You have the power to kill but not negotiate. In Somalia, killing is negotiation.
Ridley Scott’s fact-based epic is probably the most patriotic anti-war movie ever made. It successfully honors the men and their mission, while simultaneously acknowledging the politics that ultimately made their sacrifices rather futile in the end. It may be the first modern war movie about a truly modern war and watching it now, I realize that the current occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have either not seen this movie or have at least never internalized the lessons from the events depicted. The prior tenant may have learned the wrong lesson from the Battle of Mogadishu, but at least he was paying some attention.
In 1992, the first Bush Administration sent in the Marines to help secure the United Nations aid shipments to the famine-stricken country of Somalia. Before that time, food and medicine were previously being seized by the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, resulting in a nationwide famine that had killed 300,000. This strictly humanitarian mission was mostly successful, but when the Marines were withdrawn, Aidid began attacking the remaining U.N. peacekeepers. This led the new Clinton Administration to dispatch U.S. Special Forces, including units of Delta Force and the Army Rangers. Their mission was simple: take down Aidid and militia. The U.S. mission had shifted from peacekeeping and protecting the humanitarian aid to the nebulous and dubious goal of “nation building.”
On the afternoon of October 3, 1993, a task force of Delta Force operators and Rangers set out to capture two of Aidid’s key lieutenants from an area of the capital city Mogadishu known as the Bakaara Market, which at the time made Dodge City look like Switzerland. The mission was supposed to take thirty minutes, so the soldier’s left behind extra water, ammo and their night-vision gear. At first, the mission seems to go like clockwork as the Delta operators land and seize their targets. The Rangers fast rope down to establish a perimeter. But one of the soldiers loses his grip and falls when his Black Hawk helicopter has to dodge an RPG round. Then another RPG knocks down one of the choppers and suddenly a quick strike and now a rescue mission as the soldiers have to proceed to the crash site on foot. By this time, virtually all of Aidid’s militia has been alerted and is converging on the crash site.
To make matters worse, the convoy of Humvees meant to extract the prisoners and soldiers is coming under heavy fire and suffering heavy casualties. Then one of the other Black Hawks providing cover for the crash site is itself shot down by another RPG.
Ultimately, the thirty minute mission became an all-night battle that claimed nineteen American, one Malaysian and probably a thousand or more Somali lives. The battered U.S. forces were successfully evacuated to a stadium controlled by the Pakistanis but the mission was a black eye to American foreign policy and made the Clinton Administration extremely skittish about committing U.S. troops to other trouble spots. This reluctance would, a year later, be an enabling factor in the Rwandan genocide that killed more than 800,000.
Based on the book by Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down features a large cast of actors, many of whom would go on to greater fame and others who were familiar faces if not household names. One of more common criticisms is that the film lacks vivid characters with whom the audience can identify, but this missed the entire point of the movie. Black Hawk Down is not a conventional Hollywood narrative about protagonists with a goal and villains trying to thwart them. It’s about the event itself and the circumstances that surround it. We get just as close to the soldiers as we need to understand the situation in which they find themselves, and no more.
The film does feature, I think, a few standout performances. They may lack the elements that earn actors Academy Awards, but the performers seamlessly inhabit the roles they play. As General Garrison, the overall commander of the American forces, Sam Shepard gives us a man who is not a martinet nor unrealistically humanistic. Josh Hartnett is Sgt. Eversmann, recently promoted to lead his “chalk” when the previous sergeant falls ill. Ewan McGregor is on hand as Specialist Grimes, a desk jockey pressed into combat duty to replace an injured Ranger. Eric Bana is Hoot, a phlegmatic Delta operator, and William Fichtner is on hand as Sanderson, the other recognizable face from the Delta Force personnel.
Finally, Tom Sizemore plays Col. McKnight, who leads the convoy almost literally into the teeth of a lion and doggedly refuses to abandon his mission to reach the encircled soldiers now defending the first crash site.
In addition to McGregor, there are a disproportionate number of UK-based actors playing American soldiers. Most notable are Jason Isaacs of Harry Potter fame playing Capt. Steele, an officer with a thorny relationship with the Delta Force operators. Future Lord of the Rings heartthrob Orlando Bloom is PFC Blackburn, whose fall from his helicopter seems to spark a death spiral of Murphy’s Law in action.
The movie conspicuously avoids any discussion of U.S. foreign policy or their broader aims in Somalia. That’s probably wise, as it would have probably made a 150-minute film into something more like four hours. However, if you get the chance to check out the three-disc DVD edition of this movie, do so. Not only does it feature a superb making-of documentary that’s longer than the movie itself, but the third disc contains not one, but two documentaries on the real events, including an excellent two-hour History Channel feature made to accompany the release of the movie.
While it doesn’t explicitly say this, the movie and the documentary highlight the stupidity of the process we call “nation building.” A nation is not an erector set or a piece of Ikea furniture that comes with instructions. To think that we can come in, topple the existing order and then install Western-style democracy like it was a new dishwasher is just plain old hubris on our part. I’m not claiming to have the answers but clearly neither did the people whose decision led to the events shown here. The people who got us into Iraq don’t seem to be doing much better either.