Soldiers on the Screen

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They're just kids-late teens, early 20s. They mainly believe in God, country and kicking ass. About religion and patriotism they are straightforward and uncomplicated, pretty typically American. Kicking ass is a different matter. At that, a Ranger or a Delta Force soldier is a world-class expert-superbly trained, heedlessly brave, a figure set very much apart from the rest of us.

This much is made vividly clear in Mark Bowden's powerful best seller, Black Hawk Down, which is a virtually minute-by-minute reconstruction of the helicopter and humvee incursion into Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993, that resulted in unacceptable American casualties and geopolitical repercussions still rumbling today. Director Ridley Scott's terrific movie adaptation is only inferentially concerned with the motives and back story Bowden provided. It also lacks a movie-star hero-a Tom Cruise or a Mel Gibson-reassuring us, simply by showing up, that everything will come out O.K. in the end.

What the film, which was written largely in cries, whispers and expletives by Ken Nolan and Steven Zaillian, stresses instead is the sheer anarchy of war: bloody, terrifying, tragic and meaningless except as a test of a fighting man's virtue. Like every other great war movie, Black Hawk Down succeeds because it becomes, almost unintentionally, an antiwar movie-or at least one that can be read that way by anyone so inclined-a relentless catalog of the many absurd and accidental ways you can die when you are ordered into harm's way.

That was especially true in Somalia in the fall of 1993. At that point, the 25,000 U.S. Marines who had brought order to the distribution of food in a starving land had been withdrawn. The U.N. peacekeeping force on the ground was essentially impotent to intervene in the clan warfare that had brought the country well over the edge of chaos. The most powerful of the clans was the Habr Gadir, led by Mohammed Farrah Aidid. It became American policy to arrest him and the clan's other leaders and subdue its "militia."

Major General William F. Garrison (played in the movie by playwright Sam Shepard) was three weeks past the deadline Washington had set for completing that task when he got solid intelligence that two Habr Gadir "Tier One Personalities" and a raft of smaller fry were meeting near the Bakhara Market in "Mog." He ordered a midafternoon assault-Delta Force troops roping down out of helicopters to make the grab, Rangers securing a perimeter around the building. The captives would then be loaded into an armored convoy and taken back to the airfield headquarters.

The U.S. troops, too long cooped up, were spoiling for this fight. Most had not been under fire, but no matter. They knew they were good-superbly equipped and well led. And, indeed, the Delta Force quickly and painlessly accomplished the extraction. Subsequently, everything that could go wrong did. One of the first Rangers out of the helicopter missed the rope and free-fell 18 m to the ground. The ground convoy got hopelessly lost in the debris-strewn streets of the city. Pinned down, the American soldiers began to attract vast crowds of armed clansmen, often advancing behind human shields of women and children. One Black Hawk helicopter was shot from the sky, then another. The Ranger creed holds that no fallen comrade, even a dead one, can be left behind. The Americans stood by that oath.

The fire fight would extend for an astonishing 15 hours, virtually without a break. Eighteen Americans would die, 73 more would be wounded-well over half the troops on the scene. But you cannot imagine the hot chaos those chilling figures contain.

Ridley Scott, however, could. A bluff, down-to-earth Brit who started out to be a painter (he still does some of his own production sketches), he has become a master of all kinds of moviemaking-the visionary (Blade Runner), the intimate (Thelma & Louise) and the spectacular (Gladiator). He has not, however, done anything quite as grimly realistic as Black Hawk Down. Like most of his subjects here, Scott is from a working-class background, and he says that what he liked about this film was the simplicity of his characters-"they're like highly trained athletes, really." He is also something of an old-fashioned British traveler, the kind of man who relishes harsh conditions in odd corners of the world. Art director Arthur Max's brilliant re-creation of battered Mogadishu (built in Morocco) concentrated Scott's mind, eye and energies most wonderfully. More than anything else, he says, he wanted "to create an anatomy of a war that could be any war," and to that end he stripped away all talk, all thought, of this fight's larger geopolitical implications. Real soldiers don't think much about such matters, and neither do Scott's. Why, he wonders, "do we need such background when we have such a strong foreground?"

Good question, though not one that's comfortably answered by a brutal film that requires us to embrace the same deadly chaos the soldiers encountered eight years ago-a battle without visible turning points, a battle no one could map, a battle in which the hero is the group whose members become so grime smeared and blood spattered that audiences will have trouble identifying the players.

There are powerful incidents-a downed chopper pilot captured by a raging mob, the bloody struggle to save the life of a soldier whose artery has been severed. There's even a presumptive hero, Josh Hartnett's Sergeant Matt Eversmann, leading a Ranger "chalk" (small unit) into combat for the first time. He's a guy who thinks maybe they can eventually "make a difference" in Somalia. But his unit catches much of the movie's hard luck, and by its end he sadly realizes what every soldier finally learns-that the only principle anyone fights for is existential: your own survival and that of your buddies.

That does not mean, however, that the troops in Mogadishu fought badly. On the contrary, they took everything the enemy threw at them, improvising their own deadly responses on the run. Under fire, they were, indeed, all that they could be. Afterward, Garrison pointed out that they carried out their mission successfully (he got his "personalities") and killed at least 300 of the enemy. It merely took more time and American blood than they ever imagined it would. In other words, you can see Black Hawk Down as antiwar if you're so inclined, but you cannot possibly see it as antisoldier. It is precisely that ambiguity that makes this picture such a compelling experience.