“Black Hawk Down” and the Role of the Military in American Democracy

My second film analysis of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, one of my favorite movies. Though it was a relative box-office success, it was criticized for not providing any backstory or depth to the soldiers depicted within. And thank God for that, because the last thing we need is another war story turned into regular Hollywood crap,  like Pearl Harbor or Enemy at the Gates. Film critics who think that war films are weakened by lack of characterization should stick to watching romantic comedies and soap operas.

Ridley Scott had the sensitive task of recounting the 1993 Mogadishu incident and subtly criticising U.S. foreign policy without alienating those with an emotional attachment to the military. This he does very well, and though I disagree with many of the underlying messages in some of his films, he uses a humble and subtle style that is far more bearable than the arrogant preaching infused in most films these days. I’m looking forward to Scott’s film adaptation of The Forever War, the science fiction novel by Joe Haldeman that I am otherwise not much a fan of.

So anyway, my film analysis of Black Hawk Down:

Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down depicts the story of the ill-fated military raid of October 3, 1993 in Mogadishu Somalia, in which 19 American servicemen were killed. Adapted from the book by Mark Bowden, the film represents a fairly accurate description of the real-life events that occurred on that day.

Examined from a political perspective, the film raises important questions on American foreign policy and American exceptionalism, and whether America has a special mission in the world, paralleling a classic debate within the foreign policy community itself. The film also raises questions concerning the proper role of the military in America, as well as competing visions for the appropriate nature of that military. Second, themes of American “cultural imperialism” are evident, with some of the Somalis wearing American t-shirts and clothing as they fight the U.S. troops.

Beginning in 1992, the international community responded to an epic famine in Somalia, a failed state controlled by competing warlords after the toppling of the previous government. With a humanitarian mission and UN peacekeeping operation established after a force of 20,000 U.S. Marines restored order, U.S. forces withdrew and allowed the UN to take the lead role in the operation. However, following the US withdrawal, a warlord named Muhammed Farah Aidid began attacking UN forces and seizing food shipments to feed his militia. In response, the US sent Task Force Ranger, a force of Army Rangers, Delta Force operators, and elite helicopter pilots with the mission of capturing Aidi. On October 3, 1993 the Task Force launched a raid to arrest two of Aidid’s top lieutenants. The mission was complicated after the raiding force encountered heavy resistance and two American helicopters were shot down, resulting in a night-long firefight in which 19 Americans died.

Throughout the film, the question of America’s proper role in the international system is raised; whether or not America has a moral obligation to intervene where there is injustice and humanitarian crisis. Toward the beginning of the film, the Americans arrest Aidid’s main arms supplier. Speaking with Gen. Garrison, the commander of Task Force Ranger, the arms dealer says, “I think you shouldn’t have come here. This is civil war. This is our war. Not yours.” To this, Garrison replies, “Three-hundred thousand dead, and counting…that’s not war, Mr. Atto, that’s genocide.”  The issue is raised elsewhere in the film. In a scene with the American soldiers casually bantering with one another in barracks setting, Sgt. Matt Eversmann, a Ranger that would lead a group of soldiers in the fight, mentions to the other soldiers around him that he believes their mission to help the Somalis and end the bloodshed is legitimate and moral, a position the other soldiers around him are skeptical of, including his lieutenant. Additionally, this theme of the movie also touches on the potentially hypocritical nature of an idealist foreign policy. After being captured, Michael Durant, one of the downed American pilots, is confronted by an apparently well-educated Somali who expresses frustration at the havoc and death inflicted by the Americans in the name of a humanitarian mission. When Durant tells him that he has no real political power and is thus unable to negotiate, the Somali responds with frustrated disappointment: “Of course. You have the power to kill but not negotiate…did you really think that by capturing Aidid we would simply put down our weapons and adopt American democracy?”

The film also raises questions about the proper role of the military in American democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville divided armies into two categories: aristocratic and democratic. Tocqueville considered armies to be a major threat to democracy; peace-loving democracies not holding military service in high esteem, demoralized members of the military seek war to find meaning, prestige, and promotion. Whereas in an aristocratic army, the structure is largely an extension of society itself, and thus all members are content with their station and are less likely to seek war for advancement. However, Tocqueville also believed that conscription-based democratic armies would stabilize and their warmongering would lessen as the essence of the nation itself found its way to the military via the soldiers who serve in it.

Tocqueville based his assumptions on the notion that democracies would love peace so much that military service is demeaned and would not lead to advancement in society. As the film indicates, these assumptions may not be operative in America, and thus, de Tocqueville’s ideas may not apply in full. America is somewhat of a martial society that applies value to war and military service; soldiers are rewarded with numerous benefits, including education. Thus, military service is seen as a path to social advancement, with or without war. This drastically reduces the likelihood of military revolutions, since it makes no sense for the military to upset the social order in which it has gained prestige. America’s army has both democratic and aristocratic elements, resulting in a force that – while slightly mercenary in character – is very stable in relation to the democracy itself, as well as a highly effective fighting force. This is depicted throughout the film: while the soldiers may not be very enthusiastic about their mission, they fight anyway because they understand it as their job and the requirement to fulfilling their obligations. For example, in one scene an obviously unenthused Delta operator is asked what he thinks about the mission. He responds, “What I think? Doesn’t really matter what I think. Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit goes right out the window.” As this scene indicates, some American soldiers see war as their profession, stabilizing the military by removing ideological bent.

The film also touches on competing ideas for the nature of the military itself. It depicts the tension and rivalry that existed between the Rangers and Delta Force. The Delta operators, older and more experienced, see themselves as professional soldiers. Consequently, they neglect and ignore aspects of military discipline not directly related to combat. This results in tension between Delta and the conventional army that relies on strict discipline to maintain inexperienced units.

One of the comments that my professor wrote on the assignment was that very few Americans actually volunteer for military service; they seem content to let a professional warrior class do their dirty work for them. I would agree, and we don’t know what the long-term ramifications of this trend will be. For example, the upper classes are not represented very well in the military; the noblesse oblige of the British elite does not exist in America’s own pseudo-aristocracy. Even if, for some strange reason, a surge of patriotism overcame America’s rich and they decided to serve in large numbers, I think they would meet resistance from the officer corps, which prefers to keep itself a middle-class bastion. Indeed, with current socio-economic trends, the military may evolve as one of the last avenues for the middle class to reach power, increasingly alienated and suspicious of a political elite dominated by hereditary coastal families educated at Ivy League universities.