War movies are a revealing form of culture - who we kill and why we kill them says quite a lot about how we see ourselves, and other people. Black Hawk Down is a case in point. For three weeks in early 2002, this was the No 1 film at the US box office, and you are unlikely to get a clearer print-out of the militantly neurotic current state of the American psyche. For other people living in Western democracies, the film is relevant for the way it depicts Somalis, the most recent refugee group to enter many of their countries in large numbers.
Somalis (or 'skinnies' as they are called in the film) are slaughtered by the score in Black Hawk Down, just like Red Indians, Zulus and other non-whites were mown down by Hollywood in the earlier days of its cinematic empire. In a key speech in Black Hawk Down, a Somali militia leader first mocks Americans in general for giving up smoking (PC is for weaklings) and then tells his American captive:
There will always be killing here. That's how things are in this world. Got that, Mr Do-Gooder liberal? This country is a basketcase.
At the 2002 American Academy Awards, Director Ridley Scott was a contender for the best director Oscar for his work on Black Hawk Down (The film did, however, win Oscars for 'Sound' and 'Film Editing'). In recent times, the Oscar process has put some of its showcase movies through a grilling - is this film totally, factually true? - before conferring awards on them. A couple of years ago, media scrutiny sank the Oscar chances of The Hurricane, when word got out that the life of boxer Rubin Carter had not been depicted with strict documentary accuracy.
Also, in 2002, the Russell Crowe star vehicle A Beautiful Mind - about the struggles that maths genius John Nash had with schizophrenia - ran into similar strife. Key facts about Nash's life were omitted, seemingly because director Ron Howard felt that they would complicate the uplifting message that he had in mind: namely, that wacky, wayward superbrains can still triumph over any adversity, given the love of a good woman. Thus, we do not learn from the film that Nash was bisexual, or that his wife divorced him in 1963.
No such quibbles about Black Hawk Down. There has been barely a whisper about its lies and distortions, apart from one excellent piece in Slate magazine by Mickey Kaus, to which this entry is heavily indebted. It is as though the critics have felt patriotically obliged - since 11 September, 2001 - to endorse any major film that portrays the US military in a positive light. Some sense of the political purposes that the film so willingly serves can be gleaned from its Washington premiere, which attracted Vice-President Dick Cheney, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Oliver North and other military top brass. As General John Keane told reporters:
Jerry Bruckheimer [the producer of Black Hawk Down] came into my office and said, 'General, we're going to make a movie that you and your army will be proud of.' He did that, and we thank him.
Thousands of videotapes of the film have been sent to US military bases abroad.
Glorification of White Boys in Uniform
That is a fairly frightening prospect. Although Black Hawk Down has been widely praised for its gritty depiction of men in combat, it is essentially a glorification of white boys in uniform fighting bravely against hordes of black Muslim fanatics. The film concentrates on a bloodbath that occurred on 3 October, 1993, when 18 US troops (and 500-1000 Somalis) were killed in downtown Mogadishu during a botched US attempt to capture two followers of the Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. Studio head Joe Roth had no qualm about keeping it simple. To justify the number of Africans killed in the film, the Wall Street Journal reported:
Mr Roth insisted that the film's central villain, Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, be unmistakably portrayed as a 'Hitler-like figure' responsible for thousands of killings.
To hammer this point home, the film opens with Aidid's men shooting down starving Somali civilians at a Red Cross food-bank. A caption onscreen gives the date for this completely fictitious event as 2 October, one day before the fateful firefight.
The invented incident not only damns Aidid, it sets up the audience for the film's central distortion. The film blurs two separate phases of the US and UN actions in Somalia - the food effort (called Operation Restore Hope) that occupied much of 1992, and the 'nation-building' phase in 1993. There is no doubt that the deployment of US and UN troops did save thousands of lives in Somalia - even if the delays in implementing the relief programme also cost thousands of lives, and the famine death toll reportedly peaked before the troops arrived. More to the point, the subsequent US-led military campaign to install a fresh political system in Somalia was a total disaster, widely resented by Somalis. By deliberately placing the firefight into the context of the food-relief effort, the film makes the US presence in Somalia seem utterly innocent - and makes the hostile response by Aidid and his followers seem utterly evil. Good propaganda, but phoney history.
