The military was so helpful in making Black Hawk Down that it deserves a production credit. After vetting the script, the Pentagon sent to Morocco (the shooting site) two C-5 transports carrying eight helicopters and more than 100 soldiers from the same Ranger company that fought in the Somalia raid depicted in the movie. US Army pilots flew the helicopters in the movie’s battle scenes, and two retired soldiers who fought in the raid served as advisers to director Ridley Scott. And the Pentagon has been pleased with the result. “Powerful,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called it after attending the Washington premiere along with 800 other top officials and brass. Ordinary Americans, meanwhile, have flocked to Black Hawk Down in such numbers as to make it the nation’s top-grossing movie three weeks in a row.
Like many, I was impressed with the movie’s grimly realistic portrayal of what it’s like to be pinned down under withering fire in enemy territory; rocket-propelled grenades never looked so terrifying. But I was troubled by the film as well. One problem was its stark good-versus-evil story line. The Americans are uniformly dedicated, likable and brave. The Somalis are uniformly grasping, creepy and savage–dark-skinned anthropoids with submachine guns. They are rarely allowed to speak, so the raid is told entirely from the American perspective. This points to a deeper flaw in the movie: its complete lack of context. In the brief lead-up to the raid, we are sketchily informed that US forces came to Somalia to help distribute food to the starving masses and that this mission was opposed by the warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. Determined to get rid of him, the Americans launch a raid designed to capture two of his lieutenants. When a Black Hawk helicopter goes down, all Mogadishu converges on it, the goal being to kill as many Americans as possible.
If the Americans’ main objective in Somalia was to feed the hungry, however, why were the Somalis so angry at them? Black Hawk Down does not explore this. The True Story of Black Hawk Down, shown on the History Channel in late January, does. Narrated by Mark Bowden, who wrote the book on which the movie is based, the program, like the movie, focuses mainly on the raid, but takes pains to show why it unfolded as it did. At the outset, Bowden notes, the Somalis were very friendly to the Americans; the 20,000 Marines who came in December 1992 “basically ended the famine.” Eventually, though, the Marines gave way to a UN peacekeeping force, which sought to mold the various Somali factions into a government. Aidid refused to participate, however, and his forces began attacking the peacekeepers. Retaliating, the peacekeepers killed many Somalis. In the process, Bowden says, “they were gradually turning the people of Mogadishu against the UN intervention.”
“We supported them at first,” a Somali community leader says, in one of many interviews with Somalis that help tell the other side of the story. “The problem was when they began going after Aidid.” When Aidid began airing propaganda against the peacekeepers, a contingent of peacekeepers set out for the radio station in Mogadishu; they were ambushed, and twenty-four died. Subsequently, President Clinton ordered US troops back to Somalia with the goal of getting Aidid. As a preliminary step, they arrested one of his top aides. This, Bowden notes, bred “tremendous resentment–the United States was arresting their leaders.”