Film Review: Black Hawk Down
Ronald L. Spiller is an assistant professor of history at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. He is a veteran of twenty-nine years active and reserve service in the Army service in the United States, Europe and Asia. His assignments include duty with both 7th and 4th Psychological Operations Groups and with the US contingent of the UN Protection Force in Croatia. His research specialty is leadership and command method in the US Army.
Black Hawk Down, directed by Ridley Scott, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Ridley Scott, 144 minutes, distributed by Sony Pictures
Ridley Scott's film version of Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down is a good war movie. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. You cry when these Americans die and cheer when the last Rangers double time into friendly territory. It is a hell of a story, maybe the equal of Roark's Drift. That much, at least, of Scott's vision of the events of 3-4 October 1993 in Mogadishu, Somalia, is accurate. But Scott's Black Hawk is an MTV version of history. He simplifies the story and strips what has come to be called the "Battle of the Black Sea" of the cultural and institutional baggage that makes it an even more interesting and important event.
An outline of the background to the events of 3-4 October 1993 is fairly simple. The United Nations, in an attempt to alleviate human suffering in the political chaos of Somalia, established the "United Nations Organization in Somalia," UNOSOM, in April 1992. In the face of continuing chaos and violence targeted against the UN, the International Red Cross, and non-governmental relief agencies the UN expanded its mandate and presence. In November 1992 President George Bush committed US forces to security and relief operations in Somalia and the US-led Unified Task Force (UNITAF) came into being. By the spring of 1993 UNITAF strength had grown to 38,300 and included contingents from France, Canada, Italy, Morocco, Australia, Belgium, and Botswana. Two-thirds of UNITAF, however, were Americans, US Marines and elements of the Army's 10th Mountain Division. In March 1993 a reconstituted and re-organized UN structure began to replace UNITAF and in early May UNITAF Commander, Lt. Gen. Robert B. Johnson, USMC, turned over responsibility for humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in Somalia to UNOSOM II. By then the US presence in Somalia had dropped to a 2,800-man logistical support unit and a 1,200-man reaction force.
Although the UN operated with success in the Somali countryside, the situation in Mogadishu deteriorated. Somalis loyal to Mohammed Farah Aidid, a leader of the Habr Gidr clan, opposed UN activities and, on 5 June, Aidid supporters ambushed Pakistani peacekeepers, killing twenty-five and wounding fifty-four. As a result the UN essentially outlawed Aidid and his United Somali Congress/Somali National Alliance (USC/SNA). The level of violence in Mogadishu escalated as UN and US forces moved aggressively against Aidid and his supporters. In August the new Clinton administration authorized deployment of Task Force RANGER to help implement Security Council Resolution 837. This resolution authorized the Secretary General to take "all necessary measures against all those responsible for the armed attacks" of 5 June. The climax of these operations, the story told in print by Bowden and on screen by Scott, is succinctly described in US Central Command's official version of operations in Somalia.
"The most significant combat action took place on October 3, when Task Force Ranger captured six of Aideed's [sic] lieutenants and several militiamen in a daylight raid. During withdrawal operations, the Somalis shot down two UH-60 helicopters and U.S. forces remaining on the ground came under heavy fire as they attempted to carry out rescue operations and consolidate their positions. During the intense firefight that followed, approximately 300 Somalis were killed and hundreds more were wounded. A total of 16 Rangers were killed and 83 wounded before a relief column of quick reaction force soldiers, Pakistanis, and Malaysians was able to withdraw the forces to safety early on October 4."
Ridley Scott puts his version of events into its broader political context at the beginning of his film with text vaguely reminiscent of Star Wars. As the camera pans across a devastated landscape peopled by shambling, starving black ghosts and Black Hawk rotor blades thump on the sound track, one learns just enough about the external situation to explain the presence of the "good guys." The good guys, in this case, are B Company, 3rd Battalion, 75th Infantry (the Rangers), C Squadron of the Delta Force, elements of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) and SEAL Team 6, and Air Force Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) personnel. Scott moves on quickly to establish that the "bad guys" are, indeed, really bad. A Black Hawk circles over a UN food distribution site being raided by Aidid's men. US forces drop out of the sky and cleanly arrest Osman Otto, Aidid's finance chief, portrayed as a slick, sweating, cell phone carrying, Mr. Big. Otto offers Cuban cigars to Brigadier General William F. Garrison, the Task Force commander, played by Sam Shepard, who, of course, has his own Cuban cigars.
Scott moves on to introduce us to the good guys in more detail. The Rangers are young soldiers-very young-while the "D-boys" are older men, professionals certainly, but men who claim the right to operate outside the mundane regulations that afflict the Rangers. In the process Scott portrays the living conditions and professional environment of a deployed joint task force with some degree of impressionistic accuracy. The raucous atmosphere of a rusting hanger-turned-barracks, the seemingly detached calm of a good operations center, and the operational smoothness of confident men who understand their jobs are all portrayed reasonably well. The only fault one can find at this point is the flat, almost monochromatic quality of the cinematography, reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan. One would think the Mogadishu described by Bowden would have more color, or at least a lot more light.
