Monday, September 30, 2013

Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden

Title: Black Hawk Down: a story of modern war
Author: Mark Bowden
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press (1999)
 

Here we are at the end of September and time is flying by. I believe it's now that time of year that Michael calls The Slide. I'm happy to start The Slide(TM) revisiting an old favorite. We're also just days before the 20th Anniversary of The Battle of the Black Sea (or The Day of the Rangers depending on your nationality) and I am firmly of the opinion that this book is not only of historical interest but remains topical. It seems the moral questions of humanitarian relief, military intervention, and nation building are never far from the heart of US foreign policy. This title focuses exclusively on the military intervention tip of this thorny triangle.

 
For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.



Click here for Michael's film review of Black Hawk Down




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, research, and military records (much, if not all, of the 15 hour event was captured on video and audio), Bowden was able to recount the battle from the perspective of the US/UN soldiers and Somali militiamen and civilians. Even though the reader is treated to an almost minute-by-minute, factual account, this book reads much like a novel. Excellent structure creates genuine suspense without disservice to real events or hyperbolic dramatization.

Bowden does an excellent job of creating the emotional environment surrounding the battle and even includes some of the preceding US-Somali relations that led to it. (The latter is necessarily limited as that was not the focus of the book.) The various and varying attitudes of US soldiers and Somalis are presented with care and without obvious bias. In fact, this was a strong point of the book. Bowden does not appear to "have a side" or an agenda. Very often authors fall into the trap of setting readers up to have a particular reaction to events/people, but it's clear that Bowden's only agenda is to recount "a story of modern war."

SPOILER WARNING: This warning may not be needed for the recounting of a non-classified military exploit that has since been made into a film. Nonetheless, the warning remains. Highlight the following if interested: [One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was the capture of a Black Hawk pilot by a group of Somali militiamen. The importance of a captured US soldier, and which group could afford to keep him, was something I had not previously understood. 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 and chaos of urban battle, the relative quiet of captivity was surprising and, again, not where my previous understandings would have led me.]

I give this book a very high recommendation. This event is an extremely relevant part of modern US history and Bowden recounts the battle with authority and rigorous detail while maintaining an easy-to-read style. My recommendation shoots even higher if you've only seen the movie. Don't let the movie be your only encounter with this material.


So about the movie...  don't forget to check out Michael's post.


rating: 5 of 5 stars

Note: I've written previously about Black Hawk Down and the issue of humanitarian relief . Parts of this review were originally in that 2009 post.



Coming up next:

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson




Links to previous joint posts: 
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

13 Days
The Constant Gardener

4 comments:

  1. Wonderful review of this stellar account of what happened almost 20 years ago, Rachel. I've read this book now three times, the last via unabridged audiobook, and it remains riveting, to say the least. And it sure was a jumping off point for the post-Cold War world. I also found most interesting the interactions of the various services, warts and all. It made for intriguing reading amid the chaos for which the Army still labels as a success. On one hand it was, and not on the other. I'd agree that another of its strengths, as you stated, was the non-partisan investigation Bowden put forward, so thoroughly researched and not pushing an agenda or a side. It's doubtful anyone else would have sought out the Somali perspective. Like the film, which naturally narrowed the scope to fit a 2.5 hour movie, it was immersive to an unexpected degree. I've read a great many history books over the years, most detailing military events, and none read like this work. Testament to how great it was when first published, and that it remains quite relevant to this day. It was stirring and thought-provoking to revisit both the book and the film that sprang from it, Rachel. Many thanks.

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  2. I could not agree more with all your above comments. It's definitely one of the absolute best military books for getting such a broad perspective of one finite event (more finite than some would have preferred since the operation ended the next day). Further, even the Notes section is immersive and full of must-read details. That might be a first for me in a Notes section.

    Thanks to you as well for putting this one on the list.

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  3. I read Black Hawk Down years ago and enjoyed very much. (The movie I felt a little ambivalent about.) I picked up BHD after reading Bowden' s book on the DEA's hunt for Pablo Escobar, Killing Pablo, which was fascinating.

    jmc

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  4. Hey jmc, I kept meaning to read more stuff by Bowden after enjoying BHD so much but never did. Your comment here makes me realize I need to get his stuff to the top of the TBR and quit stalling.

    If you're interested, I left a comment on Michael's review detailing several of the reasons the movie leaves me cold (and a few of the reasons it doesn't).

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