Dir. Ridley Scott. Starring Josh Hartnett, Tom Sizemore, Sam Shepard
One of the stupidest things anyone has ever said about war movies is that they’re all anti-war movies. This is Steven Spielberg’s interpretation, and while I don’t think it’s necessarily a popular one, there are definitely movies which are anti-something else which are frequently mistaken for being anti-war. The Deer Hunter or Saving Private Ryan or Born on the Fourth of July don’t strike me as anti-war so much as they are anti-dead or maimed Americans. Hold on to that thought, we’ll come back to it.
I didn’t think “all movies are anti-war movies” would ever be topped for dumb comments about the genre, but then I came across the suggestion from Ridley Scott that Black Hawk Down was designed to be anti-war and pro-military. Not only is this the single dumbest thing I’ve ever come across in reference to war movies, it has to rank among one of the stupider things I’ve come across period. Scott may have just as well have said, “I’m against killing animals but I’m in favor of hamburgers and bacon,” or “I’m against gun violence but I’m in favor of the Second Amendment,” or “I’m against voter suppression but I’m in favor of the verdict in Shelby County.” Maybe this is unfair. Maybe “anti-war” is just supposed to signify “uncomfortable with war” or “hesitant about going to war” or something else that a politician might say, but in a world where words actually have definitions which people agree upon, “anti-war” means just what it says. War is bad in Black Hawk Down, certainly. There are dead people to account for. But there’s a difference, a world of difference, between “war is bad” and “anti-war.” The film scoffs with a shrewd weariness at the idea that what the combat is about matters. When Eversmann (Josh Hartnett) makes a little speech about believing that he can make a difference in the military, that he doesn’t want to watch Somalia burn on CNN, we’re supposed to do what the other soldiers do: “Yeah, well, that’s a nice thought.” When Eversmann does some talking to a corpse later in the film, saying, “Nobody asks to be a hero, it just sometimes turns out that way,” that’s supposed to be a sort of new way to understand the military in which the heroism isn’t mentioned quite so loudly but is instead whispered, part of the before-raid and after-raid in which we squeeze in all the regular soldier weepie stuff. You know the drill: phone calls home that no one picks up, apostrophic monologues directed to children who will never know their father, the usual.
More important to the movie’s ethos than Eversmann’s monologues is what Hooten (Eric Bana) has to say about things. People at home, he tells Eversmann, don’t get that “it’s about the men next to you, and that’s it.” I mean, that’s cynical. Eversmann thinking he makes a positive difference by joining the United States military so he can go to places like Somalia or, hey, maybe Iraq someday, is more farcical than anything else. But the idea that you get sent places and then you kill the people from those places and you do it for the guys next to you…I mean, couldn’t Hoot get paid better if he worked for the mob? The exact same principle would apply there, and he’d probably get weekends off sometimes. “It’s about the men next to you” might have some kind of nobility if it’s not exactly the same thing that’s kept every army of conquest, totalitarianism, and general evil hanging together. (“Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window” is, somehow, even worse.) The idea that there wasn’t some Hoot in the Wehrmacht saying stuff like “Es geht um die Männer neben dir” is laughable, and the fact that this idea is so easily transferable to any other conflict is proof of its moral vacancy. I’m all in favor of movies about soldiers who are, by choice or by erosion, as morally bankrupt as the wars they fight in. On the other hand, the idea that Hooten and Eversmann and the rest of the gang in Mogadishu are good guys for us to root for but also just in it for the guy next to them is the kind of thing a movie would only ask you to do believe because the movie cynically believes you’re stupid, or because the movie is just as stupid as it wants to you to be.
