Monday, May 11, 2009

Book #31: "Black Hawk Down" by Mark Bowden

On October 3 1993, in the devasted city of Mogadishu, Somalia, a group of American armed forces (Rangers and Delta troops)carried out what was supposed to be a one-hour mission to capture a couple of high-profile militia leaders. But they were met with resistance that went far and beyond what they had expected to find, and in time one of their Black Hawk helicopters is shot down. It crashes a few blocks away from the perimeter of the mission and the ground forces (the Rangers, the delta teams and an extraction group with humvees and trucks) were sent to rescue the fallen crew. Chaos ensues.

From then, it turned into a bloody, relentless, 12-hour battle for survival as the troops attempt to leave the city.

Mark Bowden was the first person to attempt to write a complete account of what was then one of the bloodiest battles for American troops since the Vietnam War. He not only interviewed as many soldiers who were present at the battle as he could, but he also recorded the testimony of Somalis who survived the conflict. In addition to the interviews, Bowden had access to videos taken from the air as well as maps and radio recordings of the battle. With all this material, Bowden was able to recreate the battle in incredible detail, as a testament to the brave soldiers who fought and gave their lives to protect one another.

This is a harrowing book. Bowden places the reader right in the middle of what was an exhausting, shockingly violent battle that devolved into absolute chaos. While presenting the action from the point of view of the largely confused, terrified soldiers, he also does an admirable job of letting the reader know exactly what is going on: where troops are located, what the commanders were seeing, what was happening on the other side. It gets very confusing at times, but with the help of detailed maps and by simple reminders of who the players are Bowden keeps the story from being chaotic.

It's an incredible story. The battle was a furious one, fought over a few blocks for a handful of hours. The soldiers are constantly shocked at the ferocity of their attackers, but Bowden is careful to not make either side the victim or the enemy--the soldiers need to save themselves and their friends, the Somalians are trying to destroy the people they see as their aggressors. Somalia was (and still is) sunk into a bloody civil war that no one quite understood, and American forces were sent to help with peacekeeping efforts. They quickly found themselves doing a lot more than that--for better or for worse.

But Bowden, as he makes it clear in his conclusion, isn't aiming for a critique or an espousal of US Foreign Policy, or who is to blame for the battle. He doesn't take sides. What he wanted in writing the book was to make a record of the fierce courage of the soldiers who fought in the battle, to not let it be forgotten as so many people had after it had happened. I had no idea that this had taken place until I saw the movie a few years ago. It's easy to forget, in the midst of CNN reports of battles and wars, that there are real people fighting them, and that's what Bowden does so remarkably. The soldiers whose stories he tells were terrified, mostly young men who nevertheless went full-on into the battle to help their comrades. It wasn't about who was right or wrong, or who was to blame for what happened, but just about standing up and helping their companions.

I don't presume to know anything about this subject, and this book was definitely a learning experience. It's brutal, violent and honest, as real an account as we can get of what it's like being in a battle from the point of view of the people who fought in it. It's an amazing book, it's impact made stronger by the simple fact that it all really happened.


Extra bit:

The movie is also pretty good. Probably the most brutal war movie I've ever seen, and it left me feeling completely exhausted. I really felt like I had been holding my breath through the whole thing. It does a great job of showing the battle and by focusing on only a few characters (amusingly enough, most of the American soldiers are played by non-Americans...go figure) it helps keep things from being too chaotic. I also felt it lost something by taking out the parts of the book told by Somalians, but I can see why it was done. It's a good movie, but very loud and violent, so definitely not for everyone.

1 comment:

Spender said...

Wow... not sure that I would have taken time to read this, as I'm fairly up-to-date on the actual event but you've made this a must-read for me.
Excellent review,fig!