Dangerous American World View
Does this matter? Yes. Films such as Black Hawk Down are feeding an extremely dangerous American world view that sees their boys in uniform as brave hearts seeking only to do good in the world - in the face of Muslim fanatics with dark skins and hearts of unfathomable evil. Certainly, Aidid was no saint. Yet he was also the leader of the Habr Gedir clan, the stronger of two groups seeking to control Mogadishu. He had earned that status by first toppling the dictator Siad Barre - who had armed the country to the teeth during the previous decade's Cold War struggles within the region - and by then rooting out Barre's destructive attempt at a comeback.
The foolhardy US decision to 'marginalise' Aidid - to try to create a new political system without him - was therefore bound to be widely resented. It was also bound to fuel Aidid's paranoia about the UN and its Egyptian Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who had been a friend and strong supporter of Barre - and who had personally ensured (some years before) that Aidid was deported from Egypt. Ironically, a key US advocate for targeting Aidid - a $US25,000 reward for his head was offered on 'Wanted' posters pasted all over Mogadishu - was the State Department official April Glaspie, the same genius who had given Saddam Hussein what he assumed was a 'green light' to invade Kuwait. As a colleague later said of Glaspie's twin diplomatic disasters: 'She has trouble with men.'
Sense of Persecution
By mid-1993, the Somali sense of persecution had resulted in major bloodshed. Quite untruthfully, Black Hawk Down says onscreen that 'Aidid's militia' first killed 24 UN Pakistani soldiers and then began to 'target' US troops. Almost the exact reverse is true. US troops had begun to target Aidid before the Pakistanis were killed by a spontaneous Somali mob. Stupidly, the UN had tried to close down Aidid's radio station, while leaving open the station run by his rival, Ali Mahdi. A later inquiry found the Pakistani action in entering the radio station was 'provocative' and 'unwise'.
These distortions are nothing compared to the film's handling of the 3 October fire-fight itself. Statements such as 'We're going in' and the satisfaction shown by the soldiers suggests that they were finally going to see some action. In fact, this was the seventh time since June that US troops had carried out deadly military sorties in downtown Mogadishu targeted at Aidid or his supporters. That is not counting the numerous forays by US choppers - they would regularly hover and use the wake from their blades to blow apart the tin and wooden shacks below, in a procedure that US troops jokingly called 'rotor washing'.
Met with Ferocity
In particular, the film omits entirely the event that explains why US troops were met with such ferocity on the streets of Mogadishu. Months before - on 12 July, 1993 - a clan meeting was held at the house of an Aidid official to discuss a peace proposal from the UN's main official, Admiral Jonathan Howe. Many clan members opposed to Aidid were present when the gathering was attacked by US Cobra attack choppers that fired 16 missiles and 2000 rounds of cannon fire into the house. Religious leaders and elders were slaughtered. An enraged Somali crowd then killed four journalists who arrived to cover the carnage. For Somalis, the firefight featured in the film was payback time for this massacre, known as Bloody Monday.
In summary, as a guide to events in Somalia during 1993, Black Hawk Down is a complete travesty. As propaganda for current US adventures in the Third World, though, it does a highly effective job. It shows Americans just what happens to lads in uniform when the liberals in Washington fail to commit the full weight to the American military machine - where were the AC-130 Spectre gunships? - in Third World trouble spots.
A Change of Method
No such problems these days. In Afghanistan the US chose to work directly with the warlords rather than 'marginalise' them, and Spectre gunships were unleashed on Afghan towns without compunction. In the West, any Somali or Afghan who might still seek retribution for the slaughter of their kin is seen these days as an al-Qaeda bogeyman. How long will it take before Hollywood even begins to consider whether their grievances are valid? About 15 years, by the rule of thumb suggested by John Sayles, the maverick US film director:
It was a good 15 years after World War II before you started seeing Japanese in films who were not just spectacled, buck-toothed, evil-empire kind of guys.