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Black Hawk Down Essay

Black Hawk Down (2001)

Published by The Massie Twins

Score: 7/10

Genre: Drama and War Running Time: 2 hrs. 24 min.

Release Date: December 28th, 2001 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Ridley Scott Actors: Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Eric Bana, William Fichtner, Ewen Bremner, Sam Shepard, Gabriel Casseus, Kim Coates, Hugh Dancy, Ron Eldard, Ioan Gruffudd, Jason Isaacs, Zeljko Ivanek, Jeremy Piven, Richard Tyson, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Orlando Bloom, Ty Burrell


n 1992, Somalia, East Africa, famine plagues the land on a biblical scale. This plight is further exacerbated by feuding warlords, causing 300,000 civilians to die of starvation. Warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid is the primary offender, taking control of Mogadishu and ruling the territory with hunger as his weapon. Although 20,000 U.S. Marines deliver food and restore order temporarily, by April of 1993, most have withdrawn, giving Aidid another opportunity to attack the dwindling peacekeeper forces. In response, the U.S. plans another three-week mission to deploy Special Forces to eliminate the threat once and for all – but after six weeks of turmoil, Washington grows impatient.

In October, Aidid’s militia members gun down unarmed civilians at the Red Cross food distribution center, with the U.N. unable to intervene. Though the presence of multiple divisions creates some tensions and lax discipline, a mix of Army Rangers, Delta Force soldiers, and Night Stalkers helicopter pilots are handed an extraction mission in the hostile Bakara Market stronghold. Intel claims that Aidid’s top political advisor and his interior minister will be in the area and are to be captured and removed in an approximate 30-minute timeframe. Just after the insertion begins at 3:42 in the afternoon, the unanticipated enemy firing of an RPG leads to Blackburn (Orlando Bloom) falling from an aircraft. Nevertheless, the targets are acquired, but at the cost of alerting a Somalian soldier commanding grenade-launching subordinates who successfully fells a Black Hawk helicopter. The crash is in the middle of the city, forcing the ground troops to move into increasingly deadlier zones to rescue any survivors.

As Eric Bana’s Hoot explains, politics go right out the window once that first bullet whizzes past your helmet. Indeed, the international complexities, allegiances, jurisdictions, and even morals are quickly made irrelevant when the engagement inevitably falls apart. And it does so with startlingly boisterous vigor. The sequences of sustained combat are exhilarating, showcasing exquisite editing, extremely graphic yet tragic gore, massive explosions, and an innumerable expenditure of shells. Hans Zimmer’s supplementary music is sensational, momentously building up anxiety, anticipation, and intensity (sometimes through gentle piano notes, rock beats, or even spots of utter silence), while breathtaking cinematography full of bright, high contrast imagery, crisp crimsons, and vivid verdancy matches the frantic cues.

“Only the dead have seen the end of war” states an opening quote from Plato, foreshadowing the grimness of the main conflict in “Black Hawk Down,” based on the actual “Battle of Mogadishu” as recounted by “The Philadelphia Inquirer” writer Mark Bowden. The obvious lack of eyes on the ground, unfamiliarity with the surroundings, poor communications, brash planning, hasty measures leading to continual spontaneous contingencies, and sheer outnumbering is relatable to most Vietnam War films, depicting equal servings of heroism, insanity, senseless casualties, and blinding chaos. With expert direction by Ridley Scott and a large ensemble cast of recognizable actors (including Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, William Fichtner, Sam Shepard, Ioan Gruffudd, Zeljko Ivanek, Jeremy Piven, and Ty Burrell), the work is an effective example of a “war is hell” combat situation gone from bad to worse, with physical and mental traumas and an admirable determination to never stop fighting, all aptly exhibited by patriotic soldiers.

What it fails to address is the “was it worth it?” factor that is typically absent from accounts of specific battles. The ensuing political and military actions (combined with the negative media coverage) – chiefly those pressuring U.S. withdrawal from the region – would lend to a widespread viewpoint of gross mishandling of the entire operation. The embellished reenactment is thoroughly entertaining, however, but it’s not nearly as potent as one might expect from this particular director, especially with a sizable budget and resources at his disposal, and governing this impressive cast.

– Mike Massie


Black Hawk Down: Fact, Fiction, and Perception

By Darrin Devito

[1] The movie Black Hawk Down, like many well-received films based on true events, unquestionably both shaped and defined the American public's perception of the conflict in Somalia. The movie's portrayal of the Battle of Mogadishu focuses primarily on the fighting itself, the climax of a resistance effort against a U.N. peacekeeping force sent to "establish a secure environment for humanitarian relief operations in Somalia" ("Somalia --UNOSOM II"). The humanitarian and military efforts in Somalia were more than just a failed excursion into the city of Mogadishu, however: the battle was a clash of radically differing ideologies, a testament to the cultural rifts between Somalia and America, and a defining moment in 1990's American military history. The conflict on October 3rd, 1993, was not a self-contained skirmish between U.S. forces and those of a dangerous warlord; many separate factions had a role in shaping the battle. Although Black Hawk Down portrays the conflict from the American point of view, the historical context of the Battle of Mogadishu and its aftermath can only be gleaned by examining it from all perspectives and clearly differentiating historical fact from historical fiction.

