The True Story of Black Hawk Down: too much detail and not enough overview of the Battle of Mogadishu as a historical event

David Keane, “The True Story of Black Hawk Down” (2003)

A very detailed documentary about the events that led to the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993 between US Special Forces and forces loyal to a Somali warlord, Mohammed Farrah Aidid, during which two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by rocket-propelled grenades, hence the title of the film (and of the Hollywood film “Black Hawk Down” by Ridley Scott based on the Mark Bowden book of the same name). Eighteen US soldiers died, 73 others were injured and one pilot was captured while 1,000 to 10,000 Somalis may have been killed. The battle was pivotal in influencing US President Bill Clinton’s decision to pull all US troops out of Somalia a few months later.

Anchored with minimal voice-over narration from David Jeremiah, the film relies mainly on interviews with author Mark Bowden, whose efforts to chronicle what happened before and during the Battle of Mogadishu form the narrative of the documentary, various US Army Rangers and Somali civilians, and backed by archival footage and dramatisations of particular incidents, “The True Story …” is very strong on the details of events leading up to the battle and on what happened, blow by blow, during the battle from a mostly American point of view. The danger with this approach, focussing heavily on a day-by-day recount of events, is that viewers can quickly get lost in detail and lose sight of what the documentary is aiming for: an accurate narrative of the battle, the things that happened and why. There is some effort to capture the Somali point of view to provide a counterpoint to the American account of the battle but the US viewpoint dominates simply by the sheer amount of time allocated to interviews with several soldiers who participated in the mission; the Somali side is captured in snippets of interviews with a small number of civilians.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of the interviewees and their feelings for their dead comrades, and certainly Mark Bowden is genuine about his mission and can see some of the Somali viewpoint, but overall I don’t find that the documentary adds much to viewers’ understanding of why Somalia in the early 1990s was such an unstable country and how the United States government failed to gain the support of the Somali people enough to challenge the power of the warlords and in particular that of the most prominent warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid. There should have been some information about the overthrow of President Siad Barre, who had ruled the country for over 20 years with an iron fist, drawing on socialist principles to structure the economy, clamping down on clan rivalries and making some reforms, and how that led to political and economic chaos. On the other hand, the impact of the Battle of Mogadishu and the loss of American lives on US foreign policy and Somalia was great: the US withdrew all its military from Somalia not long after and international aid presence there soon collapsed with the result that the country remained chaotic and poor for many years. According to the film, the Clinton government became loath to commit US forces in other foreign conflicts and preferred to use aerial bombardment in military interventions whenever these occurred; this meant that in places like Serbia and Kosovo in the mid-1990s, warfare became even more bloody and dangerous as bombs not only spread death indiscriminately but also depleted uranium. The Clinton government avoided sending US troops to Rwanda when civil war followed by genocide broke out there in 1994; some 800,000 and possibly up to 1 million people died. This embarrassment to the US led to the development of the principles known collectively as Responsibility to Protect which assert that sovereignty is a responsibility and therefore states are responsible for protecting their citizens from mass murder and other atrocities, and if individual states fail in this, then the international community must assist the states or intervene, perhaps by force.

The film pays homage to the bravery of the US soldiers who participated in the battle and acknowledges, somewhat grudgingly, the determination of the Somali people in defending their country. It makes mention of the ugliness and brutality of war and how it changed the lives of the surviving soldiers. To be honest, and I know this will be insulting to the people involved, I found the conclusion rather banal: well of course war is horrible and people die horribly and in pain in war, and of course it dramatically changes participants’ lives and the lives of their loved ones. I would have liked to see, though, less humdrum detail about how some individuals got rescued – their experiences could have been turned into separate documentaries – and a better analysis of how the Battle of Mogadishu turned the tide of war against the US and how it influenced future US military conduct in overseas countries.

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