Although a good war movie that remains superficially faithful to Bowden's descriptions of the basic actions of 3-4 October 1993, Black Hawk Down is a failure in terms of explaining some of the fundamental assumptions and conditions that underlay Task Force RANGER's operations. Scott's goal, obviously, was a commercially successful film, not a documentary. It is interesting to note the difference between Bowden's subtitle, A Story of Modern War, and the subtitle used in marketing the film, Leave No Man Behind. In a peculiar way Scott's oversimplification mirrors our own approach to operating in Mogadishu in 1993.
The great strength of Bowden's book and probably the reason it has been so well received by many military readers is his sympathetically objective portrayal of the men who conducted the operation. He describes the mistakes-the failure to take along night vision devices (NODs) and water, and the practice of removing the steel backplate from flack jackets. He discusses the Rangers' youth and inexperience. But he never strongly criticizes individual soldiers. Each reader draws his own conclusions based on his own agenda or set of prejudices. I am no exception. I am deeply irritated about aspects of Bowden's book that did not make it into Scott's version of the facts of 3-4 October. This was neither a botched military operation nor a manifestation of a sophomoric Clinton foreign policy. It was a tough, high-risk operation made more difficult by deeply held American visions of the world and an institutional culture that worships the concept of "elite" forces. Ridley Scott deals with little of this. His story is dramatic, appealing, and told very well. Scott presents this story in such a way that few members of the audience question the basic assumptions and operating principles behind the operation.
It takes little racial or ethnic sensitivity to recognize that an unconscious racism permeated the US presence in Mogadishu. In Bowden's account the Somalis are "Skinnies" or "Sammies." The Mogadishu stronghold of Aidid's clan is a neighborhood known as "The Black Sea." This is not a manifestation of overt racism, rather, a vision of cultural superiority little changed from the nineteenth century. This assumption of superiority is reinforced by a natural tendency of combat soldiers to demonize their adversary. Even Scott falls prey to this sort of stereotyping. The bad guys are almost universally portrayed as big, swaggering, sweating, (very) black men. Obviously in a country beset by a man-made famine the people might be characterized as skinny and the men in charge are well fed. Somalis are people of color and people do sweat in hot climates. The issue is not their accuracy but how these images are, and were, understood. It is not post-modernist cant or tired old anti-colonial rhetoric to ask this sort of question. This is a particularly important question when the men interpreting these images are "the cream, the most highly motivated soldiers of their generation, selected to fit the army's ideal," men who saw themselves as "predators, heavy metal avengers, unstoppable, invincible"-in the case of the Rangers, men whose average age was nineteen. Only twice in the film is there any indication that some of the Somali population was friendly to UN and US forces. In his operations briefing BG Garrison points out that part of the ground route will be through a friendly neighborhood and the troops are to adhere to the "rules of engagement." At the end of the film Somalis cheer the last Rangers as they make it home. I suspect that these provoke more ambivalence than understanding in an audience. Philosophically, "rules of engagement" are almost antithetical to the "American Way of War," and Somalis cheering for Americans is a completely incongruous image in the context of this film.
A particularly insidious undercurrent present within Task Force RANGER was the tension between the Rangers and the Delta Force soldiers. Bowden clearly describes the awestruck attitude of most of the young Rangers as well as some of the Delta soldiers' concern about the Rangers' lack of training. He also provides several examples of Delta Force soldiers' insubordination to orders from Ranger officers. Little of this tension makes it to the screen, however. What does is generally presented more as the sort of thing to which a "good" commander would turn a blind eye, or as part of the mystique of Delta, an organization too important to worry about routine rules and regulations.
Elite forces have always been a problem for the larger military community. By definition these men have a variety of qualities judged to be "better" that the "average" soldier. The problem is not that these men are better trained, more motivated, or in better physical shape than other soldiers. The problem is that much of the esprit of elite organizations is maintained at the cost of the image of the rest of the force-the "dirty legs" or whatever phrase is current at the time. Nevertheless, as long as elite forces formed only a small portion of the combat force and were used for narrowly defined missions they were manageable within the larger organization. But with the more highly specialized nature of US military operations in the post-Soviet world we see the proliferation of specialized-thus "elite"-forces. The US presence in Mogadishu presented the curious picture of elite forces stacked on top of each other. The UNOSOM II quick reaction force was composed of elements of the 10th Mountain Division, originally organized as one of the Army's elite, specialized World War II divisions. In the pecking order of today's specialized Army the 10th Mountain is almost special. It appears on US Special Operations Command's web page as a "related" Army unit. In the pecking order of "Mog" it was clearly not up to the task of eliminating Aidid. The Rangers, once the premier elite formation of the Army, were now, in turn, subordinate to the "D-boys." The Rangers were adolescent wannabes, in awe of the "real" professionals. None of this is woven into Scott's film. We see brave men fighting well in a situation they don't clearly understand and we see them survive and, in a sense, triumph.
