Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

Films

Films >> Black Hawk Down (2001) >> Issue Essay >>

American Intervention in Somalia

By Franklin Rosenberg

[1] While Black Hawk Down does a relatively good job of portraying the American-Somali battle on October 3, 1993, its focus on the American side of the conflict means that some aspects of the conflict, particularly on the Somali side, are not explored. Since the movie only focuses on the Battle of Mogadishu, the events leading up to the Battle of Mogadishu, the events after the battle, and the repercussions of American intervention in Somalia, are either glossed over in "text cards" at the beginning and end of the movie or simply omitted. Additionally, the issue of America's moral responsibility and its right to interfere with a sovereign nation's affairs is looked at briefly in the movie, while it was a sweeping and bitterly divisive issue in real life.

[2] Black Hawk Down has received much praise for its historical accuracy, and rightly so. The actual events of the Battle of Mogadishu are depicted almost flawlessly throughout the entire movie (being such a recent event, the Battle of Mogadishu was extremely well documented, and as a result it was possible to provide a sense of historical accuracy not possible in very many other conflicts). Despite some minor anachronisms (such as soldiers wearing helmets that had not yet been issued, etc.) the historical portrayal of the Battle of Mogadishu is extremely close to the actual event.

[3] What is not covered, or is simply skimmed over by the movie, are the events immediately prior to and after the Battle of Mogadishu. The text cards flesh out a little bit of the prologue and epilogue but fail to detail important information, specifically information about the aftermath of the war. The movie claims, in its final scene, that about 1000 Somalis were killed; the number may have been as high as 2000 killed and 4000 wounded (by American estimates). The movie has also come under much criticism for only portraying the American side of the conflict and barely mentioning or showing the Somali side and the thousands of lives lost or destroyed through the conflict. Still, the text cards do a decent job of giving the viewer some rudimentary information on the conflict.

[4] When Black Hawk Down states that a few weeks later, President Clinton withdrew the Army Rangers, it only begins to hint at the political fallout from the engagement. The movie fails to mention the tremendous impact that this conflict had on American foreign policy for the next decade. The mission, which was supposed to be an hour in length and a simple, surgical strike, turned into a nightmare for the soldiers, and resulted in the loss of 19 American lives. This caused a tremendous uproar in the United States; such a loss of life among U.S. troops in combat had not happened for years, and the American people were furious that the mission had gone so terribly wrong. President Clinton himself was appalled, and for the rest of his presidency was literally afraid to use ground troops in an engagement, preferring to instead use surgical air strikes to eliminate specific targets. This hesitancy was especially apparent in 1994 during the Rwandan Civil War, where Rwanda's Hutu militias slaughtered over a million of their ethnic rivals, the Tutsi. America, fearing a repeat of Somalia, did not involve itself militarily.

[5] Black Hawk Down also fails to mention that in Somalia, the confrontation was seen largely as a heroic victory for warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid. Despite the large loss of life, the Somalis (in their opinion) had managed to hold off a technologically advanced superpower and keep their regime intact. Immediately after the event, America began withdrawing its troops, leaving only a few soldiers in an auxiliary function, and just over a year later, all American troops had been withdrawn. Aidid was still in power at this time and would remain so until another Somali warlord killed him and took power. The fact that America withdrew immediately after the Battle of Mogadishu with its primary objectives not completed and Aidid's oppressive regime still in power suggested to many America's inability to secure victory, even against a smaller, militarily inferior nation. Many were quick to compare the conflict to America's involvement in Vietnam, and the inconclusive American withdrawal from that nation. Psychologically, the blow to the United States was enormous, and Aidid used this to his advantage in Somalia. A few years later, September 11 mastermind and notorious terrorist Osama bin Laden used America's hasty withdrawal from Somalia as an example of how Muslims worldwide could strike back against the United States and win. These factors all combined to create an unpleasant political crisis in the United States, and this not mentioned anywhere in Black Hawk Down.

[6] Also hinted at in Black Hawk Down but not delved into was America's moral responsibility (or lack thereof) to interfere with a sovereign nation's affairs. In Black Hawk Down, the only real questioning of America's foreign intervention comes when Sergeant Eversmann is asked by one of his men why they (American soldiers) are in Somalia, to which he replies, "Look, these people, they have no jobs, no food, no education, no future. I just figure that we have two things we can do. Help, or we can sit back and watch a country destroy itself on CNN." This is a common feature in American war movies -- the narrative focuses on the soldiers themselves and their exploits, rather than America's often questionable intervention in the given country (a parallel could be seen here to movies such as Full Metal Jacket -- soldiers occasionally question their roles and that of America in the conflict, but rarely are their objections explored). This is most likely to give the reader a more pure view of America's motives and objectives, while still voicing the concerns that soldiers have. This technique may also be used to conceal the fact that America was often unsuccessful in its objectives (in the Vietnam or Somali conflicts, for instance). In real life, virtually every foreign conflict that America has involved itself in, from World War One through the current Iraq War, has been highly questioned and criticized by many, and there is always a large anti-war lobby. Undoubtedly, soldiers also question the conflicts that they are involved in more often than movies would have us believe, and this is one area where Black Hawk Down unfortunately falls short.

[7] Black Hawk Down delivers an unparalleled look at modern conflict. From its bleak portrayal of third world countries to the gory and terrifying situations that American soldiers often find themselves in, to the almost flawless and historically accurate telling of the Battle of Mogadishu, Black Hawk Down is a very realistic and accurate picture of what American soldiers had to face during the Somali conflict and have to face in modern-day conflicts. Unfortunately, Black Hawk Down falls victim to many of the same techniques that so many other American war movies use -- it downplays the enemy side of the conflict, from casualties to motives, and does not even begin to hint at the effect that the Somali conflict had in America from a morale and political point of view. The movie does not look at America's moral responsibilities in great detail, nor does it delve into the feelings of the soldiers themselves regarding the conflict. Also, like most other war movies, Black Hawk Down does not hint at the fact that the conflict was, in many ways, a defeat for the United States. In spite of these deficiencies, however, Black Hawk Down is a very realistic, historically accurate portrayal of modern war and tells a relevant and powerful story in an almost flawless example of an American war movie.

Bolger, Daniel P. Savage Peace: Americans at War in the 1990s. Novato: Presidio P, 1995.

Bowden, Mark. "A Defining Battle." Black Hawk Down. 16 Nov. 1997. The Philadelphia Enquirer. 9 Dec. 2007. http://inquirer.philly.com/packages/somalia/nov16/rang16.asp

Johns, Michael. Preserving American Ties to Somalia. The Heritage Foundation. Heritage Foundation Reports, 1989. 9 Dec. 2007.