The film never really forgets which country these folks are from. It’s an American group, even if its cast seems to be overwhelmingly made up of Brits or other European imports; Bana, who makes an impression as strong as any other single person in the battle, is Australian. Regardless of that cast, though, it’s the dead American soldiers who make an impression on us. It’s a long, mostly uninterrupted battle in Mogadishu that we see. It’s thrilling and engaging, and we hurt when Americans are killed. I don’t think we’re meant to hurt when Somalis are killed; they don’t have names, there’s not a half-hour buildup to all those people in their homes like there is to the American soldiers at their base, and I don’t think there’s a single Somali adult we’re supposed to feel sympathy for. (Sympathy is extended to children, either scared or dead, and then adults might linger in that glow as necessary.) This isn’t an anti-war movie. It’s an anti-dead Americans movie. Saving Private Ryan doesn’t think we shouldn’t have fought World War II because there should have been some kind of non-violent resistance against Hitler. It is upset, though, that Americans had to die violently resisting Hitler’s armies. The Deer Hunter is basically indifferent to the idea of the Vietnam War, but it is extremely upset that it damaged or killed all these American men who might have danced at weddings and worked at factories rather than gotten wrapped up in a cultlike, suicidal culture of Russian roulette which never existed in real life. Black Hawk Down fits in this general category of movies which are hardly anti-war. They just hate that any American should have to die.
Speaking of country, it’s not the movie’s fault that the American soldiers were overwhelmingly white, but then again, it is the movie’s fault that it basically excludes the Malaysian and Pakistani members of the UN force. Black Hawk Down has been charged with racism pretty frequently, and those charges certainly do have reason to stick. If you think that Zulu was sort of problematic, wait until you get to Black Hawk Down, which recreates the waves of Black men storming the positions of outnumbered white men. At least Zulu has a historical vantage point which allows for a different interpretation than “Black hordes unfairly brutalize decent white men.” (For the record, I don’t really buy the “Zulu is as really about valor and tenacity on both sides” take, but it certainly has more purchase than “They’re just trying to bring the fruits of democracy to Somalia.”) Black Hawk Down just has screaming Black people with guns and RPGs who the film seems to look at as if it’s unfair that they exist at all. If they just knew what was good for them, they’d let the Americans extract Mohamed Farrah Aidid himself in a minivan rather than force them to use humvees and helicopters to capture a couple of his bagmen. Instead, we get a scene where a downed American pilot is captured by the Somalis and told that “there will always be killing” because “this is how things are in our world.” Black Hawk Down makes the case over and over again that these American soldiers are, regardless of their own world-weariness, there to do the Lord’s work. General Garrison (Shepard) refers to what’s gone on in Somalia as a “genocide.” Eversmann’s little speech is not there to be shrugged off entirely. The deaths of each American we see are treated as a tragedy, down to the full list of nineteen dead Americans in the operation provided before the credits. No such courtesy is extended to the thousand dead Somalis the film claims, who surely were not limited to militia shooting back at the white men from another country. I think it takes a certain amount of credulous, jingoistic belief to get on board with what the film believes about Somalia, post-imperial Africa, post-Cold War America, and so on. If you want to approach the film basically believing that these were good American boys who died protecting their own from people who wanted to live in their own filth until they starved to death, I don’t know that I’m likely to convince you that this film has racist qualities.
I try not to spend much time psychoanalyzing filmmakers and then dropping those judgments on their films. But there’s this interview with Ridley Scott from Deadline which is only a couple years old, and I think it just sheds a really interesting amount of light on Black Hawk Down. Here’s a piece of the interview where Scott is justifying the existence of a military:
Look, you can knock the army. You can’t knock the reason for the army, because if you didn’t have one you would no longer have the strength. I think [the military] is a necessity and if you’ve got a necessity then you better make sure you’ve got the best in them. So I was pretty impressed always by my relationship with the military. Listen, it’s so easy to be cynical. But if you think it’s easy then you fucking go to the front and carry 65 pounds on your back and get shot at. No? Then shut the fuck up. Am I right? And if you didn’t have a police force in L.A.? Guess what you’d be going to do today? Buying guns.
I wonder which people in Los Angeles Scott might think need to be held back at the muzzle of a gun. Do you suppose they look like Josh Hartnett?