Policy Review, June/July 1999

MARK BOWDEN.  Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War.  ATLANTIC MONTHLY PRESS.  386 PAGES.  $24.00 

FOR MOST of this century, the cultural depiction of war has centered on the soldiers doing the fighting. The result has been one intimate portrait after another of horror, brutality, and violent death designed to engender in the reader or viewer sensations of mortal dread, of hope mixed with desperation, of confusion and uncertainty, akin to those soldiers feel in the heat of battle. This intimate perspective on war flourished first in highbrow literary circles in the aftermath of the incomprehensible carnage of World War I. Since then, it has become virtually ubiquitous. Long before Saving Private Ryan, the soldier’s perspective became our standard perspective on war at all levels of cultural seriousness, from comic books to newspapers to bestsellers to movies and television shows to those works short-listed for literary prizes.

The soldier’s-eye view of war is not the only possible cultural perspective on war, of course. Clearly Shakespeare attaches more importance to what Henry V has to say that St. Crispian’s Day than to what the rest of the band of brothers might be thinking on the eve of the battle of Agincourt or during it. Nor does Shakespeare’s Henry fail to speak to us to this day.

Yet it is also true that no one alive today is much like Henry – nor Agamemnon, Scipio Africanus, nor the host of others whose exploits were once at the center of reflections on war and peace. Perhaps we don’t hear much about warrior-kings and conquerors because we have none. Likewise, in a century distinguished by the creation of a mass culture on one hand and the flourishing of individualism on the other, why wouldn’t we be keenly interested in war considered through the prism of the soldier? Note too the odious character of this century’s war-worshipping regimes, those for which war and its instruments are the stuff of anonymous, mass spectacle. Add conscription to the mix, the fact that whether to face violent death in battle has often been the most important choice denied an individual in this century of rising individualism. In thinking about war, therefore, we have many good reasons for our cultural focus on Everyman in extremis.

But let us not forget another fact about this perspective on war: Generally speaking, its propagators have had an agenda. Their ambitions extend far beyond aesthetic realism — blood, body parts, and all. They are also in a general sense anti-war.

They may (or may not) concede the necessity of war or its inevitability; they may (or may not) hold the view that the test of combat can bring out the best in man as well as the worst. But assuredly, they see no glory or opportunity for glory in what they portray; to them, no one who has known war could rationally seek war, except (perhaps) in times of dire emergency. As for those of us who have not had to risk life and limb in battle, the implication of this perspective is that one’s impressions of war are accordingly stunted, possibly to the extent of rendering questionable one’s standing to say anything at all about war. It is surely an article of faith among many utilizing this perspective that even the most vivid account of combat can only hint at the vividness of the real thing. This cultural focus on gruesome actuality paradoxically suggests that in our exposure to these scenes of combat, what we mainly learn is how much we will never know.

In truth, this is a somewhat odd literary or cultural stance. Consciously or not, its practitioners are building not a bridge to allow an audience access to their experience and imagination, but rather a wall that claims their experience and imagination are beyond access by any audience. This would seem to be equivalent to a declaration in advance of artistic failure. But then, their purpose here is extra-literary anyway. The reason so many have tried to rouse fear in us through horrific accounts of combat is to bring us around to their view of war as horror above all. The project would seem to have been almost entirely effective, since no one in the civilized world today is the least bit casual about war – although the question remains whether the proliferation of this point of view is a cause of the universal revulsion, or whether a spreading revulsion at war led to the near-ubiquity of the intimate point of view.

AT FIRST GLANCE, Black Hawk Down would seem to be of a piece with the dominant cultural trend. Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden’s bestseller is an account of the 1993 firefight in Mogadishu that left 18 Americans dead and dozens more badly wounded, resulting shortly thereafter in the abandonment of the U.S. effort to restore order in warlord-riven Somalia. This is as riveting a description of a battle as you are ever likely to come across, all the more remarkable for the fact that Bowden was not there himself, but rather pieced the story together after the fact from hundreds of interviews with participants and military records painstakingly extracted from an initially reluctant Pentagon. What is different here and elevates Black Hawk Down above even the century’s best miniatures of war is that Bowden has no discernible agenda. Instead, he has a story to tell, and unlike so many others who have recently assayed war, he lets the events and characters speak for themselves.

It’s a complicated story, one that richly illustrates the meaning of the phrase, “the fog of war.” Bowden tells it straightforwardly. A task force of Army Rangers and Delta Force operators embark on a daylight raid on a target in the heart of lawless Mogadishu for the purpose of capturing senior lieutenants to warlord Mohamed Farah Aidid. They have practiced this sort of mission endlessly and executed similar ones successfully. The task force expects to be in and out in less than an hour. Most of its members haven’t even bothered to bring along their canteens, preferring instead to load up on extra ammunition. But things go wrong. An inexperienced Ranger misses the rope on his way out of a helicopter hovering at 70 feet. He must be evacuated. A convoy of trucks and Humvees misses turns on the maddeningly complex, unmarked street grid of the wrecked city. As a result of the delay, the Somali resistance mounts. Lucky shots from grenade launchers fell first one Black Hawk helicopter, then another, and the force sets off on the tortuous, dangerous attempt to rescue survivors and retrieve the bodies of the dead. Taking serious casualties now at the hands of Somali militiamen, irregulars, and amateurs with AK-47S- and inflicting on the Somalis thirtyfold or more violent deaths in return – the task force finds itself fragmented, hunkered down as darkness falls, desperately in need of reinforcement if it IS going to get out at all.

