Sunday, 16 December 2012

Black Hawk Down: A study in racism, jingoism and propaganda.


I’ve just been reading a lovely little book, The Other Side Of Truth, by South African author Beverley Naidoo. It’s about a couple of Nigerian kids, forced into exile in Britain in the mid-nineties after their father’s efforts to expose official corruption lead to attempts on his life and the murder of his wife, the kids’ mother.

What struck me most about this slim novel wasn’t the main story, which is affecting enough, but the side tale of what befell a Somali girl named Mariam. Her hometown, Hargeisa in northern Somalia, was attacked by the army of dictator Siad Barre in 1988 and her father arrested, while many other males were killed as “rebels”. Later on, the town was heavily bombed by Siad Barre’s air force and most of the population forced to flee (on foot) a thousand gruelling kilometres across country to the capital, Mogadishu. Many of those who survived the ordeal (who did not include Mariam’s newborn sibling) went by ship into refugee camps in Kenya, and Mariam was one of those “fortunate” enough to get to political asylum in Britain. Her brother, embittered, decided to go back to Somalia and was never heard from again.

The story is based on fact. Siad Barre was a perfectly genuine monster, whose forces did massacre people in huge numbers (an estimated fifty to sixty thousand were killed) and bomb Hargeisa. And what was his punishment from the “world community” for his crimes? Well...his patron, the United States of America, gave him $50 million worth of military equipment a year to continue in power.

For one thing, he was one of Washington’s key allies in a strategic location. For another, he parcelled out Somalia to American oil companies, which pretty much made him indispensable.

Unfortunately for his backers, though, the Somalis themselves did not particularly relish living under his boot, and by the late 1980s there were several different factions in rebellion against him. In the hoary old tradition of “divide and rule”, Siad Barre tried to play off one Somali clan against another (Somali society is divided into clans, unlike tribes as in most of the rest of Africa). Soon enough, the clans hated each other as much as they hated Siad Barre. It didn’t save him though.

By 1991, then, Siad Barre had been driven into exile, and Somalia collapsed into civil war. The various clan armies attacked each other’s food sources (agriculture had already suffered under Barre’s dictatorship, both because people had been driven off their farms by fighting and because food sources had been targeted by the dictator’s army). Along with a prolonged drought, famine threatened the land.

Among the various factions involved in the power struggle in Somalia at the time was one under a man named Mohammad Farah Aideed. He had formerly been a general under Barre and then, for several years, Somali ambassador in India. He had then been jailed by Barre because he was becoming too powerful. And it was the forces of Aideed’s Somali National Alliance which took the lead in driving out Barre in the end.

After the dictator’s departure, chaos and anarchy pretty much took over Somalia. The competing clans fought each other bitterly for power, and parts of Mogadishu became divided between Aideed and his competitors. The UN stepped in with a famine relief effort, and by 1992 the famine was pretty much over; about 90% of the food shipments were getting through.

In the initial stages of the post-Barre civil war, the US had backed Aideed; but then it discovered that he wasn’t exactly easy to control. Now Aideed wasn’t an Islamic fundamentalist – far from it (Islamic fundamentalism was not a feature of the Somali version of the religion, a fault Western meddling would subsequently correct). He was a nationalist most of all, and he decided that the attempts by the “international community” to compel the competing factions to form a unity government were a recipe for disaster, with the final product being too weak to resist colonial occupation by another name. At the same time, as the chief faction to have ousted Barre, he thought his own group deserved to get the maximum share of power. Therefore, he couldn’t be co-opted. And in the tradition of other former American assets like Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, he became one of the US’ long list of Public Enemies Number One.

Why was the US interested? Did you forget those oil wells?

By this time there was a multinational “peacekeeping” force in Somalia, including Pakistanis, Malaysians, and an American force of twenty eight thousand soldiers, which kept itself separate from the rest of the “international” force. Keep in mind that at this time the famine had been licked. Active inter-clan fighting had ebbed, with most of the militias having secured their own spheres of influence. And yet, the US was determined to go after the Aideed faction, to the exclusion of all the other militias and warlords.

