Before the grotesque celebrations that followed the September 11, many Americans were blissfully unaware that there were parts of the world where savagery ruled, and where bloodthirstiness consumed a significant part of the population. Christian values of life may have been undermined in our country, but we are still a long way from giddy celebrations of slaughter.
One of those brutal places was-- and still is-- Somalia. When American soldiers were killed and hauled through the streets, we recoiled. "How could people we went to feed attack our soldiers?" we asked. The Clinton Administration, foiled in their utopian dreams of building Iowa democracy in East Africa, turned tail and ran.
Now, a masterful film tells the tale of what happened in Mogadishu in 1993-- but it is not a story of irony, bitterness, and defeat; but of heroism, honor, and even hope.
I say hope, because the next time the media begins its quagmire drumbeat, you can use the Battle of Mogadishu as an optimistic example. If 100 Army Rangers and a few Delta Force operators could hold off a whole city after being denied the equipment to do the job right-- and under liberal political restrictions on their actions-- then under Bush and Rumsfeld, things are going to go well.
Ridley Scott, who did a nice job with a Stoic warrior ethic in "Gladiator," almost redeems his foray into depravity in "Hannibal" with "Black Hawk Down." The movie takes place in a 24 hour period, and replays the chaos that resulted when a U.S. strike force tried to capture a Somali warlord who was blocking food shipments, attacking relief workers and trying to bring back the famine that American forces had stopped a few months earlier.
The film takes very little time in exposition, giving only about as much geopolitical detail as the paragraph above. I'll explain later why I think this approach is justified; but you can bet that if this were REAGAN'S mess, his name would have been mentioned a dozen times in the first ten minutes.
Among the cast are Josh Hartnett as idealistic Ranger team leader, Matt Eversmann whose troop spends the night under siege; Tom Sizemore as a blustery, tough Lt. Colonel Danny McKnight, whose convoy of Humvees runs a gauntlet of enemy fire trying to relieve them, and Eric Bana and William Fichtner, as a couple of Delta Force operators (the ultimate warriors in the U.S. Special Forces) who guide the Rangers through an ordeal even they are not trained for.
It's not surprising that the hard core of liberal critics hate this movie. But they mask their real arguments with cries of "poor character development" and even hall out the racism canard-- as though maybe the Rangers should have found some multicultural Somali gangs to fight.
Others are more subtle, hailing "Black Hawk Down" as merely a technical achievement, or an action movie, deflecting its real point by pretending it isn't there.
This is a movie that understands the American fighting man. Like Eversmann, most-- at least those who make it to elite fighting units-- join the military out of patriotism or a sense of duty. But near the end of the film, Bana's character tells Eversmann, "In war, it's all about the men beside you, not politics..."
And that's the point. American soldiers can have confidence that the man beside them is honorable, and will risk his life to guard his back. They might know their buddy from their unit; but in a battle, they don't need to engage in deep naval gazing conversations to assume the best about the man beside them. They just need to see the uniform. And so do we.
The Americans, even while under siege and desperate, respect innocent life. Warnings come over the radio to be careful because women and children are in a group of gunmen. In fact, it becomes painfully obvious that the Rangers care FAR more about whether noncombatants are killed than the Somali warlords do. (Though the constant brutality will make even adults cringe, making the movie inappropriate for pre-teenagers, one sight the movie spares us is American soldiers being forced to fire through women, who were being used as human shields, as men literally fired rocket propelled grenades from under their skirts.)
Yes, "Black Hawk Down" the movie is incomplete, because it's NOT "Black Hawk Down," the miniseries. If you want the details about Clinton Administration hubris and cowardice, and a look at the total picture of the battle with more thorough character studies, read Mark Bowden's great book. (In fact, I highly recommend you do, AND see the movie, in whatever order fits your schedule.)
But if you want to see and experience modern war through the modern American soldier's eyes, "Black Hawk Down" is the film to see.