blackhawk-down

If you ask most people what they think of Black Hawk Down, then the vast majority of the time the response you’ll get will probably be something along the lines of, “Good movie.” That is understandable, given that it was a blockbuster film in 2001 produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Ridley Scott.

If you are like me, then perhaps you’ve always had an itch regarding the movie and, more importantly, the event — the downing of two MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and the subsequent deaths of 18 American soldiers Oct. 3-4, 1993, in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Sure, it made for a night out at the theater, but perhaps you’ve felt that it was somehow insulting to only know the tale through its Bruckheimerization.

As regular readers of this blog know, I have been working on a book in my spare time that will eventually see the light of day (we’re at the artwork stage now, so hang tight!). There are parts of the novel that required knowledge of Task Force Ranger, and at some point I admitted to myself that it would be literary heresy to not read Mark Bowden’s masterpiece to assist with authenticity. It is safe to say that there probably is not a more comprehensive retelling of the ill-fated attempt to capture two top lieutenants of a Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid.

And if you do not think any of this is still relevant, then I suggest you start reading The New York Times. The paper reported Sunday in a piece titled In Somalia, U.S. Escalates a Shadow War:

The Obama administration has intensified a clandestine war in Somalia over the past year, using Special Operations troops, airstrikes, private contractors and African allies in an escalating campaign against Islamist militants in the anarchic Horn of Africa nation.

Hundreds of American troops now rotate through makeshift bases in Somalia, the largest military presence since the United States pulled out of the country after the “Black Hawk Down” battle in 1993. …

In March, an American airstrike killed more than 150 Shabab fighters at what military officials called a “graduation ceremony,” one of the single deadliest American airstrikes in any country in recent years. But an airstrike last month killed more than a dozen Somali government soldiers, who were American allies against the Shabab.

Outraged Somali officials said the Americans had been duped by clan rivals and fed bad intelligence, laying bare the complexities of waging a shadow war in Somalia. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said the Pentagon was investigating the strike.

Who, exactly, are we fighting? Why are we there? Should we be there?

Mr. Bowden’s book provides many of the answers, which unfortunately raise more questions:

“In books and movies when a soldier shot a man for the first time he went through a moment of soul searching. Waddell didn’t give it a second thought. He just reacted. he thought the man was dead. He had just folded. Startled by Waddell’s shot, Nelson hadn’t seen the man drop. Waddell pointed to where he had fallen and the machine gunner stood up, lifted his big gun, and pumped a few more rounds into the man’s body to make sure. Then they both ran for better cover.

They found it behind a burned out-car. Peering out from underneath toward the north now, Nelson saw a Somali with a gun lying prone on the street between two kneeling women. The shooter had the barrel of this weapon between the women’s legs, and there were four children actually sitting on him. He was completely shielded in noncombatants, taking full cynical advantage of the Americans’ decency.

“Check it out, John,” he told Waddell, who scooted over for a look.

“What do you want to do?” Waddell asked.

“I can’t get that guy through those people.”

So Nelson threw a flashbang, and the group fled so fast the man left his gun in the dirt.” — Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down (New York: Grove Press, 1999), 46.

If you want to know what it’s like to have an entire city honed in on killing you and those you hold dear, then I suggest reading Black Hawk Down. The book can be a bit arduous at times — it’s like trying to eat a steak the size of your head — but there is no escaping it because a.) Mr. Bowden leaves no stone unturned, and b.) the experience for the men on the ground was grueling.

Perhaps the best endorsement of the book that I can give is this: I did not know much about the author before picking up the book, and was surprised to find out he is not a veteran. He’s just a reporter who did a damn good job telling a story.

Black Hawk Down is a book about courage and fear, the nature of war, success and failure on the battlefield, and most importantly the experiences of the men who fought valiantly to save one another in situation that was so surreal that it seem like “a movie.”

 It was not a movie — it happened — which is why those who care about national defense issues should read it sooner rather than later.

Kudos to Mr. Bowden for writing a book that will be read by military men and women for generations to come.

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About the Author Douglas Ernst

I'm a former Army guy who believes success comes through hard work, honesty, optimism, and perseverance. I believe seeing yourself as a victim creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. I believe in God. I'm a USC Trojan with an MA in Political Science from American University.

