Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Black Hawk Down (2001)

Watch it for the Combat Scenes, Ignore the actual history!

I went to a war last night, and for two and a half hours had my adrenaline pumped and my patriotic heart strings tugged by US soldiers in battle, bravely tracking down and trying to capture the enemy. No it wasn't Osama (he is dead, you see), because the movie which felt like it might have taken place in the rubble of Kabul or Baghdad was actually a replay of the battlefield disaster of Mogadishu in l993. 

The film is Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, an account of elite Ranger and Delta force soldiers fighting the good fight based on the book of the same name by Mark Bowden. Their mission, the publicity flyer tells us, "to capture several top lieutenants of the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, as part of a strategy to quell the civil war and famine that is ravaging that country." 

The action is non-stop; only the outcome is/was disastrous. Nineteen Americans were killed along with over l,000 Somalis dead in the Battle of Mogadishu before US forces were withdrawn in an intervention that started nobly and ended in one of the bloodiest messes you can imagine. The movie shows  what the TV news of today does not: actual combat, and the feelings of those engaged in it. You see soldiers fighting with great courage, but they are not motivated by a cause or an ideology; they fight to protect each other, for personal survival. Obvious is that US forces have a clear advantage in terms of technology, helicopters, communications, etc. But in the end they are defeated by the determination of a far less organized urban guerrilla force that sees itself defending its hometown against a foreign intervention. And like the TV news accounts of Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, the movie comes to us largely context-free, with a twisted and distorted perspective that simplifies that conflict beyond recognition. 

Black Hawk Down also seems part of a obvious propaganda strategy aimed at Americans, not people overseas where it is unlikely to win many hearts and minds. Larry Chin noted in the Online Journal when this movie was released: "True to its post-9/11 government-sanctioned role as US war propaganda headquarters, Hollywood has released Black Hawk Down, a fictionalized account of a tragic 1993 US raid in Somalia. The Pentagon assisted with the production, pleased for an opportunity to 'set the record straight. The film, though, is a lie that compounds the original lie that was the operation itself." 

Forget the revelations that one of the story's big heroes who was awarded a Silver Star, in real life, later got convicted as a child rapist. Forget the dramatization formulas. Just think about the impression left with the audience, and how that perception has little to do with reality. After watching the film, which made me uncomfortable because it showed how senseless the US policy was as well as how ineffective, I also realized how little it conveyed what really happened in that tortured land. 

The film starts with signposts - literally, writing on the screen, a few short paragraphs, to remind us what happened. The problem is this: the information is false. It implies, for example, that US troops were sent to Somalia to feed the hungry. Maybe the initial shipments of troops were, as part of a UN force, but not by the time the Black Hawk Down disaster took place. 

In David Halberstam's book, War in a Time of Peace, which recounts the Somalian mishap in some depth, the Defense Secretary apparently told an associate, "We're sending the Rangers to Somalia. We are not going to be able to control them. They are like overtrained pit bulls. No one controls them." Doesn't sound much like a charity mission, does it? The Rangers were indeed sent with great fanfare, to hunt and capture Aidid. Their mission failed. 

Halberstam's book mentions, but does not detail, the bloody background: The massive crimes of the Somali dictator Siad Barre, who the US backed and who Somali warlord Mohamad Farrah Aidid ejected. Halberstam also describes the American hatred for Somalis, expressed in the much-bandied phrase, "The only good Somali is a dead Somali." Is it any wonder Somalis fought back? (In the movie, the battle looks like a racial war, with virtually all-white US forces going mano-a-mano with an all-black city.) Halberstam reveals how these forces made arrogant assumptions in Somalia, underestimating the resistance, and how the urban "battlefield became a horror. . .a major league CNN-era disaster." 

You can read Halberstam's book, and many others, if you want to know more becuase Balck Hawk Down is riddled with falsities and many inaccuracies. Anyway, the major point is that the romanticization of our modern warriors all too often misses the underlying political dimension of a conflict. In Somalia, we intervened in the domestic affairs and conflicts of another society we least understood and we still least understand. What started as a war on hunger became a war on Aidid. We became warlords ourselves and Somalia is still a lawless country.

In spite of all its battle oriented combat realism and the sad reality of the many dead, Black Hawk Down still comes across as a ensemble casted action movie starring big name actors like Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, Jason Isaacs, Sam Shepard and many more that tries to turn a US defeat into a victory by encouraging you to identify with the men who bravely fought their way out of an urban conflagration not of their making. Danny Schechter


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