Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Independence? (Or, How Did We Get Here Again?)

I've been planning to write this entry for about a week. Then I thought it'd make a good post for July 4th. Right about there I got overwhelmed by the amount of importance I'd put on it. So, here we are at 9pm on Independence Day, I'm locked tight in my apartment to shield me from the illegal fireworks going on just feet from my door and I'm just getting started. Well, just getting started if you don't count all the time I've put in thinking about it while walking the dog or riding the train or the half hour I spent developing the title and writing the opening when I woke up out of a dead sleep at 4:30 this morning. Yeah, you won't be seeing any of that last bit since it all drifted away when I fell asleep again.

The subject is Black Hawk Down. You may know it as a movie. I saw the movie a few years ago and have since re-watched the expurgated TV version a few times but, thanks to some timely lending by Nhfalcon, I recently read the book upon which the movie is based. When I see a movie and find out it's from a book I often want to read the book to see how much the movie got, I mean, got right. I read BHD partly for that reason and partly because I knew zero about the subject matter and I felt like an idiot about it and I figured the book would be the best place to start.

So, you're in good company if you don't know what the fricking frack I'm on about. Short answer is: It was the pivotal battle in the rebuilding effort for Somalia. It began on October 3, 1993 and as of the writing of this book it was purported to be the only comprehensive account of the battle, including military documents.

The long answer is that this was the worst battle that American forces had engaged in since Vietnam. It resulted in many American deaths, more American casualties, the end of the relief effort in Somalia and was perhaps a mortal blow to the Clinton administration's credibility in military circles. It was, almost from the outset, a succession of miscalculations and unanticipated catastrophes so complexly intertwined that it's impossible for anyone to say whether, without having called off the mission before its start, a win for the American forces would have been possible. Before the release of the movie it's likely that two thirds of Americans didn't know it had ever occured. What's more, even now, it's likely that at least two thirds of Americans couldn't point out the location of Mogadishu, Somalia on a map of the world. Lest you think I'm judging the populus too harshly I'll say that I've seen the movie, I've read the book, I've looked at the maps and I've still got probably only a 70-30 shot at it. (I am extremely geographically challenged, to the point of being continually amazed every time I see, for instance, how far East Colorado is on our continent. I'm working on it but it might just be one of those things.)

When I saw the movie I was highly impressed. It combines the grim reality and continuing gore and pain of war (or at least what I imagine it to be and what this book tells me it is) with an accessible Hollywood style. I appreciated it for giving me enough information to keep up, for not glossing over the gore and the pain while still having a complex and well crafted script. For an example of how to do only half of this see Saving Private Ryan.

Now that I've read the book I'm less impressed. On the one hand I can't complain, no one is going to watch a movie that's as complete a clusterfuck as this battle. No one is going to be able to stick with a movie that adheres strictly to the pervasive confusion of the actual battle where often times no one small set of combatants had a blessed clue where any other set was located. So Jerry Bruckheimer (producer) and Ridley Scott (director) molded the truth in a way that was exciting and engaging and ultimately oddly inspiring. They made a movie that people would watch and in so doing they brought to light an important piece of history that was being kept shamefully quiet.

An aside about the outside world. How can we, as a nation, continue to deride Britain for colonizing pretty much everyone who stood still at the beginning of the 20th century when we're demanding democracy of everyone with a civil war these days? Yes, genocide is bad, very bad and everyone should stop that right now and yes, we all live on the same globe and scary technology requires that we be interested in creating peace wherever there is war but uh...I don't know, seems like we're not in much of a position right now to be all, "Democracy is totally where it's at! Check out what we've been doing with it! It slices it dices it...oh crap, no don't look over there, it's just an old version, we'll give you the latest operating system where all those bugs are worked out...guys? Hey guys! Where are you going?" Do as I say not as I do doesn't work in kindergarten and it doesn't work in foreign policy.

