Black Hawk Down: Superbit (2001)

Reports and images of ongoing guerilla warfare in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities recall for some observers the events of October 3 and 4, 1993, in Mogadishu, Somalia. When Black Hawk Down, Ridley Scott’s dark and earnest movie about those difficult days, was released to theaters in late 2001, the war against Iraq was still an idea rather than a daily reality. Now, as Columbia releases the film on gorgeous (if extras-less) Superbit DVD, this version of U.S. troops in crisis comes full, and frankly disturbing, circle. This even as CentCom reports, on 3 June, the blocking of “Somali terrorist” Hassan Abdullah Hersi al-Turki’s “assets.”

As is well known, the story of terrorism — state-sponsored and not — is increasingly intricate. Journalist and ex-marine Mark Bowden’s book, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, gets at it from one specific angle — that of the U.S. troops on the ground (and sometimes, in their Black Hawk helicopters). First published as a 1997 series for the Philadelphia Inquirer, it is a nearly moment-by-moment account of events in Somalia, as the U.S. undertook to take out designated warlords and terrorists. Culled from radio dispatches, survivor interviews (both U.S. and Somali), military records, and media reports, the book recounts the battle that erupted in Mogadishu when the U.S. Army Special Forces — Rangers and Deltas (D-boys) — staged an “extraction” of several lieutenants to warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, and were met with armed resistance.

Praised by military and civilian press (and since its publication in 1999, read by Special Forces trainees), the book illustrates well the absurdity and chaos of urban warfare: there’s no ground to be won, no victory to be claimed, only survival to be scraped up against horrific odds, no matter what side you’re on. You look out your fellows as best you can: for the U.S. Special Forces, this takes the form of a credo (“Leave no man behind”); for the Somalis, it has a more immediate and more lasting effect — there is no “left behind,” only ongoing hardship.

That the U.S. undertook the war against Iraq, which had to involve urban territories, without extensive preparation of troops for what was in store for them, precisely, has led to disasters. Once again, Bowden describes the costs of U.S. arrogance and delusion in “The Lessons of Abu Ghraib,” in the July/August 2004 Atlantic Monthly. “In the end, though,” he writes, “context and perspective cannot mask what is universal about the events at Abu Ghraib… Americans are not a superior race, and American soldiers are not morally superior to the soldiers of other nations. The best we can hope is that they are better trained and disciplined, and guided by policy that is morally sound. Sadly, this is not always the case.”

His acute awareness of the many stakes in war, the many occasions for failure on small and large scales, makes Bowden’s account of Mogadishu engaging for a variety of readers — those who abhor war, those who see it as necessary, and those who see it as a rite of manhood. And in this context, it’s striking that, as hard as Bowden worked to document what happened, as it was perceived by those who were there, he concludes by noting the troops’ lingering sense of unreality, of “feeling weirdly out of place, as though they did not belong here, fighting feelings of disbelief, anger, and ill-defined betrayal.”

Unsurprisingly, Scott’s Black Hawk Down, produced by the indefatigable Jerry Bruckheimer, takes something of an opposite approach. An action movie dressed up like an art film, it is not about betrayal or anger, but heroism and patriotic fervor. Given that the film was completed well before September 11, the fact that its triumphant tone seems so completely suited to the current zeitgeist is not a little alarming.

Black Hawk Down is careful not to dredge up particular aspects of the past, say, the famous television images that haunted that U.S. mission (and, indirectly, the next one in Iraq) — the bodies of two U.S. soldiers stripped and carried through the streets, the frightened eyes of Black Hawk pilot Mike Durant sent out during his 19-day captivity by Aidid’s men, or the U.S. forces’ hasty retreat following the operation, owing to the outcry of the back-home viewing and voting public. Rather, the movie allows that not only do the right good guys “win,” but also endure enough difficulty so that this victory, though not recognized in 1993, might now be appreciated for what it is.

To do so, the film establishes Mog’s menace, such that U.S. soldiers are repeatedly beset by faceless Somali snipers and hordes, while omitting any references to reasons for the aggressive response to the U.S. invasion. It opens with a series of typewritten facts, just enough to sketch clear moral lines: in 1992, 3000,000 Somalis died of starvation, when Aidid stole UN food deliveries and killed UN troops. In October 1993, the U.S. mounted what was supposed to be a routine extraction, Rangers in Black Hawk and Little Bird helicopters and Deltas in a humvee convoy.