Meanwhile, the American war machine hadn’t exactly been inactive. During the course of the year 1992, American helicopter-borne troops had killed approximately ten thousand Somalis – mostly civilians, including women and children – a figure only later admitted by the US, after the troops had been withdrawn. Among these were between fifty and seventy elders of Aideed’s Habr Gidir clan, who were killed in the quite deliberate bombing of a gathering meant to hammer out modalities for peace talks (this bombing was the reason why even rival militias sent troops to aid Aideed in his fight against the Americans). 

Meanwhile, Aideed’s faction ambushed Pakistani troops, killing 24 of them, whereupon the Americans put a $25000 bounty on his head for “war crimes”. This episode is mentioned in the beginning of the movie, but not the reason, which was that the soldiers had gone to shut down a radio station controlled by Aideed while not touching stations controlled by rival warlords, an action Aideed took as an act of biased hostility.

It was with this background that on the afternoon of 3 October 1992, American Army Rangers and Delta Force troops launched a heliborne and ground assault on a crowded market in the Aideed-controlled part of Mogadishu, in an attempt to capture two of his lieutenants. It was supposed to be an in-and-out operation. What happened instead was a bloodbath.  After two US Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by rocket-propelled grenades, 18 American super-soldiers, one Malaysian and one Pakistani (ordinary, human) soldiers, and an unknown number of Somalis (including militiamen and ordinary human men, women and children) were killed in fighting that lasted through the day and into the night.

This little episode, which became known as the Battle of Mogadishu, led to the subsequent withdrawal of US troops from Somalia and the end of the “relief effort”. It was also the basis of a book called Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden, and later on – in 2001-02 – made into a Hollywood film by the same name.



In the course of this article, I shall examine how this film is an exercise in propaganda, racism, and the glorification of war and the heroic soldier myth, to which I have already alluded elsewhere.

The first thing about the movie is that its production was hastened to be released early in 2002, to take advantage of the post-11/9 jingoistic rush in the US and the eagerness for war. At least part of this can be safely ascribed to the producers’ greed and desire to take advantage of what they must have seen as a unique money-making opportunity. But this does not explain the fact that they had the full cooperation of the Pentagon in the making of the movie, with the actors playing American soldiers getting special Ranger training, and equipment being liberally provided. Nor does it explain why Bush administration officials (including Dick Cheney) were shown the preview of the film and given the right to edit it to suit their desires.

However, if one takes the film as thinly-veiled military recruitment propaganda, it does make complete sense. It also makes immediate sense why the film (according to Mark Bowden, the author of the book) sharply deviated from what he had written about the incompetence of the competing branches of the US military, which had led to the soldiers finding themselves stranded in the midst of a hostile sea of enemy militiamen and armed civilians. If you want pro-military propaganda, you don’t advertise the military’s feet of clay.

This is also why Brendan Sexton, who played the part of “Alphabet” in the film, claimed that

many scenes asking hard questions of the U.S. troops with regard to the violent realities of war, the true purpose of their mission in Somalia, etc., were cut out

He had also strongly opposed the film’s pro-war message.

Given this, then, it isn’t exactly surprising that the background I have described in the first part of this article is completely missing in the movie. In fact, the film begins with subtitles claiming the Aideed militia was starving the Somali population and was hijacking food supplies for itself – despite the actual historical fact that, as I said, by the time of the action, the famine had already eased and most food supplies were reaching the intended recipients.

Similarly, if we acknowledge that the purpose of the film is American chest-thumping, it no longer is surprising that the role of Pakistani and Malaysian soldiers is minimised to the vanishing point, though it was the latter who finally extricated the trapped US forces. As General Pervez Musharraf was to write later,

Regrettably, the film Black Hawk Down ignores the role of Pakistan in Somalia. When U.S. troops were trapped in the thickly populated Madina Bazaar area of Mogadishu, it was the Seventh Frontier Force Regiment of the Pakistan Army that reached out and extricated them...we deserved equal, if not more, credit; but the filmmakers depicted the incident as involving only Americans.

With the film structured round the narrative of American troops fighting a humanitarian campaign to provide succour to starving Somalis and fighting an evil warlord, the soldiers are obviously the good guys. There’s no need to set the stage for character development, and there is no character development. In fact, there is so little character development – even among the heroic American heroes – that their names were written on their helmet covers so the viewer could tell them apart. Because, you know, they look the same otherwise.

