Black Hawk Down

Mark Schone reviews Mark Bowden's nonfiction book "Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War".

Published March 11, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

One reason movies about war are so hot right now is that few American males
have had to face the real thing. For a man who's never braved enemy fire,
who's never been "tested," "The Thin Red Line" and "Saving Private Ryan"
can seem like parables of character. Would I, the ticket buyer wonders, be
willing to die for a nameless hill or an unknown soldier?

But the blood in these filmed battles is spilled for a larger cause, by men
of every station. In real time, long after the last Good War, the dying
hasn't stopped; now, though, it's done by blue-collar volunteers in morally
muddy police actions. Never has the murk been more obscure than it was in
Somalia on Oct. 3, 1993, when, in the American military's nastiest
firefight since Vietnam, 19 soldiers died in the name of little more than
one another. An incident that began with two downed helicopters ended with
American casualties being dragged through the streets and American policymakers scrambling for the exit.

"Black Hawk Down" re-creates, with exacting detail, the gory confusion of
that day, when questions of heroism were far from cinematic. Mark
Bowden's work ethic inspired him to track down 50 veterans of the conflict
and bring back Mogadishu whole. He conveys the sound and the feel of
killing -- of what it's like to watch your bullets splash through a
stranger and of the claustrophobic panic you feel when the strangers you
are shooting at begin to close in. He established such trust with his
subjects that they told him about everything from the banal ("It felt like
a movie") to the brutal (trying to plug a spurting artery with an index
finger) to the embarrassing (masturbation in combat). We're reminded that
these are young men with excess animal energy that surfaces in both
violence and sex, that the flip side of valor is an evil carnal thrill.
"That was the secret core of all the hoo-ah ... esprit," Bowden writes.
"Permission ... to break the biggest social taboo of all. You killed

Mogadishu has already inspired several books and documentaries, with
another set for CNN in April. Spy planes and surveillance cameras made it
one of history's best-documented battles. Bowden's rendering, however, is
the most accurate and extensive, because in addition to first-person
accounts he wrangled access to confidential Army action logs. He also moves
beyond Soldier of Fortune-style bravado, interviewing dozens of enemy
combatants so that we can learn why a thousand angry Somalis threw
themselves into the high-tech maw of the Army Rangers, sacrificing their
lives just to teach the U.S. government a lesson. Sometimes the book bogs
down in this conscientious detail -- Bowden wants us to know where every
man was at every minute. So much data and so many different dramas and
casts are braided into this one engagement that the account becomes
confusing; more maps and recaps might've helped keep it straight.

This is the sort of crowded time line that Web sites were invented for. In
fact, the Rangers have used Bowden's original Philadelphia Inquirer
articles as the core of their own Mogadishu cyber-memorial, linking the
text to maps and bios in a shorter, tighter version of events. But if
Bowden had also opted for simplicity, imposing a dramatic arc on confusion
and paring away supporting characters, he'd have left some men's last hours
unremembered. In other words, if he'd made his peerless record of this
forgotten war more like a Web site, he'd have been making it more like a
war movie. And that will happen soon enough anyway, because Jerry
Bruckheimer has already bought the rights to the book.

By Mark Schone

Mark Schone is Salon's executive news editor.

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