TCS Daily

Nobility In Failure

By Scott McLucas - January 22, 2002 12:00 AM

There is a nobility in military failure that Hollywood loves to celebrate. Arnhem, Gallipoli. The Alamo. Khartoum. The latest in the genre, and the number one film in America, is director Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down. An adaptation of Mark Bowden's eponymous best-selling book, it tells the remarkable story of a tiny force of U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force operators engaged in a teeth-rattling firefight in Somalia in 1993.

The Somalia episode, a failed attempt to kidnap Somali warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed, has been debated broadly in political circles. Defense hawks cite it the case for the Powell Doctrine. (Rather than entering a conflict with the comfort and confidence of overwhelming force, the Somali affair was small-scale, or in the ironic military parlance "low-intensity." On the flip side, it is cited as the case against "nation building." Critics of President Clinton have cited it as proof of his half-heartedness when it came to matters military. And it is the poster child for America's aversion to casualties; American forces backed down not because 18 men were killed, but because they were killed on national TV.

But the story in the film is not one of geopolitics, of President Bush's decision to intervene in Somalia, and President Clinton's decision to leave it. There are no panoramic shots of the Pentagon, or the White House, of high-level councils of war that are ritual for Hollywood. No West Wing style "Damn the polls, we just have to do what's right."

There is only passing reference to the commander on the ground's request to the Pentagon for heavier armor and AC-130 gunships ("Without it our forces are at risk," General Thomas Montgomery presciently said at the time. Clinton Defense Secretary Les Aspin said no, and resigned a few months later.) There isn't a clear answer to the question of whether it was a victory or a defeat. The ratio of 1,000 Somalis to 18 Americans killed points to a victory, but the U.S. withdrawal shortly thereafter suggests otherwise. The filmmakers also avoided reworking the film to accommodate recent reports of Osama bin Laden's presence and participation in the bloody fight.

These are not the stories of Black Hawk Down. It is instead the story of a band of brothers on a mission that the audience knows will fail. As the Delta force and Rangers get cut off by an angry mob, and split into groups, there is only a question of who will make it out and who will not. The soldiers are not fighting for glory, but for survival, and for each other.

The movie is refreshingly free of political correctness. The UN troops are suitably feckless. The U.S. soldiers are scared (with the exception of the Delta Force operators). The crowds of Somalis are unrelenting and brutal. The Somali-American community has called for a boycott to protest this depiction, yet no scene in the movie depicts the crowds as chillingly as the news footage of the actual battle. Many participants have also praised the movie's depiction of events.

The military participated in the filming of the movie, giving it added realism. They did so because the military celebrates heroism in defeat, even more so than Hollywood. During World War I, the British awarded thirty-nine Victoria Crosses at Gallipoli. In World War II, the VC went to five paratroopers who held the bridge at Arnhem as long as they could. By contrast, only one Victoria Cross was awarded for D-Day.

The Medal of Honor, America's premier and stingiest award for gallantry, similarly rewards those in losing battles. The first 72 hours of D-Day saw only four Americans awarded the Medal of Honor. The celebrated 101st Airborne received two Medals of Honor in the entire war. By contrast, for the 17-hour firefight in Mogadishu, the United States awarded two Medals of Honor, to the Delta sergeants who roped down to their certain deaths to protect the wounded pilots of one of the downed Black Hawk helicopters. The movie is a celebration of their sacrifice, and love for their fellow soldiers. And rightfully so.

Scott McLucas is a former managing editor of the National Interest.

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