"The October 3, 1993 U.S. raid on Somalia, in which 18 soldiers and two Black Hawk helicopters were lost, is often remembered as a tragic fiasco." —Wall Street Journal
"[I]t's not America's darkest hour, but America's brightest hour." —Joe Roth, head of Revolution Films, makers of Black Hawk Down
For years, the Rangers and Delta Force soldiers who fought the Battle of Mogadishu on Oct. 3, 1993, had a serious beef. Until the publication of Mark Bowden's 1999 book, Black Hawk Down, their daylight raid was widely perceived as a failure even in strict military terms. But the Rangers in fact succeeded in snatching and imprisoning the two Somali clan officials they were after. Had you known that? I hadn't. Like everyone else, I mainly remembered seeing the body of a dead American being dragged through the streets.
You can't blame the surviving Rangers for seeing the film of Bowden's book, now in theaters, as an opportunity for vindication. It's also a highly effective film, as vivid a fix as most of us are likely to get on what bravery and professionalism means in the modern U.S. military. Everyone should see it. (See it twice, actually—it takes repeat viewings to comprehend the rush of characters and events.)
But would Americans pay to see a film simply about bravery under fire, without a larger, heroic context? As Slate's Inigo Thomas pointed out weeks ago, soldiers can be brave in the service of disastrous policies. Black Hawk Down's makers appear to have had their doubts about the public appetite for mere heroism, because they have set about providing a larger, uplifting rationale. This has involved an aggressive deployment of PR firepower and a fog of appealing half-truths. Now that the film is succeeding at the box office, it's worth attempting to add back what the Black Hawk flacks have left out.
1. Was going after Aideed smart?
To justify the number of Africans killed in the film, Mr. Roth insisted that the film's central villain, Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, be unmistakably portrayed as a "Hitler-like figure" responsible for thousands of killings.—Wall Street Journal
As reviews have noted, the film's audience gets only the minimum ration of information about the Somali "warlord" against whom the Ranger raid was directed. We're told he "ruled in Mogadishu" and "seized … food shipments at ports." The U.S., in 1992, sent Marines as part of a United Nations hunger relief effort. But "Aideed waits until the Marines withdraw, and then declares war on the remaining" U.N. forces, ambushing and killing a score of Pakistani peacekeepers. The Rangers are sent to "remove Aideed and restore order."
All true enough (though the film also has a brutal opening scene, labeled as having occurred on Oct. 2, of Aideed's forces shooting innocent civilians at a Red Cross food distribution center—an incident I can find nowhere in the literature). What the film doesn't tell you is:
- Aideed was the recognized leader of the Habr Gidr, "a large and powerful clan planted deep in Somalia's past and present political culture," in Bowden's words. The Habr Gidr were the militarily more powerful of two main groups contending for control of Mogadishu. If the U.S. had killed Aideed, citizens of the Habr Gidr areas wouldn't generally have felt liberated, like Afghans freed from the Taliban. They would more likely have been pissed off.
- The film conflates two distinct phases of U.S. and U.N. involvement in Somalia. In Phase I, the humanitarian phase, the U.N. used enough military force to allow food deliveries, which probably prevented hundreds of thousands of people from starving to death. But then the U.N. decided to go beyond providing food and, in Phase II, undertook some ambitious "nation-building"—"an unprecedented enterprise aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country," as America's then-U.N. ambassador Madeleine Albright modestly described it.
- Aideed, not without reason, felt U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was biased against him and his clan. In Boutros-Ghali's previous role as an Egyptian official he had been a supporter of Somali dictator Siad Barre, whom Aideed had overthrown.