Back to the movie. I was taught a glorious thing about choreography, "The ending is 40% of the dance." Meaning that in terms of what people remember when they leave the performance the ending makes up almost half. The final scene of the movie (I think I'm remembering this right) is of beleagured, injured, stoic special forces men jogging back to base as the camera pulls back and patriotic music plays. The book to put this nicely...fucking depressing. It's confusing and relatively hopeless and details an endless succession of soul crushing events and decisions. Just when you think it can't get worse or something good has to happen you're reminded that no one scripts real life so really, no it doesn't have to do anything. I kept reading by telling myself to just wait for the part where they got to jog home safely in the sunlight and things would be, if not OK, much better. Yeah, you'd think I'd have heard of Artistic License by now, wouldn't you? First I got pissed at the filmmakers for screwing up the ending and then I went back to the whole, "They had to make a movie someone would sit through and want to see again."

Many of the soldiers in this battle had grown up with video games and were even trained using simulators for a number of their specialized skills. Some of them, too many perhaps, were also quite young. They told Mark Bowden, the author, that when the battle started they had trouble believing it was real and not simulated. You know, until they, or someone close to them, had a portion of his body blown off. Without exaggeration, almost no one involved returned to base unscathed physically. As a rule I'm not of the opinion that movies and video games are responsible for real life violence in our society. I believe it plays a part, certainly, but I don't believe you can run someone through with a ball point pen and blame it on too many late night viewings of Tales From the Crypt. This reversal of that theory terrifies me. I think of trained military personnel as being the people who overcome all the media influence and, through real life experience, might have the ability to teach people the difference. The reality, for some, seems to be that it's at least as detrimental to them, if not more so.

About half of the personnel on this mission roped in off of Blackhawk helicopters. The heavy specialty ropes for this sort of entry are, of course, quite valuable and difficult to replace when you're a couple of continents away from home so the soldiers are drilled to retrieve them at all costs. About a third of the way through the book one chalk of men has roped in, been fired on, returned fire, had to dig in and are finally being picked up by the motorcade. One young man runs out into the middle of the kill zone, picks up one of the ropes and, with much effort, brings it back to a truck and throws it in. He turns to a teammate and requests help getting the next one and that man looks at him like he just grew a dick out of his forehead, gestures to the area and tells him he can do it himself if he thinks it's so important. With renewed perspective the first boy looks out and sees how unfathomable it is that he returned unharmed from his initial folly. He's shocked and frightened that it never occurred to him that it was a dangerous act, he was just doing his job.

Last year I became fascinated by the HBO series Band of Brothers. It's a beautifully crafted historical piece endorsed at least in part by the one World War II expert I know. The name of the series comes from a speech in Shakespeare's Henry V which was read by the general in command of the mission in Mogadishu at a memorial service for the men who died. It goes a little like this:

Whoever does not have the stomach for this fight, let him depart. Give him money to speed his departure since we wish not to die in that man's company. Whoever lives past today and comes home safely will rouse himself every year on this day, show his neighbor his scars, and tell embellished stories of all their great feats of battle. These stories he will teach his son and from this day until the end of the world we shall be remembered. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for whoever has shed his blood with me shall be my brother. And those men afraid to go will think themselves lesser men as they hear of how we fought and died together.

For my next Shakespeare class I'm showing the first kid who tells me Shakespeare is irrelevant and showing him this piece alongside some Viggo Mortensen in GI Jane.

I had not previously understood where the title, Band of Brothers, came from. I had, however, already been thinking about the series as I read BHD. Bowden's descriptions of the choices men made in battle, the injuries, the bonds forged, the way the men treated each other and the situations they faced felt painfully familiar. It's not like Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz, you can't play them side by side and have them match up perfectly but the similarities are unsettling. Almost everyone has, at one point, heard the saying, "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Yet, here are 2 battles separated by almost 50 years with the same problems, the same miscalculations, the same horrifying decisions between the needs of the one man bleeding out in your medic's lap and the many spread throughout the battle ground that still need help. We have not learned from history. Or if we have we have not learned enough.

Gerry's post today concludes with, "I fervently hope no one ever has to bleed for our liberty again." He knows whereof he speaks, too, he did his time. But read accounts of missions in Iraq, read about the reasons we're there and I think you could match up an enormous number of the same issues I found in both BoB and BHD. Exactly what sort of teacher do we need to put a stop to this?

