Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

On the Danger of Heroes: Black Hawk Down's Transformation from Narrative Journalism to Cinematic Spectacle

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

On the Danger of Heroes: Black Hawk Down's Transformation from Narrative Journalism to Cinematic Spectacle

Article excerpt

To the average American of October, 1993, Somalia was a place somewhere in Africa where the U.S. had done a good deed--an understanding largely shaped by broadcast media images. Somalia's video debut had come months earlier, with the bizarre sight of international news crews waiting on the beaches of Mogadishu to greet and interview invading U.S. Marines. Those Marines had, in large measure, been sent in response to TV images of starving children victimized by famine and political violence. But on October fourth a new video flooded the 24/7 news airways. A dead U.S. soldier, stripped to his skivvies, was seen dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by a seemingly endless mob of cheering Somalis. It was an arresting image, not just for its sensationalism but for its incongruence with previous images of U.S. "work in Somalia. While many Americans puzzled over this progression of images, journalist Mark Bowden was so taken aback he convinced his Philadelphia Inquirer editors to fund a series of articles examining the incident and its central players. Transformed into his 1999 New York Times bestseller, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, Bowden's work unfolds the multiple layers of intersecting conflict that mark an October third raid by U.S. Rangers and Delta operators to capture key officers of Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, a raid that killed nineteen U.S. soldiers--including the dragged soldier of the video--and as many as a thousand Somalis.

But the story's return to video image in 2002, as the Ridley Scott-directed blockbuster Black Hawk Down, was an even bigger success, bolstered no doubt by being the first significant war film released after 9/11. And while the film garnered the soldiers' respect and admiration, it completely erases the irreducible complexities the book evoked to explain the incident. This isn't the first time Hollywood has ruined a good book, of course, but it is an especially tragic swindle in this case. For Bowden shows the generic formulas of war fiction to be inadequate to understanding modern-day war, though they remain influential elements of the soldier's psyche, and thus when the film trades so heavily in these formulas and cliches it reinscribes their dangerous use both as a means to represent the experiences of those living through war and as a means for the public to conceptualize the means and ends of unconventional military conflict.

News video could not make sense of the trials and sorrows of these soldiers, so Bowden turned to a hybrid of journalism and narrative fiction--a form widely known as "narrative journalism"--to illuminate both the historical context of the battle and the event-history of the battle itself. The hybrid form was a conscious choice; Bowden later wrote, "I wanted to combine the authority of a historical narrative with the emotion of the memoir, and write a story that read like fiction but was true" (331-32). I would concede that he wrote such a book, rarely shying from sensitive analysis of infighting, miscommunication, misunderstanding, and miscalculation. But Ken Nolan's screenplay for the film (written, ironically, with Bowden's help) does a dangerous disservice by eliding all missteps in favor of cliched understandings of duty and bravery. For example, Bowden documents the way film and video games promote and shape some of the misconceptions and misunderstandings that lead soldiers and military planners to make easily avoidable mistakes, and part of the book's genius is its analysis and exposure of these limited views and their contributions to the battle. It's all the more ironic then, and sad, that the film restores these very same cliched understandings of war, perhaps contributing to another generation of failed occupations--which so many years of post-invasion struggle in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to bear out. One film did not do this work alone, of course, nor can this essay pretend to fix a national mental habit, but it can expose the way a film like Black Hawk Down shapes our expectations of war. …

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