A disproportionate number of the men I revere were Cold Warriors. Presidents Truman, Kennedy and Reagan, Senator Scoop Jackson, Pope John Paul II, boxer Rocky Balboa — these men saw the Soviet Union for the totalitarian regime that it was and sought to relegate it to the ash heap of history. Last week, another Cold Warrior and personal hero, Congressman Charlie Wilson, passed away at 76.
Wilson masterminded the covert effort to funnel billions of dollars in arms and supplies to the Afghan rebels fighting the Soviets during the 1980s. Before his efforts, the Soviets seemed poised to subjugate Afghanistan and other neighboring countries; in the shadow of Vietnam and the Iranian revolution, it looked like America would again be on the retreat.
After — and because of — Wilson’s efforts, the Red Army marched in disgrace back to Moscow, defeated, demoralized, never to fully mobilize again.
Wilson’s efforts were catalogued in George Crile’s 2003 book and adapted for film by Aaron Sorkin. Many probably have no idea what Charlie Wilson looked like — his name instead evokes the Tom Hanks portrayal. For those who haven’t seen “Charlie Wilson’s War” allow me to briefly summarize: He was a womanizing, cocaine-snorting Texan who single-handedly kept alive the American single malt whiskey industry. He spent a fair share his time hanging out with strippers and gamblers, was nicknamed “good time Charlie” and was once fined $90,000 for election-expenditure irregularities. In the movie, then-Afghan President Zia-ul-Haq tells Wilson that his reputation precedes him; Wilson tells an aide, “You know you’ve hit rock bottom when you’re told you have ‘character flaws’ by a man who hanged his predecessor in a military coup.” None of these indiscretions abated while he found funding for the mujahideen, and he never seemed to regret it.
So what to make of this man of great accomplishment and political acumen with a sordid life, a man whose hometown mayor referred to him as a “rascal but our rascal?”
Perhaps, the same as we make of other quintessential Americans like Benjamin Franklin, Teddy Roosevelt, Mark Twain: the flirt, skinny-dipper, the notoriously bad investor.
American nationality, at the time of our independence, was defined in contrast to the mores and habits of the Old World. We were a new race. Simpler. Rougher. More enterprising. Less refined. Rough riding in Cuba or on a camel with the mujahideen. Good men doing great things. This is as concise a definition of what it means to be an American as I can muster.
But it’s not too shabby. This spirit has allowed us to create a country on a hill. We’ve kept alive a pluralistic, multi-ethnic democratic regime that has provided freedom and safe haven and prosperity to tens of millions of people. To be sure, we’ve made mistakes along the way — both personal and political — but on the whole this spirit has carried us forward.
I cannot help but feel that this American identity is fading away. I’m sure every generation has felt this way, certainly some in every generation of Elis. Nostalgia, after all, has been with us since the time of Homer. But when I look around, particularly at those interested in a career in politics or public service, I see too little of the boisterous spirit that has defined American greatness and too much of the subservient spirit common in career civil servants and members of the court at Versailles.
Too often we take the wrong lessons from the leaders we admire. Unless your political hero is James Buchanan, there’s a high likelihood he or she is full of great courage, great character and great belief in the possibilities that tomorrow brings. And if a true leader were camping in the woods and a tree blocked his view of the sunset, he wouldn’t waste time debating about what to do or worrying too much about the consequence of a small action. Wilson, for one, would cut it down and enjoy the view.
Requietscat in pace, Charlie Wilson. Like your American forbearers, you were a hero because you employed American ingenuity and you delivered on your promises. In this country — the greatest the world has ever known — you reminded us that everyone can be a hero and should be required to try. Even the alcoholic, womanizing congressmen.
Adam Lior Hirst is a senior in Branford College.