Bowden’s characters are not literary spokesmen for a point of view on war; neither is the Mogadishu he describes some sort of metaphor for human malevolence; nor is his intercutting between the men on the ground and their commanders out of harm’s way an occasion for infusion of irony and other literary artifice. This is the story of the real participants in a very harrowing gunfight at a particular time in a particular place, and Bowden seems to have set as his goal nothing fancier than getting the details right — which turns out to be a goal surpassingly more impressive when achieved, as here, than the delivery of anti-war homilies, however eloquent.

The themes that emerge in Black Hawk Down do so organically. Because of this, the book becomes positively subversive of our dominant cultural portrait of war. Yes, there is bloody mayhem here, and the entirely rational fear soldiers feel as they try to withstand a surprisingly furious assault, and the sense of dread and uncertainty gradually mounting with each bit of bad news, and the urgent effort to keep the wounded alive, and the weight of the sudden death of comrades. But that is hardly the whole story. The emotional range here is far broader than the distance from fear to regret; it includes as well pride, righteous anger, honor, determination, respect, fraternal love, and in many instances, a richly mordant sense of humor. (One wounded Delta Force operator muses on the possibility that a Somali rocket-propelled grenade might hit the armored personnel carrier evacuating him and others after the long battle: “You know what we should do. We should kind of crack one of these doors a little bit so that when the RPG comes in here we’ll all have someplace to explode out of.”)

These are elite American soldiers. Most are Rangers, meaning they have not only enlisted in the army but also volunteered for advanced airborne training and endured as well the rigors of Ranger school. Others in Black Hawk Down are members of the supersecret Delta Force, masters of the heights of American soldiering. The Rangers and the “D-boys,” as the Rangers call them, train for war every day, practicing to perfection the art and craft of controlled but hellish violence.

More to the point, they want to fight. And in the non-fiction environment of Black Hawk Down, by contrast with much of our culture’s intimate portraiture of war, this desire of theirs is no literary contrivance designed to be shattered by exposure to war’s horror. Some of them – let’s be blunt – like the fight here. Some of them can’t imagine pursuing another line of work. Some of them look back on this brutal night in Mogadishu as time well spent and would, of course, do it again.

The feeling is not unanimous, nor for that matter unmixed. Bowden relates some thoughts of Sgt. Mike Goodale during the fight:

He thought about how much he wanted to go to war, to see combat, and then he thought about all those great war movies and documentaries he’d seen about battles. He knew he’d never see another of those films and feel the same way about it. People really get killed. He found the best way to accept his predicament was to just assume he was dead already. He was dead already. He just kept on doing his job.

But consider also:

[Spec. Shawn] Nelson surveyed the carnage around him and felt wildly, implausibly lucky. How could he not have been hit? It was hard to describe how he felt . . . it was like an epiphany. Close to death, he had never felt so completely alive…. He felt he would never be the same. He had always known he would die someday, the way anybody knows that they will die, but now its truth had branded him. And it wasn’t a frightening or morbid thing. It felt more like a comfort. It made him feel more alive.

Spec. Chris Schleif is less introspective as he prepares to join a convoy to relieve those still trapped in the city:

The [M-60] gun and ammo can were still slick with [Sgt. Dominick] Pilla’s blood and brain matter. Schleif ditched his own weapon and boarded the Humvee with Pilla’s. “He didn’t get a chance to kill anybody with it,” Schleif explained to Specialist Brad Thomas, who like Schleif was heading back out into the city for the third time. “I’m going to do it for him.”

And we meet Pvt. George Siegler desperately running to leap onto an armored personnel carrier to take him out of the city after that long night:

[He] sprinted up to the hatch . . . just as a voice yelled from inside, “We can only take one more!” [Lt. Larry] Perino already had one leg in the hatch. Out of the corner of his eye Perino saw the younger man’s desperation. He withdrew his leg from the hatch and said, cloaking his kindness with officerly impatience, Come on, Private, come on.” It would have been easy for the lieutenant to say he hadn’t seen him. Siegler was so moved by the gesture he decided then and there to reenlist.

IT IS IMPOSSIBLE to read Black Hawk Down and conclude that this range of emotion, including an appetite for battle even after having had the experience, is anything but real in these men. And though this is hardly the sensibility of civilian life in our times, it is equally impossible to conclude that these soldierly emotions are irrational or even especially hard to understand. Mark Bowden describes the context with precision, thereby allowing the humanity of his real-life characters its due.

Black Hawk Down should also cause us to reflect further on the dominant images of war in this century. Having grown accustomed to the portrait of combat as the ultimate monstrosity, what then are we to make of those who train for it in the expectation and even the desire of facing it? How could they wish this? Must they not be monsters?

Of course not, as Black Hawk Down amply documents. The second great paradox of the intimate portraiture of war is that in the name of preventing the infliction of carnage, it dehumanizes those who fight, transforming them into automatons and victims in order to make the point. Black Hawk Down, by contrast, is truly intimate; the closer we look, the more unmistakable the humanity.

The fact that some of our finest soldiers can’t wait for their next battle must never influence us in deciding whether or not to send them off to war. The matter is much too grave for that. But likewise, the question is too grave to derive its answer from our centurylong cultural exploration of the horror of war from the soldier’s point of view – especially now that Mark Bowden has shown what a proper miniature really is and by implication how defective, tendentious, and dehumanizing so many previous such efforts have been.