[2] Black Hawk Down was first and foremost an account of the military perspective on the Battle of Mogadishu. The battle, an operation to capture several top lieutenants of Mohamed Aidid, was, according to the film, supposed to take only about thirty minutes; however, the battle took over fifteen hours to conclude, including a night battle in the streets of Mogadishu, compounded because the soldiers involved did not believe they would need their night-vision equipment. It was estimated that 350 to 1,000 Somalis were killed on that day, although Somali Captain Haad, one of General Aidid's sector commanders, places the number of soldiers precisely at 133 with civilian casualties, and former U.S. Ambassador Robert Oakley estimates the number of Somalis killed at between 1,500 and 2,000. There has been speculation that the battle was a trap laid by Aidid to bait the U.S. forces, although Haad and several high-ranking American officials deny this ("Ambush in Mogadishu").

The Humanitarian Effort

[3] Black Hawk Down begins, however, with a brief overview of the attempted humanitarian effort, with the first scene being a flyover of a U.N. distribution camp. The film never explains in detail the extent of the operation, but the attempt to deliver aid to those affected by the power struggle between warlords Mohamed Farah Aidid and Ali Mohamed Mahdi is an important element in explaining the reason why the Battle of Mogadishu occurred. From April of 1992 to March of 1993, the United Nations Operation in Somalia (or UNISOM I) was in operation to deliver food, water, and other necessary supplies to affected civilians. By September 8th, there were 4,219 troops and 50 military observers dispatched in Somalia ("Somalia -- UNISOM I"); however, after several incidents with Aidid's troops, the United Nations requested assistance from the United States, and on December 9th, 1992, the American Unified Task Force (UNITAF) landed on the beaches of Somalia and began distributing supplies. In an interview for PBS' Frontline, General Anthony Zinni, at the time of the Somali conflict the director of UNITAF, said that the peacekeeping operation "was a limited mission and I think what was important to us and what we admired from previous involvement in peacekeeping, humanitarian operations is to make sure that we stayed within the framework of the mission." Zinni also states that a large-scale humanitarian effort "would be a much broader requirement and one more appropriate, we felt, for the UN or some international agency" ("Ambush in Mogadishu").

[4] The Battle of Mogadishu featured in Black Hawk Down occurred on October 3rd, 1993, but the strife began on June 5th, when a group of Pakistani soldiers under the command of the U.N. were shot and killed while inspecting a weapons storehouse, because General Aidid's followers believed the soldiers were there to shut down a local radio station. On the same day, a group of Pakistani soldiers were ambushed and attacked at a feeding site by a group consisting primarily of women and children associated with General Aidid's faction ("Ambush in Mogadishu"). According to the United Nations, 25 Pakistanis were killed, 10 went missing, and 50 were wounded on that day (Somalia-UNOSOM II), and the following day the United Nations drafted a resolution stating that "[…]those responsible for the attack upon the UN peace keepers should be found and punished in some way" ("Ambush in Mogadishu"). On June 12th, UNOSOM II, the new peacekeeping corps launched attacks on radio broadcast stations, taking the official Radio Somalia out of the hands of the United Somali Congress. They also attacked weapons stores and attempted to apprehend General Aidid, but to no avail. On June 17th, Admiral Jonathan Howe, the former Special Representative to the UN Secretary General for Somalia, issued a $25,000 reward for Aidid's capture.

Politics of the Conflict and Other Countries Involved

[5] On October 3rd, Task Force Ranger -- 440 members of the elite Delta Force fighting unit as well as members of the Army Rangers -- was assigned on a routine mission to capture high-ranking members of Aidid's militia and found themselves embroiled in a bloody battle that would later become known as the Battle of Mogadishu. Black Hawk Down largely portrays the incident as a politically simple affair between the U.S. and Aidid's troops, scarcely mentioning the name of Aidid's primary enemy, Ali Mohamed Mahdi, or the clan-based society that is an integral part of Somali culture ("Ambush in Mogadishu"). The title of the movie references the two Black Hawk helicopters, designated Super 6-1 and Super 6-2, that were downed by rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). However, the downing of the helicopters may not have been due to simple circumstances. It was known that the Italian presence in Somalia was sympathetic to the Somalis, and there were rumors that Italian forces were colluding with Aidid's faction. When asked about a report that the Italians were setting off strobe lights when U.S. helicopters took to the sky, U.S. Ambassador to Somalia Robert Oakley stated, "I didn't realize that…. But it wouldn't surprise me" ("Ambush in Mogadishu").

[6] Black Hawk Down focuses almost entirely on the U.S. and Somali forces, but many countries were involved in stewing the cauldron holding the contents of the conflict. Captain Haad states that Aidid's faction was "on friendly terms with the Italians" and that "there were people informing us at the place where [the helicopters] were taking off." Haad also admits that the Somalis had received foreign aid, including weapons, though the people "actually firing the guns" were Somali. In addition to the Italians, who "had interests in southern Somalia," Haad mentions having been trained in Libya and that most of his militia were "trained either in Libya or in other Islamic countries." He also mentions that "the people of the age of Aidid and other old generals received their training in Russia" ("Ambush in Mogadishu"). The film focuses on the American soldiers and Somali militiamen, but the U.N., the groups assisting Aidid's faction, and especially the Pakistani soldiers ambushed at the weapons storehouse all played roles escalating the circumstances leading to the Battle of Mogadishu.


