Black Hawk -- and Truth -- Down

Danny Schechter,

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were killed along with l,000 Somalis before U.S. forces were withdrawn in an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

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!