The troops do get their men, but the mission is costly. A note at film’s end reminds you that 18 U.S. soldiers (all named in the credits) and “about” 1000 unnamed Somalis died during those 15 hours of firefighting. Taking the U.S. boys’ perspective, the film becomes a surreal thrill ride, a well-crafted and compelling surface of color, movement, and noise. Cinematographer Slavomir Idziak and editor Pietro Scalia have put together a masterful hodgepodge of intense close-ups, spectacular chopper point-of-view shots, fast cuts and pans, well-composed surveillance images and grisly prosthetics and effects — it’s hard to walk out of this movie without feeling shaken.

Of course, this perspective also has limitations, and that’s the point. You see the SOAR chopper pilots appalled by Aidid’s men attacking a Red Cross food station, unable to intervene unless they are shot at (this detail is helpfully included as explanatory dialogue). Shortly after, the cowboyish Deltas, led by the charismatic Sgt. Hoot Gibson (Eric Bana), are whooping and hollering, shooting wild boar to serve up as a tasty treat for their bored-to-tears comrades. As General Garrison (Sam Shepard) discusses the futility of chasing Aidid with a detained gun merchant (George Harris), cigar smoke swirls ominously around the prisoner. Schooling his fellows in the morality of their situation, idealistic Ranger Sergeant Eversmann (Josh Hartnett) observes that “there are two things we can do: we can help these people or we can watch them die on CNN.” When he declares that he’s in it to “make a difference,” the gung-ho good-guyness of the Americans is clear.

By the same token, the film underlines the villainy of every character of color, save for the single black Ranger with a (minimal) speaking part, Kurth (Gabriel Casseus). Once the fight begins, the U.S. troops are alone sympathetic, tossed about in a melee of handheld shots and smash-cuts. Not only are the scrambling, distant Somalis demonized, but as well, Pakistani members of the UN squad only obstruct action, apparently reluctant even to follow orders that lead them into harm’s way.

This attitude riles the U.S. soldiers, who have, of course, suffered for hours. While more than 100 of them entered the fray, the film focuses on a few that it types recognizably: resourceful Grimes (Ewan McGregor), fearless McKnight (Tom Sizemore), Elvis fan/Black Hawk pilot Wolcott (Jeremy Piven), steadfast Steele (Jason Isaacs), Shakespeare-loving Richard “Alphabet” Kowalewski (Brendan Sexton III, who went on, following the film’s release, to complain publicly about its revisionist history; see Salon article); and newbie Blackburn (Orlando Bloom).

D-boy Hoot is the most assured of the soldiers, able to make his way in and out of combat areas with stealth and accuracy. His advice to Ranger Eversmann early on haunts the rest of the film: “Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes out the window.” The film illustrates this shift in consciousness with a visceral ferocity. But as they realize that their mission is not so in-and-out as they had imagined, they see the problem in their surroundings, not in their approach. This makes their surroundings as familiar as the characters are: Mog is yet another heart of darkness, populated by unknowable and frightening “others,” whom the troops call “skinnies” or “sammies.”

Unremarked by the U.S. troops is the fact that the Somalis’ skinniness is an effect of real life conditions, not only their oppression by brutal local warlords like Aidid, but also their “Third World” status, their lack of access to a “global” economy and political agenda, their oppression by the “First World” that is represented by the mighty Black Hawks. Where the Americans are understandably appalled to see their birds go down, one can only imagine the thrill that this same display must have brought the shooters. It was probably a lot like the feeling that the injured, weary, and desperate American soldiers felt when they saw the back-up forces finally arrive, and blow up the rooftops from which Somali snipers were firing.

Neither does the movie address why the “sammies” would be inclined to carry American bodies through the streets. You do see one body hoisted from a downed chopper, then a quick cut to other action, namely, the efforts of Durant (here played by Ron Eldard) to stave off his capture, firing at whoever comes by, until he runs out of ammunition. Cut again, to Durant’s view of a crowd of black faces as they swarm over him, and, somewhat later, a brief bit of his battered face as he’s lectured by his captor, Aidid’s man, Firimbi (Treva Etienne): “In Somalia, killing is negotiation. You think if you get General Aidid, we all stop killing? There will be no peace. This is our world.”

Firimbi’s observation is the closest the film comes to articulating a historical and political context beyond the U.S.’s particular concerns. The resolute absence of any glimpse into “their world” — the pain, rage, and hopelessness that shape “their” daily experience — ensures that any movie, Black Hawk Down included, will not get at the multiple dire stakes involved, for Americans and Somalis, as well as, more recently, Iraqis and Afghanis.