[Also, for a film which depends largely on the heroism of its protagonists, there's the inconvenient fact that by the time it was made, one of the survivors of the battle was in jail serving a thirty year sentence for raping his own pre-teen daughter. Therefore, the army


pressured the filmmakers of Black Hawk Down to change the name of the war hero portrayed by Ewan McGregor -- because the real-life soldier is serving a 30-year prison term for rape and child molestation ]

But even this level of characterisation is missing from the other side of the narrative – the Somalis who provide the opposition for the heroes to fight, in effect, to prove their heroism. In the film, the Somalis are shown as an amorphous mass of yelling, shooting mooks whose only purpose seems to be to get shot and die. These Somalis are not civilians. They do not die because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. They die, on the other hand, because they dare oppose the designated heroes, and they are carefully dehumanised in the manner of video game characters. When an American soldier dies, it’s a tragedy, and the film shows the flowing blood and the agony. 




When a Somali dies, he just falls down and disappears.

Since these Somalis aren't innocents caught in the fighting, but people who are killed because they dare oppose the good guys, there's no place for Mark Bowden's observation that

"The Task Force Ranger commander, Maj. Gen. William F. Garrison, testifying before the Senate, said that if his men had put any more ammunition into the city 'we would have sunk it.' Most soldiers interviewed said that through most of the fight they fired on crowds and eventually at anyone and anything they saw."

Nor do we get to see the heroes' less than heroic behaviour:


US troops ... took a family hostage and threatened to kill them unless Somali militias backed off, none of which is portrayed in the film.

No attempt, is made to examine even what the film itself depicts: for instance, the question of why the Somalis should fight the Americans allegedly bringing aid to their people, making frontal charges into machine-gun fire; or why a boy sitting on a hillside would act as a lookout for the militia.



Nor do you find mention of the fact that

...the role of the helicopter is inexcusably minimized (sic). Somalis hated the Black Hawks because, Bowden writes in his book, they often “destroyed whole neighborhoods (sic), blew down market stalls, and terrorized (sic) cattle. Women walking the streets would have their colorful (sic) robes blown off. Some had infants torn from their arms by the powerful updraft."

That question, actually, cannot be discussed in this kind of movie, because discussing it will immediately muddy the waters. Uncomfortable questions do not belong in a black-and-white narrative of this nature.

I meant the black-and white bit literally. The American characters in the film are – with just one exception, who has a tiny role, in which he echoes a militarist, pro-war viewpoint – uniformly white. I suppose it is possible that the original US troops were all but one white, though I think it not very likely. But –

But, the Somalis, on the other hand, are black. Very black. They are also led by a very, very black man wearing black sunglasses and black clothes, just in case the viewer didn’t get the point already.

Actually, the very blackness of the Somali characters is a giveaway of the intentions of the filmmakers. Somalis are East Africans, and not very dark; certainly nowhere near the very, very dark skin of the “Somali” militant leader. Nor do their features match the extremely West African cast of his countenance. By this time, it won’t even come as a surprise to the reader to learn that the language used by the “Somalis” in the film isn’t Somali, either – just as the film wasn’t made in Somalia or anywhere near. It was shot right across the continent in Morocco.

But, hey, it’s just Africa. All the same, right?

No. Actually, it isn’t.

That brings us round to a discussion of the racism inherent in the film. This racism can be seen on several levels. One level is the obvious one, the black people being killed by white heroes thing. That’s actually a straw-man argument, meant to be easily countered; and those who claim that the movie is set in Africa, and therefore the “villains” are Africans, are countering it as they are meant to. But the actual racism goes much deeper than that.

First is the inherent racism in casting non-Somali actors as Somalis. In fact, according to Bowden himself, not a single Somali was even used as a consultant in the movie – let alone allowed to act in it. Now suppose one was making a movie about, oh, Second World War SS troops...and casting Portuguese actors as the Nazis, without the input of a single German. Would this be acceptable? Of course not. But the makers of this film are essentially saying “We don’t give a damn about the Somalis. They don’t matter to us except to help form the basis of our story.” If this is not racism, what is?