As I said at the beginning this is a good war movie. But as a portrayal of history it reinforces some of the worst aspects of America's collective vision of the world and our understanding of military operations. We have been driven by these visions before. More than fifteen years ago Loren Baritz discussed these elements of American culture in Backfire: A History of How American Culture Led Us Into Vietnam and Made Us Fight the Way We Did. But in Black Hawk Down we celebrate ourselves and our ability to snatch victory from the jaws of confusion. For a target audience of males aged fifteen to thirty, Ridley Scott has produced a celebration of American courage and spirit without a serious explanation of why we were forced, in the end, to rely on those two very real American characteristics. Mark Bowden's complex tale of modern war has become a simple story about not leaving any man behind.
As I tried, with varying degrees of success, to sort through what I liked and disliked about this film, not always separating the film and the real event, one of my old students dropped by. This officer, just back from Afghanistan, did nothing to convince me that things are much different from our days in Mogadishu. Apparently we now call the Afghanis "Skinnies."
Ridley Scott's "Black Hawk Down" tells the story of a U.S. military raid that went disastrously wrong when optimistic plans ran into unexpected resistance. In Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993, 18 Americans lost their lives, 70 more were wounded, and within days President Bill Clinton pulled out troops that were on a humanitarian mission. By then some 300,000 Somalis had died of starvation, and the U.S. purpose was to help deliver U.N. food shipments. Somali warlords were more interested in protecting their turf than feeding their people--an early warning of the kind of zeal that led to Sept. 11.
The movie is single-minded in its purpose. It wants to record as accurately as possible what it was like to be one of the soldiers under fire on that mission. Hour by hour, step by step, it reconstructs the chain of events. The plan was to stage a surprise raid by helicopter-borne troops, joined by ground forces, on a meeting of a warlord's top lieutenants. This was thought to be such a straightforward task that some soldiers left behind their canteens and night-vision gear, expecting to be back at the base in a few hours. It didn't work out that way.
What happened was enemy rockets brought down two of the helicopters. The warlord's troops gathered quickly and surrounded the U.S. positions. Roadblocks and poor communications prevented a support convoy from approaching. And a grim firefight became a war of attrition. The Americans gave better than they got, but from any point of view, the U.S. raid was a catastrophe. The movie's implied message is that America on that day lost its resolve to risk American lives in distant and obscure struggles, and that mindset weakened our stance against terrorism.
The engagement itself seems to have degenerated into bloody chaos. Ridley Scott's achievement is to render it comprehensible to the audience. We understand, more or less, where the Americans are, and why, and what their situation is. We follow several leading characters, but this is not a star-driven project and doesn't depend on dialogue or personalities. It is about the logistics of that day in October, and how training did help those expert fighters (Army Rangers and Delta Force) to defend themselves as well as possible when all the plans went wrong and they were left hanging out to dry.
Scott's visual strategy takes advantage of the presence on that day of aerial spotter planes with infra-red sensors that could detect the movements of the humans below. As the battle unfolds, Shepherd and his fellow officers can follow it on screens, but are powerless to use this information. It is a useful tool for keeping the audience informed. (In my original review, I questioned the possibility of these eye-in-the-sky shots; countless readers told me they were based on fact and are described in Mark Bowden's book about the battle.) His longest day begins with a briefing by Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison (Sam Shepard), who explains how intelligence has discovered the time and location of a meeting by lieutenants of the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. A taxi with a black cross on its roof will park next to the building to guide the airborne troops, who will drop down on ropes, be joined by ground forces, secure the building, and take prisoners. The problem with this plan, as Garrison discovers in steadily more discouraging feedback, is that the opposition is better armed, better positioned, and able to call on quick reinforcements.
We follow several stories. A man falls from a helicopter and is injured when he misses his descent rope. A pilot is taken prisoner. Desperate skirmishes unfold in streets and rubble as darkness falls. The Americans are short on ammo and water, facing enemies not particularly shy about exposing themselves to danger.
"Black Hawk Down" doesn't have heroic foreground figures like most war movies. The leading characters are played by stars who will be familiar to frequent moviegoers but may be hard to tell apart for others. They include Josh Hartnett, much more convincing here than in "Pearl Harbor," as a staff sergeant in command of one of the raiding teams; Ewan McGregor as a Ranger specialist whose specialties are paperwork and coffee-making until he is pressed into service; Tom Sizemore as a veteran who provides steady counsel for younger troops, and William Fichtner as a fighter who seems to have internalized every shred of training, and embodies it instinctively.
The cinematography by Slawomir Idziak avoids the bright colors of upbeat combat movies, and its drab, dusty tones gradually drain of light as night falls. The later scenes of the movie feel chilly and forlorn; the surrounded troops are alone and endangered in the night. The screenplay by Ken Nolan and Steve Zaillian, working from a book by Mark Bowden, understands the material and tells it so clearly and efficiently that we are involved not only in the experience of the day but also in its strategies and unfolding realities.
Films like this are more useful than gung-ho capers like "Behind Enemy Lines." They help audiences understand and sympathize with the actual experiences of combat troops, instead of trivializing them into entertainments. Although the American mission in Somalia was humanitarian, the movie avoids speechmaking and sloganeering, and at one point, discussing why soldiers risk their lives in situations like this, a veteran says, "It's about the men next to you. That's all it is."