In the aftermath of September 11 there has been incessant discussion about cultural uplift. Indeed, there is much that can be said about the heroic acts of firefighters, police officers and emergency workers at the World Trade Center site.
Curiously the discussion has not stopped there. Hollywood is now involved in redressing the past and, as one might expect from recent history, Hollywood has its own unique take on historical events.
On October 3, 1993 a U.S. raid in Somalia resulted in the loss of 18 special operation forces and two Black Hawk helicopters. Not only was this a tragic event, it precipitated a withdrawal of American forces and a reevaluation of American policy.
In a soon to be released film, “Black Hawk Down”, this tragic episode is recreated in all its harrowing and violent detail. The purpose of this exercise – as the producer Jerry Bruckheimer has noted – is to reposition the events in Somalia as a heroic tale of American soldiers in battle. Walt Disney Studio Chief Joe Roth noted, that the Somalia affair “was not America’s darkest hour, but America’s brightest hour”.
On this point I must demur. While I recognize and greatly admire the heroism of America’s fighting forces, it is also important to note that the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, namely President Clinton, put the nation’s soldiers in an untenable position without sufficient backup or an exit strategy. Notwithstanding, the heroism displayed by our fighting men, this was by any measure a tragic occasion that could have been avoided.
U.S. military brass have cooperated with the filmmakers because, as has been noted, they want to “set the record straight”. It may also be the case that they wish to rewrite the history of an embarrassing U.S. experience.
After all, the Somalia affair began as a U.N. humanitarian operation to assist starving people. Television images of children with distended stomachs prompted an outpouring of American concern. But that humanitarian mission moved seamlessly to battle when rogue gangs in the employ of Somalia warlords stole the food or used the food as a tool for recruitment into their organizations.
The film, which attempts to convey verisimilitude, tells only part of a complicated story that might be characterized by the phrase “no good deed goes unpunished”.
Although it is difficult to establish a causal relationship between Somalia and September 11, the grisly, enduring image of an American soldier’s body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by jubilant Somalis did much to precipitate the withdrawal of U.S. forces and lead to the belief in the Islamic world that America was a toothless tiger unable or unwilling to defend its fallen guardians.
Of course, it was true that these young American combatants were committed to one another, as is often the case in battle. Yet one is left wondering whether these American lives had to be lost at all. One military adviser in Somalia argued that the American soldiers “kicked their butt, but that was at a tactical level. At the strategic and political level, when you have some casualties, it looks like there was a problem”.
There was a problem, and it was a problem of not recognizing the relationship between tactical and strategic goals. It was the same problem the U.S. faced in Vietnam and it was the problem the Clinton administration had to confront in the Balkans.
I’m pleased that Disney is inclined to make films of substantive issues, but it is disturbing that in its attempt to “contextualize history”, the studio is misleading the nation about a tragic misadventure. In fact, Somalia was an event that may be related to and a catalyst for other tragedies.
Surely I would never deny the importance of heroism in battle, but just as we should recognize and honor our heroes we should also respect the truthfulness of the events surrounding their heroic acts. In the case of “Black Hawk Down” we get a lot of the former and almost nothing of the latter.