic defense of Baltimore. But deep down in the American DNA there is a Maverick spirit. We just need to re-awaken it. We need it. As the sick Admiral, close to his death, says to his old Navy pilot friend Maverick: “The Navy needs Maverick”. Yes, absolutely. And I add: “The United States of America need the Maverick spirit”.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s.

 Paolo von Schirach is the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC. He is also the Editor of the Schirach Report.