[7] The events of October 3rd, 1993 as portrayed in the film were necessarily--a concession made for time constraints--taken out of context. The famine, drought, and violence gripping Somalia during that time were widespread, and neither the Somali people nor the U.N. were prepared to cope. Khalil Dale, a member of the Red Cross stationed in Somalia at the time, states in regards to the U.N. peacekeeping forces, "These people are trained killers, they are not trained humanitarians." Dale notes that the American forces he encountered were "very aggressive" and that they "had no cultural briefing" about Somalia and the culture. Kenneth Allard, a retired U.S. Army Colonel, admits that in regards to the people in power in Somalia, "They understood [the power conflicts]. They were very comfortable with it. And we, of course, were not" ("Ambush in Mogadishu").

[8] The lack of preparation and the inability to understand the Somali culture was one of the major factors in igniting the situation leading to the conflict. A woman present in Somalia, Mrs. Abshir, mentions that Aidid was one of many people and that the most important people were often the least visible. The American and U.N. led forces, in focusing their efforts solely on General Aidid, gave Aidid his power and "built him up," in essence creating their own enemy. The amount of visibility and credence the Americans lent to Aidid strengthened his will to fight. The Americans focused on one specific clan, ignoring the others and neglecting to consult with a cross-section of clan elders, leaders, and women. Mrs. Abshir notes that, at first, the majority of the Somali people "welcomed [American intervention]. We felt relieved that they were coming.… The majority of the Somali people thought they were going to be our saviors." It was because the American forces acted rashly--the "Cowboy and Indian" mindset, as Khalil Dale describes -- it that the situation exploded out of control ("Ambush in Mogadishu"). The downing of the helicopters was not a random act but a coordinated military strike against an overconfident enemy.

Why the Conflict Occurred

[9] Above all, the Battle of Mogadishu was a culmination of months of ill will and misunderstanding. Both the Somalis and the American forces were subject to incidents. On July 12th, American Cobra helicopters destroyed a house where several members of Aidid's clan were meeting, killing an estimated 20-25 Somalis, and in retaliation several American journalists were beaten to death by an angry mob ("Ambush in Mogadishu"). On the American side, on August 8th a group of military police were killed when a remotely-detonated land mine exploded. There had been several other military actions, including several excursions into the city, before the fateful battle portrayed in the movie, but it was that battle that forced President Bill Clinton to "cut his losses" and withdraw forces from Somalia.

[10] Captain Haad, however, gives another interesting reason for Aidid's hostilities towards the foreigners and, in particular, the U.S. forces: "we were ready to give up all our arms if the Americans and other UNITAF forces were themselves ready to disarm all the Somali people," Haad states. "They concentrated on themselves, on fighting one special clan of all the Somalis [Aidid's faction]." Haad recalls that after a group of formerly friendly American forces ordered him and "other prominent Habr Gidr [Aidid's clan] people" to remove their vehicles from an American compound, the group "lost confidence in the Americans." In one scene in the movie, a high-ranking Somali official known only as "Mr. Atto" states to U.S. General Garrison that the conflict is a civil war and outsiders should not interfere in their business. According to several Somalis, however, if the Americans had taken more decisive action to disarm all militiamen and seek peace with the entire country of Somalia, there would have been significantly less discord amongst the Somali people ("Ambush in Mogadishu").

In Conclusion

[11] Black Hawk Down as a film provides an entertaining look into an event that might otherwise go unnoticed by most of the American public. Africa in the media is often portrayed stereotypically as the impoverished continent of starving children, but Black Hawk Down shows the dangerous reality of living every day in a war zone in a dusty city. There is much more to the conflict in Somalia than is shown in the film, however, which reveals to the viewers only one dimension of a conflict that might, at first glance, seem like another confrontation between "good" and "evil." The humanitarian effort to aid the starving grew into military occupation and eventually into the battle on October 3rd, but there were more sides involved than Aidid's militia and the Americans; politics and public opinion played a major role in escalating the tensions into the tragedy depicted in the film. The portrayal of the Battle of Mogadishu in Black Hawk Down shaped its own brand of two-dimensional movie-screen history, a history superficially similar but ultimately different than three-dimensional reality.

"Ambush in Mogadishu." Frontline. PBS. Sept. 1998. 30 Nov. 2007. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/ambush/

"Somalia - UNOSOM I." Department of Public Information, United Nations. 21 March 1997. 27 November 2007. http://www.un.org/Depts/DPKO/Missions/unosomi.htm

"Somalia - UNOSOM II." Department of Public Information, United Nations. 21 March 1997. 27 November 2007. http://www.un.org/Depts/DPKO/Missions/unosom2b.htm

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