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Black Hawk Down

Black Hawk Down

Had the events of September 11 never happened, Black Hawk Down might simply have been another war movie, but the terrorist attacks and subsequent U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan have put the film and its subject in a new light. The deaths of 18 American soldiers during what should have been a routine raid in Somalia on October 3, 1993 served as a bitter lesson to the United States military, one that’s not been ignored. The Battle of Mogadishu, the biggest American firefight since Vietnam, now serves as a blueprint of what can go wrong when the U.S. military overestimates its might, and underestimates the strength and resilience of a civilian fighting force.

It’s become a model for modern warfare, as military operations other than war have become more common than classical warfare, where large masses of troops confront an identifiable enemy. This new kind of war is now being seen in movies like Black Hawk Down and Behind Enemy Lines, about the rescue of a downed U.S. airman in Bosnia. The release dates of both films were moved up so that they play in theaters while American soldiers are in Afghanistan.

But Black Hawk Down, based on journalist Mark Bowden’s 1999 nonfiction bestseller, has direct ties to the U.S. war on terrorism. Somalia maintains strong ties to al-Qaida and other targeted groups and has been cited as a possible future destination for U.S. troops. This makes exploring what happened the last time Americans were in the East African nation doubly important, according to Ridley Scott. The British director, who redefined science fiction with Alien and Blade Runner and recreated ancient warfare in the Oscar-winning Gladiator, wanted to capture the horror of “18 hours of murderous behavior” in Mogadishu.

He aimed to put audiences directly into the conflict, when a daylight raid by U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force turned into an all-night siege as they were surrounded by thousands of well-armed Somalis loyal to warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. To this end, Scott didn’t shy away from showing the brutality of the firefight, or the blood spilled on both sides. “The moral message is clear,” he asserts during an interview in Los Angeles, “it’s obviously an anti-war movie. It’s hardly a recruiting film.” Yet Scott believes Black Hawk Down also illuminates a soldier’s most basic duties, and the sacrifice they’re willing to make. “This is what they’re doing, right now, for you,” he says, “and I think what it hopefully does is allow us to have a little more respect for what they do. People are very cynical about the military, and I think they need some support right now.”

This attitude won Scott the respect of his military advisers, Col. Thomas Matthews and Col. Lee Van Arsdale, who served in Mogadishu as the Air Mission Commander of Task Force Ranger and the Delta Force Squadron Commander, respectively. (Both are now retired.) “This film is the most realistic presentation of urban combat that’s ever been done,” says Matthews. Along with Van Arsdale, Matthews followed the cast through their intensive training alongside Special Forces soldiers, and both were on hand at the Moroccan film set. (With no official government and a still-hostile populace, Somalia was deemed too dangerous for location shooting.)

Black Hawk Down

“Every scene in the movie,” says Van Arsdale, “is based on something that actually happened in Somalia. Now, the intent was never to 100 percent replicate it. As Tom and I were told many, many times every single day, ‘We’re not making a documentary, guys.’ But we were part of wanting to get it right.”

That desire to get it right began with Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden. Like many who saw the horrific television images, Bowden want to find out how a humanitarian mission to help end Somalia’s devastating famine could lead to the mutilated bodies of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of the capital. What Bowden uncovered, and chronicles in excruciating detail, is a cautionary tale about U.S. intervention in civil conflicts, and a treatise on the behavior of soldiers dealing with extreme conditions. “I decided,” he says, “to write a story about a battle and try and capture the experience better than anybody has ever done. The primary objective was to capture, through the eyes of the young men who do it, what combat is really like, it becoming an increasingly rare phenomenon for Americans and Westerners.”

Bowden points out that politically, the Battle of Mogadishu “was a disaster, a complete failure,” but on strictly military terms, it’s considered a successful operation. The soldiers actually did complete their task: to capture several key aides to Aidid. That was an important point for Ridley Scott as well. “Let’s say you’ve got these guys in [Afghanistan] now,” proposes Scott. “They come out with the left and right hand man of [Osama bin Laden], and in the process, they lost 18 guys and killed a thousand. How would you regard that, as a success?”

Even before Bowden’s Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War hit bookstores (and became recommended reading at the Pentagon), it attracted the attention of producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Pearl Harbor), a Detroit native who began his career locally, making television commercials for McManus, John and Adams in the 1960s. Bruckheimer didn’t see this incident as a story of American defeat, but an example of remarkable grace under fire. “These individuals were so brave and courageous,” he says, “how they would give their lives for the man next to them. That’s what motivated us [to make the film]. The commitment of these young men and the pride they have in this country and to their fellow Rangers and Delta.”

For Detroit-born actor Tom Sizemore, who appeared in the World War II combat film Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down is about approaching modern warfare with a modern attitude. “Ridley’s interested in the anatomy of a battle,” explains Sizemore, “not trying to manipulate your emotions. Ridley is a dispassionate passionate intellectual observer, and he’s just showing it to you.”

“He shows the stark nature of war in graphic terms,” agrees Matthews. “As a nation, and as a people, you don’t lightly commit military force unless you’re willing to accept the sacrifices and the effects of combat. When you commit military power to something, it had better be worth it.”

Black Hawk Down began as a movie about a battle most Americans were eager to forget, but in the light of current events, it’s become a testament to individual sacrifice. For the veterans of Mogadishu who helped make the film, Somalia and Afghanistan are two important parts of a complex geopolitical puzzle – one that the American government will have to solve piece by piece.

“There’s no nation that can match us militarily,” says Van Arsdale. “We’re in a class of our own. It’s asymmetrical warfare. They still want to compete with us through armed combat, but they can’t. So they find other ways.”

“It’s the nature of war that’s changed,” adds Matthews. “It’s the nature of the threat, and you respond to the threat. You have to adapt to it.”

Interview by Serena Donadoni
Black Hawk Down released December 28, 2001 by Columbia Pictures
First published on January 31, 2002 in The Detroit News.