A couple of weeks ago, the History Channel reran an old episode of Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War. I hadn‘t seen Vietnam footage for a long time and was startled by how different war coverage looked in 1968 — it moved so much closer to the action. Cameramen dashed through gunfire, dying American Marines were choppered off on stretchers, and scared soldiers were interviewed in extremis. At one point, a reporter chatted with a young soldier huddled against enemy fire. “Do you think the war’s worth fighting?” he asked, and the kid gave a queasy look: “That‘s what they tell us.”
Clausewitz famously declared that war requires a harmonious trinity — the army, the government and the people — and watching such chilling footage now, you instantly see why the public turned against U.S. policy in Vietnam. You also see why the Pentagon hasn’t permitted such a “living-room war” since, not in Grenada, Panama, the Gulf War, the former Yugoslavia, and certainly not Afghanistan. These days, the networks give us reporters standing on hotel rooftops, official infrared footage of Special Ops raids, stage-managed interviews with our boys overseas.
You might think that technology would have pushed the envelope of war coverage. Where cameramen once schlepped around 16mm Bolexes, journalists can now get broadcast-quality images from DV cameras that fit in their palms. Although it‘s the paradox of video that its images look more lifelike than film but feel less “real,” the very size of the equipment means that reporters should be able to take us into warfare as never before. But first you need access. Aside from CBS’s sardonic Bob Simon, captured in Iraq during the Gulf War, or Geraldo toting his mustache around Afghan hot spots (an unwitting parody of Vietnam coverage), most of our journalists remain content to do what the Pentagon tells them. And even when not cowed by the U.S. military, they‘re held back by the possibility of violence. Like aid workers, journalists are now targets — in Afghanistan they’ve been killed with relish.
That‘s why our TV networks don’t so much show the “War on Terror” as embroider it with marginalia — walk-through relief maps of Central Asia, slavish profiles of General Tommy Franks, holiday greetings from servicemen during NFL halftimes and ceaseless pontification by out-of-shape pundits, many of whom know nothing about military strategy or Afghanistan. This is what currently passes for putting events in context, although not so much context that CNN or Fox ever reports how people view the war in Moscow, Rio or even security-mad Singapore, where the government recently broke up an al Qaeda cell.
Yet even as TV‘s war coverage dwindles into secondhand abstractions, warfare at the movies has grown ever more assaultive and spectacular. Hollywood is making an art of war. Whether it’s the chopper raids in Apocalypse Now, the D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan or the slaughter of the Germanic “barbarians” in Gladiator, filmmakers now have the technical ability to plunge us into the very bowels of battle — rattling our seats with explosions in Dolby Digital, rattling our senses with jittery camera work and tracer bullets whizzing by our ears. They‘ve turned war into an Extreme Game. With the notable exception of Oliver Stone, most of our big-time directors (and many film critics, for that matter) adore such pyrotechnics because they’ve never been in battle, but just like that great World War II wannabe Stephen Ambrose, they use fiction to pretend they have. (Francis Coppola famously compared making Apocalypse Now to the war itself.)
No stranger to vainglory, director Ridley Scott clearly hopes to trump Coppola and Spielberg with Black Hawk Down, his much-acclaimed look at the U.S. military‘s 1993 debacle in Mogadishu, Somalia, a failed mission that left 18 American soldiers dead, another 74 wounded, and cost nearly a thousand Africans (many civilians) their lives. This is a 144-minute movie of which the last 100 or so contain nothing but bludgeoning combat — a small group of Delta units and Ranger infantry fighting to escape thousands of hostile Somalis armed with AK-47s. It’s a story just crying for PlayStation.
As such, it may be the purest war film ever made. Scott weds our national obsession with nuts-and-bolts factuality with a sense of cosmic patterning that recalls ancient chronicles in which individuals are little more than names. Black Hawk Down is not about politics. It‘s not about spirituality. It’s not about psychology. Where Mark Bowden‘s source best-seller brimmed with soldiers’ back stories, this screen adaptation hasn‘t the remotest interest in character. While this leaves it mercifully free of the Greatest Generation guff that made Saving Private Ryan so corny, it also keeps it from offering, say, the memorable battle of wills between Robert Ryan and Aldo Ray in the 1957 classic Men in War. Violent and harrowing, Black Hawk Down is simply about being in battle, having a mission — in this case, rescuing trapped men — and trying to get out alive.
