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Article Title: Black Hawk Down Distorts RealityEdition: February 2002
Author: Stephen Green
Editor's Note: Stephen Green's direct experience of living and working in Somalia gives him an insider's perspective on what actually happened during a time of intensified American involvment there.
In the early 1970s, Green worked in Somalia for the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF). Then in 1980, he returned to Mogadishu as the field director for OXFAM. From 1990-1992, he had responsibilities for Somalia at the United Nations World Food Program in Rome. Later he worked at United Nations Secretariat in New York, again on Somalia affairs.
Black Hawk Down is expected to run at the Capitol Theatre in Montpelier at least through Thursday, February 7, 2002.
by Stephen Green As this is written, "Black Hawk Down," currently showing in Montpelier, is the top-grossing film in America. Not surprising. Cinematically, it is a fast-paced, well-crafted and thoroughly engaging story of the failed attempt to rescue pinned-down U.S. special ops troops who were in Mogadishu in 1993 as part of a United Nations' peace enforcement mission called the United Nations Operation in Somalia (abbreviated as UNOSOM 2). And of course the movie is timely, given the Bush Administration's recent public speculation about Somalia as a possible next target in the war against terrorism. Some anti-war groups see more than coincidence in the release of the film at this time, and point to the public presence of senior Administration officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, at the film's Washington premiere. Certainly the movie's relentless, crazed attacks by "skinnys," as the film's U.S. soldiers call General Mohammed Farah Aidid's militia, does bear more than a passing resemblance to Hollywood's depiction of "wild Injuns" in distant, more innocent times.
One does not have to accept the idea of film industry collusion in war propaganda, however, to wonder about some key facts that are missing in "Black Hawk Down"s story.
Now the missing facts. There is an attempt at the beginning of the film to provide a context for the story, using graphics. The confluence of drought, famine and civil war in Somalia in 1991 to 1992 are mentioned, as are the attempts by the international community to provide food and medical relief in the midst of political chaos. The story of two different U.S. military operations, in support of two distinct United Nations peace-keeping/enforcement missions, however, is collapsed. Task Force Ranger (T.F.R.), the small, elite special operations force which the movie is about, seems to have been sent to ensure that relief gets to starving Somali civilians. In fact the United Nations and U.S. military missions had already evolved from convoy support and relief distribution security to the disarming of the militias, the conduct of Vietnam-like disinformation and assassination operations, and finally, the hunting down of the most powerful militia leader, General Aidid. (Does this sound familiar?)
During the fighting, the Somali militias are seen using rocket-propelled grenades (R.P.G.s) to attack and kill the helicopters, and even recoilless rifles to attack buildings. The American forces are seen, out-gunned, responding with automatic rifles and machine guns mounted on lightly armored Hummvees. What the film audience is not told is that U.S. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin had refused a request for the tanks and armored vehicles necessary to oppose these weapons; or that the AC-130 Spectre gunships that could also have taken them out, had just been withdrawn from Somalia to Aviano Airbase in Italy; or that General Garrison himself had ordered that even the MK-19 rifle grenade launchers and M-203 automatic grenade launchers, which can be Hummvee-mounted and can fire 100 rounds a minute, should be left in Task Force Ranger's armory, in an effort to limit civilian casualties.
The rescue itself, as depicted in the film, also lacks some very selected, critical detail. When the Black Hawks are downed and the main Ranger force is trapped, a rescue force is composed and sent in. That IS the central plot of the film. What the script leaves out, however, is that because there were no advance operational arrangements (and not even direct voice communications) with the main United Nations force in Mogadishu (a multinational force commanded by a Turkish General) there was a critical five hour delay in mobilizing the Pakistani tanks and Malaysian armored personnel carriers necessary to effect the rescue during which time most of the 19 U.S. soldiers who were lost that day, died.
It is sad but instructive that the Pakistani United Nations units who rode into harm's way with their U.S. UNOSOM colleagues to attempt to rescue American Rangers, a) were not trusted enough to know of the mission beforehand, and b) are only shown in the film serving with white gloves, glasses of water on trays to American heroes, after the action is over.
At the end of the film, another graphic scrolls over the screen, informing that weeks after the operation, General Garrison wrote to President Clinton, accepting full blame for its failure. The audience is left to wonder why. But the failure in Mogadishu in October, 1993 was not Garrison's alone: it spread far, far up the chain of command.
Whether or not the film "Black Hawk Down" is an attempt to prepare American public opinion for an attack in 2002 on terrorist cells in Somalia can be disputed.
But what is beyond dispute is this. Anyone with a detailed knowledge of what actually happened to the UNOSOM and Task Force Ranger missions upon which the film is based would be extremely hesitant about advising American forces to go back into Somalia again.
For further details on the latter, see "Critical Analysis on the Defeat of Task Force Ranger," by Major Clifford E. Day, Air Command and Staff College, Department of Defense, at http://www.fas.org/man/dod-101/ops/docs/97-03364.htm
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