‘Black Hawk Down’: Read the book because the movie can never do the men who died justice

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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