7 comments

  1. Good stuff.

    Few movies really can. Even old classics like ‘The Longest Day’ were always considered just entertainment…I think the old folks had a healthier understanding of the difference between fantasy and reality.

    I’ve watched many war movies, and I guess what was a bit refreshing about Blackhawk Down the movie, was that it wasn’t particularly political, or social…every war movie is always some director trying to shove his views in your face in some way. in those days, and it stood out to me for that. Still I never really expect much out of them anyway.

    I remember a lot of my Dad’s friends that served in Vietnam hated Platoon and Full Metal Jacket (the second part anyway). I would read about Vets crying and ‘feeling it’, but I didn’t meet these guys. They liked ‘dumb’ stuff like Magnum PI, and the A team…mostly because it doesn’t portray them in the fetal position.

    However, Band of Brothers and the Pacific…I liked those quite a bit. There was a lot of time to develop it’s characters and a close relationship with some of the easy company vets made it quite a watch.

    might give this a read. I generally take a clinical approach to books, and prefer documentation to narrative but this may be worth a look. (lol, I guess I like movies close and personal, and books detached and clinical)

    1. “I’ve watched many war movies, and I guess what was a bit refreshing about Blackhawk Down the movie, was that it wasn’t particularly political, or social…every war movie is always some director trying to shove his views in your face in some way. in those days, and it stood out to me for that. Still I never really expect much out of them anyway.”

      If you liked that about the movie, then you will love the book. In fact, when you go to the book store just start reading the afterward. He talks about a review he got from The New Yorker that essentially took him to task for not inserting his own point of view into the narrative. Bowden then talks about how movies and other books always portray veterans as drug addicts or psychos and he didn’t want to do that — he just wanted to tell their story.

      “I remember a lot of my Dad’s friends that served in Vietnam hated Platoon and Full Metal Jacket (the second part anyway). I would read about Vets crying and ‘feeling it’, but I didn’t meet these guys. They liked ‘dumb’ stuff like Magnum PI, and the A team…mostly because it doesn’t portray them in the fetal position.”

      Our experiences are very similar in that regard.

      Side note: I’m reading “Red Platoon” right now, and so far it’s awesome. I’ll have a review for that up in the near future.

  2. Enjoyed your review Doug, thanks for recommending the book. I ended up buying “Unbroken” last year due to your recommendation and throughly enjoyed it.

    I’ll be ordering “Black Hawk Down” through book depository.com, reasonable prices with free shipping worldwide. 😎

    1. “Enjoyed your review Doug, thanks for recommending the book. I ended up buying ‘Unbroken’ last year due to your recommendation and throughly enjoyed it.”

      Nice! If you’re buying “Black Hawk Down,” then I just want to reiterate the “steak” analogy. I enjoyed the book, but it is huge and it is told strictly as a reporter giving you the “play by play.” In that sense, it’s very different from “Unbroken”
      Since you are the first person who said he’d check it out based on my review, here’s the deal: If you don’t like it, then let me know and I’ll send you a “Doug Prize” that might be more to your liking. 😉

      I’m not done with it yet, but “Red Platoon,” by Clinton Romesha is shaping up to be a “Douglas Ernst C.R.O.N.I.E.S.” present. We’ll see. Christmas is just around the corner.

    1. “By the by Doug, if you’re looking for a decent war comic, there’s a series that was published in the 1980s and 1990s by Marvel called The ‘Nam. I’ve read about 7 issues, and it seems like something you would like.”

      It’s funny that you should mention that, GoldenEye. My brother actually had those in the 1980s. 🙂 I don’t remember them, but I’m sure that he still has them in his possession.

      Good call!

    2. ‘Nam was great. As opposed to the movies I point out above, ‘Nam focused on the characters and really tried to bring the environment of a continuing tour to the reader. It’s far from glorifying the war in any way, but it doesn’t insult what they were doing there either…it dealt with certain realities, and let you make your own mind up about them.

      It’s first run was a classic, and for a while sold as well as the X-books which dominated sales then. Larry Hama and Doug Murray were both veterans who ran the book, and I think contributed to it’s quality (I think Larry contributed a great deal to all the quality in those days).

      Later, the book turned to crap, and I think is yet another example of how Jim Shooter was right, and the guys who hated him…despite their talent and intelligence…were wrong and ultimately responsible for the slide in comics quality during the 90’s.

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