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.”
That resentment deepened when the United States–learning that two Aidid aides were about to attend a meeting in downtown Mogadishu–launched a raid to arrest them. In recreating the operation, the History Channel program uses some hokey dramatization techniques, but for the most part it relies on interviews with real-life participants, and this in many ways makes the recounting even more gripping. And by allowing Somalis to speak, the program makes their frenzied reaction seem more comprehensible (if not more justifiable). “They killed hundreds of Somalis, so what does it matter if they kill one or two Americans?” a Somali militiaman says. “It didn’t bother me at all.” In the end, the fifteen-hour battle claimed an astonishing 1,000 Somali lives (in addition to eighteen American ones).
The program’s one major misstep comes at the end, when Bowden, wrapping up, observes that the main consequence of the debacle in Somalia was to inhibit the United States from intervening elsewhere. By withdrawing from Somalia after the raid, he argues, America sent the world a message that “if they kill a few of our soldiers, we’ll give up.” In light of America’s massive intervention in Afghanistan, this seems superficial and obsolete. It would have been far more interesting to hear Bowden analyze why the US mission in Somalia went so badly awry–how Americans went from being hailed as saviors to reviled as intruders. He might even have discussed the years before 1992, when the United States staunchly backed dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, whose destructive policies helped create the vacuum that the warlords rushed to fill. The M-16s trained on US Rangers in 1993 were bought with US aid.
Such an analysis would have been especially welcome in light of recent developments in the war on terrorism. Having banished Al Qaeda and uprooted the Taliban, the Bush Administration is now considering where to strike next. Somalia is a leading candidate. With its violence and lawlessness, it’s thought to be a potential refuge for bin Laden operatives fleeing Afghanistan. Black Hawk Down has contributed to the notion that we need to return to Somalia to finish the job left undone. But aside from whether Al Qaeda operatives are actually active there–and the evidence is slim–our experience in Somalia shows the risk of getting sucked into the swamp of its warlord politics.
American journalists have paid little attention to this. Like Ridley Scott, they’ve provided little context about the political situation in Somalia and our long involvement there. True, it’s not easy for journalists to operate in Somalia, but it’s not necessary to be on the ground to provide the type of background that’s so desperately needed. And Somalia is not a unique case. As Bush’s recent pronouncements suggest, we’re entering a new era in US foreign policy, one in which terrorism is being used to justify intervention in a host of countries. In most of them, the situation is far murkier and more complex than it was in Afghanistan. It’s the press’s job to fight the tendency toward caricature, whether it comes from the White House or Hollywood. Michael Massing