UNITED STATES: What's wrong with Black Hawk Down

Issue 

BY BRENDAN SEXTON

[The following is a slightly abridged version of a speech given at an anti-war forum at Columbia University in New York by Brendan Sexton III, one of the actors in the movie Black Hawk Down.]

When I first read the script to Black Hawk Down, I didn't think it was the greatest thing in the world — far from it. But I thought the script at least raised some very important questions that are missing from the final product. I was misled to think that the release of the film would allow for forums like this one — where some of these questions could be answered.

In certain scenes, US soldiers — before they even entered the now-infamous firefights in Mogadishu — were asking whether the US should be there, how effective the US military presence was, and why the US was targeting one specific warlord in Somalia, General Mohammed Farah Aidid.

As we moved closer to actually filming the script, the script moved further and further away from the little that existed of its questioning character.

In February of last year, another actor and I flew down together to Georgia for our "Ranger Orientation Training" at a place many of you might know — Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia.

In Atlanta, we caught a shuttle plane to Columbus, and on our flight, there were a bunch of guys with Marine haircuts speaking Spanish. It took us a few moments to realise these guys were "students" of the School of the Americas, the US Army's own terrorist training camp for Latin America, which is stationed at Fort Benning. That started to put things into perspective.

For the next five days, we received a crash course in military training at Fort Benning, and I learned a lot. The US Army Rangers, who we were portraying in the film, are an elite group of soldiers that only number 1500 or so. Their average age is 19. They're not Special Forces, but they carry out "Special Ops" — or special operations.

While they trace their history back to wars that helped to ethnically cleanse Native Americans and to their exploits in the Civil War fighting for the South, the modern-day Rangers were created to help rejuvenate a defeated and demoralised US imperialism after the war in Vietnam. Since then, they've been used in all sorts of interventions — from Lebanon to Grenada to Panama, and, of course, Somalia.

During the Cold War, Somalia was a client state of the USSR, with the US supporting the regime of King Haile Selassie in rival Ethiopia. When Haile Selassie was overthrown, the alliances switched, and the US then backed the dictator Siad Barre in Somalia.

From the late 1970s onward, the US sent about US$50 million a year in arms to Barre's regime to help him keep a tight grip on the country. When repression wasn't enough, Barre exploited divisions among the different clans in Somalia. When Barre was overthrown, these clan rivalries exploded.

The civil war that followed caused a horrible famine that took 300,000 lives, as the warring factions took over the farms of rival clans and burned their crops.

Had the US given Somalia constructive aid — like money for agriculture and infrastructure, instead of military aid — the famine most likely never would have happened. US intervention was supposedly to stop this famine, but the reality is completely different.

Wild savages

The film Black Hawk Down paints the Somali people as wild savages. Elvis Mitchell, who reviewed the film for the New York Times when it opened in December, wrote: "The lack of characterization converts the Somalis into a pack of snarling dark-skinned beasts — intended or not, it reeks of glumly staged racism."

I think that's an accurate description. The Somalis are portrayed as if they don't know what's going on, as if they're trying to kill the Americans because they — like all other "evildoers" — will do anything to bite the hand that feeds them.

But the Somalis aren't a stupid people. In fact, many were upset because the US military presence propped up people tied to the old, corrupt Barre regime. The United Nations wasn't too favoured either — because the UN was run at the time by Boutros Boutros-Ghali, a former Egyptian official who also supported Barre's regime.

The Somalis had plenty of reason to be upset with the US presence, especially when the US objective changed from "food distribution" to basically kidnapping General Aidid. Aidid had climbed the ranks of Barre's regime, later helped to depose him and then became the US government's "Public Enemy Number One."

There was nothing much different about Aidid from the other warlords vying for power. The main difference was that he wasn't yet ready to cut a deal with the US.

Warlords, dictators and terrorists are normally OK with the US, as long as they do the bidding of US corporate interests. In fact, the US promoted Aidid for a time. He belongs on that long list of former US allies who commit atrocities with impunity, but once they step out of line are denounced as the "new Hitler" — a list that includes the likes of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Slobodan Milosevic.

What the US tried to accomplish in Somalia was nearly unprecedented. The goal was to travel thousands of miles to a different continent and literally kidnap someone who was surrounded by armed men.

The first few attempts to capture Aidid and his top lieutenants were disasters. First, US troops attacked the wrong house, which turned out to be the office of the UN Development Program. Later, they attacked the offices of the charities World Concern and Doctors Without Borders.

Unfortunately, there's little information out there on Somalia. What happened in 1993 is probably the most under-researched US intervention of the past 50 years.

This is unfortunate because there's much to learn from Somalia. For example, many people who were horrified by the destruction caused by US bombs in Afghanistan called on the US to use ground troops to minimise the killing.

Let's not forget that US ground troops caused much more devastation in Mogadishu — killing close to 10,000 people in a matter of just a few weeks. Let's not forget that US ground troops turned whole neighborhoods of Panama City to rubble in 1989, while killing thousands of people.

We can't just question the tactics used by the US military. We have to question the US government's claim that it has the moral high ground to intervene anywhere, at any time, in any way it so chooses.

'Humanitarian interventions'

Somalia, in certain ways, represents a recurring theme with US interventions abroad. It's one of the poorest countries in the world, coming face to face with the world's richest and most powerful — much like Afghanistan.

One of the true tragedies of the war in Somalia was the support that it received from liberals and even radicals.

When the world's biggest military attacked a struggle for national liberation in Vietnam, it was met with dissent at home. This created what was called the "Vietnam syndrome" — the reluctance of the US to commit ground troops abroad.

The Vietnam syndrome was a good thing. It meant that the US had to pull out of Indochina, and it meant that the world's biggest bully couldn't as easily go wherever it wanted, thus saving millions of lives.

The 1980s saw the restoration of US imperialism — baby step by baby step — with covert and overt operations in Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Panama.

But the rehabilitation really took place in the 1990s, with the reinvention of US imperialism through what became known as "humanitarian intervention" — operations like "Operation Restore Hope" in Somalia, "Operation Restore Democracy" in Haiti in 1994, and interventions in the former Yugoslavia in 1995 and 1999.

When the US was attacking genuine national liberation movements, it was much clearer why US intervention had to be opposed. But when the US went up against the "evil dictators" in the interest of "helping people", it became more confusing.

US officials used the cover of "humanitarian intervention" for missions abroad that actually worsened people's lives in those countries, for example:

  • Afghanistan — bombing an already war-torn country, leaving more than 3700 dead and hundreds of thousands more on the brink of starvation.

  • Kosova — 2000 dead in the 1999 bombing campaign, the war worsened the refugee crisis, and generations to come will grow up with high levels of cancer because of the US use of depleted uranium.

This is the "humanity" of US humanitarian interventions.

This should teach us that, at best, the US can only create a more violent, unstable world when it intervenes abroad.

Many people say that those of us who are against the war have no answers to the world's problems. They say that we advocate doing nothing. But hindering the US's ability to intervene is actually doing something — it's saving lives.

Plus, our movement can take up slogans and demands like "Money for jobs, not for war" and "US out of the Middle East" — which, if won, could actually better millions of people's lives.

That's a project worth fighting for, and, if you're not involved with that fight already, I encourage you to get involved.

[From Socialist Worker, weekly paper of the US International Socialist Organization. Visit <http://www.socialistworker.org>.]

From Green Left Weekly, March 6, 2002.
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