I went to a war last night, and for two and half hour had my adrenaline pumped and my patriotic heart strings tugged by U.S. soldiers in battle, bravely tracking down and trying to capture the enemy. No it wasn’t Osama, because the movie which felt like it might have taken place in the rubble of Kabul was actually a replay of the battle of Mogadishu in l993. The film is Black Hawk Down, an account of elite ranger and Delta force soldiers fighting the good fight. Their mission, the publicity flyer tells us, "to capture several top lieutenants of the Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, as part of a strategy to quell the civil war and famine that is ravaging that country." The action is non-stop only the outcome is disasterous. Nineteen Americans were killed along with l,000 Somalis before U.S. forces were withdrawn in an intervention that started nobly and ended in one of the bloodiest messes you can imagine.
The movie showed what the TV news of the current war has not: actual combat, and the feelings of those engaged in it. You see soldiers fighting with great courage, but they are not motivated by a cause or an ideology; they fight to protect each other, for personal survival. Obvious is that U.S. forces have a clear advantage in terms of technology, helicopters, communications, etc. But in the end they are defeated by the determination of a far less organized urban guerilla force that sees itself defending its hometown against a foreign intervention. And like the TV news accounts of Afghanistan, the movie comes to us context-free, with a twisted and distorted perspective that simplifies that conflict beyond recognition.
Black Hawk Down also seems part of a propaganda strategy aimed at Americans, not people overseas, where it is unlikely to win many hearts and minds. Notes Larry Chin in the Online Journal: "True to its post-9/11 government-sanctioned role as U.S. war propaganda headquarters, Hollywood has released Black Hawk Down, a fictionalized account of the tragic 1993 U.S. raid in Somalia. The Pentagon assisted with the production, pleased for an opportunity to ‘set the record straight.’ The film is a lie that compounds the original lie that was the operation itself."
Forget the revelations that one of the story’s big heroes, in real life, later gets convicted as a rapist. Forget the dramatization formulas. Just think about the impression left with the audience, and how that perception has little to do with reality. After watching the film, which made me uncomfortable because it showed how senseless the U.S. policy was as well as how ineffective, I also realized how little it conveyed what really happened in that tortured land.
The film starts with signposts — literally, writing on the screen, a few short paragraphs, to remind us what happened. The problem is the information is false. It implies, for example, that U.S. troops were sent to Somalia to feed the hungry. Not true. Later, I turned to David Halberstam’s new book, War in a Time of Peace, which recounts the Somalian mishap in some depth.
Halberstam’s book mentions, but does not detail, the bloody background: The massive crimes of the Somali dictator Siad Barre, who the U.S. backed and who Somali warlord Mohammad Farrah Aidid ejected. It also does not fully explain how the stage was set for a confrontation, and how the U.S. provoked he fiasco that followed.
Halberstam does describe, however, the Washington debate and incompetence at a time when a policy launched by one administration was handed off to another. He tells us that the defense secretary told an associate, "We’re sending the Rangers to Somalia. We are not going to be able to control them. They are like overtrained pit bulls. No one controls them." The Rangers were indeed sent with great fanfare, to hunt and capture Aidid. Their mission failed.
Halberstam also describes the American hatred for Somalis, expressed in the much-bandied phrase, "The only good Somali is a dead Somali." Is it any wonder Somalis fought back? (In the movie, the battle looks like a racial war, with virtually all-white U.S. forces going mano-a-mano with an all black city.) Halberstam reveals how these forces made arrogant assumptions in Somalia, underestimating the resistance, and how the urban "battlefield became a horror … a major league CNN-era disaster…"
You can read Halberstam’s book, and many others, if you want to know more. But the point is that the romaticization of our modern warriors all too often misses the underlying political dimension of a conflict. On Jan. 7 it was reported that Green Beret Sgt. Nathan Ross Chapman, who was just killed in Afghanistan, may have been set up by so-called Anti-Taliban allies. In Somalia, we intervened in the domestic affairs and conflicts of another society. What started as war on hunger became a war on Aidid. We became warlords ourselves. In Afghanistan a war against terror became a war against the government, and may have put in power people who are as ruthless as the ones that were displaced.
Black Hawk Down is an action movie that tries to turn a U.S. defeat into a victory by encouraging you to identify with the men who fought their way out of an urban conflagration not of their making. But with Somalia looming as a possible next target in the war against terror, Black Hawk Down may turn into a recruiting film for revenge. While Al Qaeda was not visible in the film, there is evidence that they, too, were involved in the background of the events in l993, stirring up the violence and training the warlord militias. The deaths of journalists there, including Dan Eldon, the son of a colleague, was not mentioned.
Rambo-like films like Black Hawk Down, which seem realistic, can also accelerate the death of journalism itself, because high production values makes the dramatization of a political event far more memorable than actual news coverage. My advice: Miss it!
Danny Schechter is executive editor of MediaChannel.org and author of News Dissector, which reports on how a citizens’ war crimes commission was reported derisively during the Vietnam War.