Shock Troops

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 18, 2002

Don't turn to Ridley Scott's stunning "Black Hawk Down" for lectures on geopolitics, the tarnished Clinton foreign-policy legacy or theories of terrorist conspiracy. The movie reflects not a public intellectual's view of the world, but Sgt. "Hoot" Hooten's. Hoot's the guy with the M-16 who doesn't make decisions but only tries to survive them.

The movie, then, may disappoint pundits and op-ed cowboys and all the men in gray suits and black shoes who so self-confidently throng this city's streets over the lunch hour. It teaches stuff they don't know, only the smallest and most bitter of lessons: that ammunition is more important than water, that cover is more important than concealment, and that the good die young.

"Black Hawk Down" re-creates war at the micro level, as experienced by Army Rangers and Delta Force commandos on the ground in Mogadishu, Somalia, Oct. 3, 1993. On that day, a routine if dangerous mission slated to last an hour fell apart in the worst possible way. The young soldiers found themselves the targets of what can only be described as a citywide homicidal rage, in which every angry Somali with a Soviet-bloc assault rifle or a rocket-propelled grenade launcher petitioned his grievance in lead and warheads.

The soldiers, initially deployed to represent their country's humanitarian instincts toward famine relief, had by this time become policemen, hunting a powerful warlord who usurped United Nations food supply efforts. Now they found themselves in a pitched battle. For 15 hours they sheltered in the ruins of the city, scampered to consolidate, rescue their wounded and collect their dead, shot at everything that was shooting at them, and prayed for deliverance.

When it finally arrived early the next morning, 18 Americans and an estimated 1,000 Somalis were dead and the city had been turned into a warscape resembling Stalingrad. It was the worst single day of combat for American soldiers since the Vietnam War, and even if the job the young men had been sent to do was accomplished, that achievement – in the way these things always seem to go – turned out to be largely meaningless.

You may be impelled to ask: What was the point? But you probably won't have time while the film is onscreen. The movie doesn't moralize, and its political meanings may be arrived at only by laborious inference. It's too intense to let the rational part of your brain gear up; instead, you are simply there, scurrying, ducking, wishing you had more ammunition, luck or courage, and wishing the whole thing would end. You come out shaking and weak.

Shot in Morocco with an unusual amount of Pentagon cooperation, "Black Hawk Down" re-creates the events of that day with the full technical resources of modern cinematic technique. It helps to have a few Black Hawk helicopters to play with, of course, and a $90 million budget, a Pico Boulevard club-full of hot young actors and, in the role of the Somali militia, the Royal Moroccan Army. But it's still possible to have all that and screw it up; Scott, an experienced big-movie maker ("Gladiator," for example, wasn't too shabby in the size department) tries to keep the phony movie moments to a minimum and the sense of frantic professionalism to a maximum. It works.

Task Force Ranger's mission – to arrest two men said to be the warlord's lieutenants in a building in a teeming market district – seemed to go well enough at the start. As planned, the Delta commandos, choppered in by small helicopters, assaulted the building and "extracted" the men; the Rangers, arriving minutes later in heavier Black Hawk helicopters, fast-roped down and set up a perimeter. Meanwhile a lightly armored convoy headed through the city to rendezvous with them and take everybody back to base three miles away.

But – spontaneously, it seems – the city's militia rallied and began to bring fire on the hated Americans; the whole thing went south when one, then another, of the big Ranger helicopters were shot down, and troops had to be diverted to the crash sites. Each one became an Alamo or a Little Round Top as the Americans took up defensive positions while rescue convoys attempted to reach them.

So focused on the experience of the fighting is "Black Hawk Down" that it doesn't bother much with context or with character, something that could never be said of reporter Mark Bowden's original book. Bowden took the time to explain not merely the politics involved but, more important, the culture of the new, volunteer Army.

There's not a whiff of Vietnam-era sullenness and resentment; these aren't draftees but volunteers, in it for the fun, travel and adventure. They aspire to be, or are, solid professionals; they don't see themselves as victims but as warriors. They are gung-ho, Number One, and RA (regular army) all the way.

But they weren't interchangeable; there were essentially two American military cultures on the streets of the Mog that day, and while Scott evokes them visually, he never explains them. The Rangers are shock infantry, basically conventional in all military respects; their hair is trimmed or shaved, their ranks low, their ages young (most are in their first enlistment). An institutional vanity requires that they bark "HOOOO-AGH!" in place of "Yes, sir" or "Yes, Sergeant." Most "want action" or joined to fight; they're full of the bravado of a JV football team on its first road trip.

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