With neither Behind Enemy Lines–style propaganda nor the recruiting-film glamour of Spy Game (although the U.S. Army did assist Scott with the production), the movie is a piece of protracted literal-mindedness. If you want to know how it feels to be caught in a mazelike Third World city filled with bloodthirsty locals, Scott will show you and show you and show you. War movies specialize in all manner of sadism, and Scott clearly enjoys working over the audience — he’ll teach the world to cheat him of his Oscar for Gladiator!
Yet even as Scott seems hell-bent on depicting what happened in Mogadishu in excruciating detail, he leaves out one crucial fact. In a way, this shouldn‘t be surprising, for Hollywood is notorious for expunging uncomfortable facts — Muhammad Ali’s cruelty to Floyd Patterson in Ali, John Nash‘s bisexual escapades in A Beautiful Mind. Still, even in these terms, Scott’s omission is shockingly conspicuous. He leaves out the one moment of the Mogadishu debacle known around the world — the TV footage of an American body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu followed by jubilant Somalis.
The reason, I think, is simple. To show this CNN moment would shatter the purity of the action by introducing the wider world — we‘d start thinking about what surrounds the Battle of Mogadishu. And this is precisely what the filmmakers want to avoid. Black Hawk Down doesn’t want to diminish our sympathy for the U.S. soldiers by exploring how much they despised the Somalis (whom they called “Skinnies” and “Sammies”), a race-tinged hatred that the movie itself replicates: Scott portrays the people of Mogadishu as a dark, teeming, murderous swarm no more human than the Orcs in The Lord of the Rings. Nor does it want to raise political hackles by exploring the ineptitude of Hollywood‘s pal President Bill Clinton, who, as David Halberstam shows in War in a Time of Peace, was so busy covering his own backside that he never developed a coherent foreign or military policy in Somalia. Unless calling the Somalis “two-bit pricks” counts as a policy.
Then, too, showing an American soldier being dragged through the street is simply too raw for a Hollywood film made during wartime, especially one produced by Brigadier General Jerry Bruckheimer, who can find an upbeat ending in the bombing of Hiroshima. Black Hawk Down’s whole marketing strategy is to portray the Mogadishu calamity as a kind of triumph, a celebration of our brave fighting men and an inspirational tale for a post-911 America. The movie ends with a crawl that speaks of American strength in the world and our newfound willingness to fight for what we believe. Trouble is, nothing we‘ve seen justifies the pretense that the Mogadishu mission was anything but what it actually was: botched, foolish, fatally pointless. Throwing away the lives of brave men is never a triumph and can only be seen that way by those trying to turn their death into profits or awards.
Has there even been such an abyss between the technical ability to evoke the visceral sensations of battle and the intellectual unwillingness to think about what the battle might mean? The Thin Red Line may have been politically blind (it implied that World War II wasn’t about anything important), but Terrence Malick did offer a Buddhist vision of the “war at the heart of nature.” Apocalypse Now may have run aground on the sandbar of Marlon Brando, but it preserved Conrad‘s idea that the heart of darkness isn’t a savage, dark-skinned place but a devouring nihilism the West brings along with it.
You find no such thematic reach in Black Hawk Down, which lays bare the limitations of a “pure” war film. In the end, its muscled-up technique and anorectic storytelling make it the opposite of today‘s TV war coverage, which shows us almost nothing but endlessly rehashes each new piece of information. Scott’s clearly on the side of the working-class troops against their feckless leaders, but his cipherlike “volunteer” soldiers have none of the poignancy of the soul-haunted draftees found in the old Vietnam War footage — except, perhaps, in one heartbreaking sense. If you asked them if they thought fighting in Mogadishu was worth it, they‘d probably still reply, “That’s what they tell us.”