Then there is the racism implicit in the “white people helping black people” line of storytelling. This is, of course, a permanent staple of Hollywood films set anywhere in the planet outside the US or Europe. Non-whites can’t actually do anything for themselves; their own tales have to have a white person, if only as an observer, to give them direction and meaning. This is even true in films like Hotel Rwanda where Nick Nolte’s character was a “noble white person”, an observer who was white, Western, and did his best even at the risk of his own life. In Black Hawk Down, the end has to show grateful Somalis helping escort the heroic American soldiers to safety. It does not matter that this never actually happened; without this obligatory scene thrown in, the heroism of the American troops is meaningless. What’s the point of heroism if it makes no difference to anyone?

The third shade of racism in the film is the argument of how the Somalis weren’t “appreciative” of the American efforts to help them. This is, in fact, a recurrent imperialist line applied to occupied peoples over the centuries. Today, it can be heard over and over applied to Afghans who resist American occupation. Ten years from now, when the Imperial defeat in Afghanistan can no longer be denied, one can readily imagine the films which will be made, depicting heroic American forces struggling to help the unappreciative ingrate Afghans. And just as in the story of Somalia in Black Hawk Down, it will be a lie. 

The fourth is the depiction of Somalis as mindless killing machines whose only desire seems to be to inflict mayhem on the Americans, without any smidgen of nuance. The audience is pushed into hating the Somalis, who are shown to be “animals” who have no compunction about beating a (heroic) American helicopter pilot to death. Such people, one might say, deserve to die.

Fifth is the fairly openly implied suggestion that the Somalis are “less civilised” because they fought with more primitive weapons. One might imagine that people who fought the best-trained, best-armed soldiers in the world with nothing more than old AK 47s and rocket propelled grenades would be called the heroes, but of course that’s not the intention of the makers of this movie. As it happens, the Somalis themselves tended to appreciate the fact that Aideed’s militiamen downed two of the hated helicopters (and damaged three others) using just rocket-propelled grenades. But the movie wasn’t, obviously, made for them.



On the other hand, the fact that the Somalis fought with more primitive weapons is jacked into the imperialist, jingoistic tone of this film. The side with higher technology, the viewer is assured, is superior. Therefore, any war it chooses to prosecute is ipso facto a just war, and any side which opposes it is evil. And while evil, its lesser technology means that it can be fought and overcome. An enemy which can be vanquished is essential for this kind of story. An invincible, or nearly so, enemy does not attract recruits to the colours.

Compared to all of this, the little fact that the Somalis in this film are called “skinnies” (from Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers, which used that term for the enemy alien "bugs") hardly even forms a blip on the racism radar.

As interesting as what’s shown in the film is what it does not show. Consider these photos of the aftermath of the actual battle, depicting the corpse of one of the American soldiers being dragged by Somali civilians through the streets. That they are civilians is clear - there is not a single weapon in sight, but there are women and children in the crowd. 





 Of course, showing this would mean

-       That one would have to ask why the civilians the dead soldier was allegedly there to help would hate him so and
-       That prospective recruits to uniform would have second thoughts about joining up.

Hence, no such thing was shown.

Besides, as Mark Bowden  said, speaking about the same episode, while the Somalis did desecrate corpses,  


the Rangers laughed when one woman was shot so severely she "no longer even looked like a human being".

The Rangers were the good guys, you may recall.

The aftermath:

In the aftermath of the American and UN withdrawal, Aideed declared himself President of Somalia, though he never managed to establish his authority. He was killed in a factional clash with another warlord militia in 1996, and succeeded by his son...who was an American citizen and an ex-Marine to boot. Somalia continued in flux for about another decade, lacking a government, until a coalition of conservative Islamic factions called the Islamic Court Unions took power and introduced a modicum of stability.

But this was 2006, and the Bush regime wanted Somalia back. So (on the pretext of fighting Al Qaeda) it ordered an invasion by Ethiopia, Somalia’s ancient enemy, which pushed out the ICU. With the exit of the moderate conservative ICU, the stage was left open for an extreme Islamic faction, called Al Shabaab, which launched an offensive against Ethiopian, Kenyan and Ugandan occupation forces and fights on to this day. Meanwhile, the warlords are far from gone, and their corruption and factionalism is as strong as ever.

And, meanwhile, Somalia’s only real industry today is piracy.

The makers of Black Hawk Down need to answer a simple question. If their movie is not racist, jingoistic trash, why – when bootleg copies were shown in Mogadishu – did the audience cheer each time an American soldier was killed?