I think I'm beginning to sound like I'm sorry I read the book or at least that I'm not recommending it as a good read, merely a required one. I'm not. It is, in its way, a beautiful book. The battle itself was relentless and long and demoralizing on almost every level. Somehow Bowden gives you all of that but crafts the narrative in such a way that just when you think you can't read anymore (or just a few pages after that point) he gives you some humor and some relief. It's gallows humor for the most part, to be sure, but that's often my favorite kind. He uses the brash sexuality of the men to try and shock the reader and that was, perhaps, the only part of the humor that didn't impress me. Really? Guys jack off a lot while hanging around the desert waiting for something to happen? No! Unbelievable! And they talk about it? You're kidding. Yeah, you know, I've met a couple of guys before so it's not quite the shocker you're looking for. I could whack him upside the head with a copy of Hustler for mentioning the two guys who think about rubbing one out during the battle but not telling us if they did! Jesus, man, this is the fascinating information. Or at least the longed for brief distraction.

In something with the scope of a book Bowden could explore the Somali side of things. He and a photographer were able to spend a week in the Mog interviewing people and walking the city to understand where the fighting had happened. Given that the only substantive news coverage of the Somalis in this fight was of them desecrating and destroying the bodies of American soldiers with glee it would have been a very different book without this effort. Even a cursory understanding of what the Somalis were doing and why was essential to my understanding of how this went down.

If you've ever seen the episodes of The West Wing where Bartlett and Leo decide to have the dictator of a small country killed that's, on a very basic level, what the original mission that led to this battle was. As I understand it, Somalia was in the middle of a civil war, the UN had come in to keep some peace and to facilitate resolution and government restructuring. The US had deemed a politician named Aidid a likely but unacceptable candidate for heading the new government so they'd had him removed from the process thereby creating a resistance movement to the UN efforts. Is any of this sounding familiar? Yeah, not only had America done this before (Vietnam I think, Afghanistan, somewhere in Central America too, do correct me if I'm wrong, I'm not an expert) but we're doing it again as I write this. The Clinton administration's answer to the relative failure of the October 3rd mission was to scrap US involvement in Somalia entirely thus ensuring the end of the UN peacekeeping mission. I can't even do justice in this format to the many ways in which that decision was questionable.

Short answer is that I highly recommend the book. I'll give one cautionary tale, though. It's the sort of book that, at least for me, inspires one to learn more about the subject. There are some pictures in the book, most are of the men in and around the hangar that was their homebase before the mission. There is one post-battle shot of Durant, who was a prisoner of war for 17 days and at least one of an intersection during the battle. Many more images that were broadcast at the time of the incident are described. So I did an image search on the internet. In thumbnail form, not so bad. Clicking through was a bad idea. I can read about this stuff and I can watch the dramatic reenactments but the news photos are often beyond me. I have not been moved to watch execution videotapes and I'm leery of news coverage including video sent from hostage takers. All of that stuff is, of course, available on the internet and while I knew that I guess I expected there to be some sort of filter or warning label or something. There's not. Just keep that in mind.

I'm sure I'll think of other things as time goes by and I hope we can have some lively discussion on the matter but I think that's it for now. Black Hawk Down, both the movie and the book are well worth your time if you've any interest at all in learning from history and getting a snowball's chance of not repeating it.

Happy Day of Independence!


  1. I left you a response on Corner Booth. Sorry, I started out writing it on one ply and it turned into a roll.

  2. Anonymous8:41 AM

    Wow, what a post.
    I found myself strangely fascinated by the movie Blackhawk Down. I ordinarily avoid war stuff.
    Thanks for the link, and, yes, I did my time--but I can't recall how you knew that.

  3. Anonymous10:28 AM

    Wow! Quite the post. Lots of stuff running through my head to comment on. Sorry I haven't chimed in sooner, but life is... well, life. When the opportunity presents itself I'll either post a comment here or perhaps just blog about it on my own site (there's THAT much to comment on, IMHO).