Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Black Hawk Down: a Story of Modern Warfare

Black Hawk Down was written by journalist Mark Bowden and released in 1999. It depicts the events of the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. I thought the book was excellent and well-worth the read. I wrote up a short review about a year ago that I will include at the end of this post but this entry was inspired by a re-watch of the movie (well done adaptation though I have quibbles with the soundtrack).

I've always been interested in military history and the books/movies it inspires. What I find especially compelling about the events in Mogadishu is how they highlight the extremely complicated layers of humanitarian missions. In the age of the Global Society very few corners are dark. We have such a wealth of information at our disposal, and the ability to access events almost immediately after they occur, that it becomes hard to ignore the lives and actions of our Worldwide Compatriots. But on a planet where the Have Nations and the Have-not Nations can seem worlds apart in their technological capabilities and infrastructure, how do we bridge the gap to bring basic services to those that need them? This question is daunting enough and I haven't even mentioned the social or political ramifications involved in trying to give aid. Nor does this question address whether or not interference is the right thing to do.

In Somalia, starvation was rampant. It all started because people wanted to help. People wanted to bring food to those that needed it -they wanted to supply the most basic service, nutrition. It sounds so simple but I've learned that so few humanitarian issues are simple. In this case, the desire to provide food led to outright battle. On the surface it's hard to understand why and if you don't look at the layers you'll never understand. In this case there was politics, civil war, starvation, power struggles, the arms business, and more than I'll ever know not being Somali or, for that matter, any kind of expert on the region.

The point that I'm trying to make, and that Black Hawk Down illustrates so well, is that humanitarian issues are not one problem, one solution issues. I wish I had some sort of brilliant idea to share with the world on this but, again, I'm no kind of expert. I do have one idea, though, and that's to not keep making the same mistakes. What happened in Somalia was not a new problem, and it's not a solved problem. And it's not a problem limited to Somalia. But time and again I see these events played out, especially those that involve military (US or UN) force: people are suffering, they need "x," bring "x" to them, if necessary shoot those that interfere. If the cost, whether monetary or human, becomes too high we bail.

My armchair analysis feels a bit conceited and impotent. After all, what the shit do I know? But then, what the shit do the people in charge know if we have to do this over and over again? Is it poor planning at the outset? Is it better left to NGOs? Is it an impossible problem? Is it even our problem? But can we really sit back and watch people suffer? History tells us no on that last question and there's certainly no easy answer to the others.

One thing that, as an American, I would implore the public and the government to understand is that the solution is not cheap. It costs money, it costs lives - ours and theirs - and we can't keep running when that cost increases. If we won't see it to the end, we shouldn't begin. We Americans have a tendency to poke our fingers into as many pies as we can and then when the pie gets cold we bail. I think it is certain that that is not the solution.

So I definitely recommend learning more about this historical event. It's a timely topic and one that continues to be a part of international relations. Along this same vein, and at one point overlapping with the events in Mogadishu, is another book called Emergency Sex (and Other Desperate Measures): True Stories from a War Zone by Cain, Postlewait, and Thomson.

My review of Black Hawk Down written in Sept '08:

Black Hawk Down recounts a mission by Task Force Ranger into Mogadishu, Somalia which occurred in October of 1993. What was intended to be a one hour mission to capture a warlord’s top lieutenants became an overnight urban battle after two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down.

Mark Bowden presents a strict account of the Battle of the Black Sea but its style is one of real-time drama. Through extensive interviews and research (much, if not all, of the 15 hour event was captured on video and audio), MB was able to recount the battle from the perspective of the soldiers on the ground. Even though the reader is treated to an almost minute-by-minute, factual account, this book reads much like a fiction novel. Excellent pacing and genuine suspense is created without disservice to real events or needless over-dramatization.

MB did an excellent job of creating the emotional environment of the depicted events. The attitudes of US soldiers and the Somalis are presented without judgment. In fact, this was a strong point of the book. Very often authors fall into the trap of setting the reader up to have a particular reaction to events or characters but MB was careful to allow the reader to come to their own conclusions.

This leads into the one, very small complaint I had about the book. I would have enjoyed a more extensive exploration of the events and politics that led up to this battle. A short history is provided within the context of the story but I would have enjoyed more detail. However, I do not believe that was the intent of the book which may have been why more details weren’t included.

I give this book a very high recommendation. The story is a very interesting part of modern US history and MB recounts the event as truthfully as possible while maintaining an easy-to-read style.

SPOILER WARNING: The following section WILL reveal key plot points.

This warning may not be needed for a non-fiction book recounting a non-classified military exploit that has since been made into a film. Nonetheless, the warning remains.

One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was the capture of a Black Hawk pilot by a group of Somalis. The importance of a captured US soldier, and which group could afford to keep him, was something I had not thought of before. It was also interesting to read the account of the interactions between the captured pilot and the man who cared for him. After the unrest that was deliberately incited by rebels (creating mobs of civilians) the relative quiet of captivity was surprising and, again, not what I would have thought.

1 comment:

  1. From an Aid Worker At-Large - "Just to add flame to the fire and perhaps point the debate in a new angle see this article from Oxfam America. It is a brusqe assessment on the state of the Somali refugees that have "successfully" fled or smuggled themselves from the chaos and arrived at refugee camps in neighbouring Kenya that are deplorable due to the inability of the international community to prioritize this complex humanitarian disaster after nearly 20 years... I agree Ra why do we keep repeating the same mistakes? Some like to say it´s loss of institutional memory... I say watch the movie again then..."