I suspect there will be no answer forthcoming.


Update: Here is a great article discussing the historical background to the Battle of Mogadishu, going back to the Cold War.

16 comments:

  1. sweet, will read in full when more awake ... might use this as post for first blog on another site we are starting in EU ... obviously these american sites are not seeming to have much effect. you don't have to publish this, i have no other way of sending you note or pm ... really hate Multiply being gone for that reason

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  2. Another great entry. I think your blog should be compulsory reading for North American students.

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  3. yes this will be my first post, get you link when published.

    i can feel their anger and understand it, just like the pig of the al Nusra the Syrian Army killed in line of fire other day ... i danced dabke

    sad imperialism has reduced humanity to this level

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  4. Your blogs always make me sad. Its not that I don't know awful things happen, its just that when I come here I'm not allowed to forget or ignore it. I agree with Catz Trio, these should be compulsory reading, but not just for North Americans, for the whole of the western world, and why stop at students? , sometimes its the older pwople who need reminding not the young. Anyway........its a brilliant read.

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  5. Have always been skeptical of the US version of this, but it is one thing to know something is a lie and quite another to know the truth. Thank you for your continuing education. Agree with the above poster, this should be reading for all of the western world, but it would be diluted and "sanitized". You know by now Al Jazeera has bought the US tv channel owned by Al Gore. I wonder if they will start to tell the truth from a world view.

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  6. Great take on a horrible movie, and thanks for all the detailed background info. Keep on telling the truth as you discover it in your own way and time. I also agree that this should be required reading, but that most likely will never happen.

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  7. Its amazing that people will believe any garbage they read online. Nice analysis Bill. Coming from someone who wasn't there. Of course the movie was not entirely accurate. Its based on a book written by someone else who wasn't there. But its easier to be a keyboard warrior than to put boots on the ground. You should take inventory of yourself and maybe come to the realization that the measure of a man is not 75 wpm.

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  8. So, I take it you only read history from people who were there on the scene and reporting, do you?

    I really like it when people get all passive-aggressive: "How do YOU know? Were YOU there?

    Such people are pathetic.

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  9. Sorry. Reality doesn't mimic what is taught in liberal propaganda factories (IE classrooms). The somalies are savages, accurately depicted as such in the movie. No wonder that country still can't tie its own shoes. Racist? Hardly. The Ethiopians are doing just fine, thanks. You know why? They aren't 'governed' by savage muslims. True story.

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    1. I love your ignorance. Really, this kind of stupidity reminds me of just what I'm fighting against, and why the fight is worth pursuing.

      Here, for your information, is how well the Ethiopians are doing.

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    2. oh americans,you always blame your problems on others,at first it was the communists and now muslims.

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  10. Wah Wah... imperialism.... wah wah... racism. Just regurgitating buzzwords that serve as excuses for inferior people being taught a lesson in civics. Racist? Hardly. Ethiopia, just right next door, shares the same skin color- but they have a civilization to be proud of. The sooner the Somalies throw off the chains of Islam, the sooner they may be welcomed back to humanity.

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    1. Mind if I share this response around online among the Ethiopian emigre community? They'll have a good laugh.

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  11. I think the film lost the oportunity to being the second "A bridge too far", a film about military incompetence. Instead, it only depicts tipicaly heroic US soldiers against hordes of "savage" muslims. There are some hints of another intention in the film-makers mind: in the beginning, a Blackhawks sees some bandits stealing humanitarian relief, but they do nothing becouse "it's not their problem" (when they could had frighten the thieves easily).

    Catalan Roger

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  12. as a Somali this movie is grossly racist to the point on which made me sick then i thought if a american travel to some distant powerful country (which invaded and cause mass chaos to an unstable political situation) and found that most of their cultural understanding was based on movie which depicted the war of independence as Russian speaking Russians fighting the British .

    trully disgusting film actually made me so sad not because the obvious pandering to the die hard gun-toting all patrotic american who (hates Muslims extremely but would never say so) only see black ARABS.

    one day future generations will look back and be horrified then change the channel then look for something to occupy their short attention span.

    a Somali man

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  13. and i thought it was the greatest movies ever.it was my favourite movie but now i have changed my mind.

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