I had to watch and analyze Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (BHD) for a seminar a while back and upon rereading my original essay and subsequently rewatching the film, I noticed something new. Being written and filmed before the drastic changes in the global political landscape caused by 9/11, this movie makes for an interesting cinematic artifact. The film was not built on an Islamophobic framework like many of the war films produced in subsequent years. Rather, the people the Americans murder with ruthless efficiency go almost entirely uncharacterized. I’ll be using the events depicted in BHD and the Somali Civil War as an analogy for the over-policing of marginalized peoples.
No-one Gets Left Behind
The film opens by contextualizing the birth of the Somali Civil War as well as the escalation in conflict that led to the deployment of the film’s protagonists, Delta Force and the Army Rangers. The effects of the civil war are displayed behind text cues which situate the film within its respective historical context. The horrific content and cold, desaturated look of the opening shots provide an effective emotional appeal for ‘heroic’ (foreign) intervention. Although the initial military presence of the US and UN was there to distribute the food shipments that were being intercepted by the Somali warlord, Aidid, attacks on US personnel prompted a more aggressive response by the American government to “remove Aidid and restore order” (Scott 2001). The mission was planned to be three weeks long but six weeks had elapsed by the time the events of BHD occur. It is established in the second scene that US jurisdiction did not allow for troops to fire unless fired upon. This combat stipulation creates a paradoxical scenario for the soldiers later in the film. While the Americans were not allowed to initiate conflict, they do actively create a situation in which combat was expected. The Rangers and Delta Force place themselves in an exceptionally hostile district and a firefight breaks out--the magnitude and duration of which is underestimated greatly by the Americans.
Further complicating this conflict is the efficacy of attempting to end a civil war, known by the higher level officials to be “much more complicated than Iraq,” by killing one of the leaders and abducting his underlings (Scott 2001). The conditions that allow for a nation to spiral into civil war are far more intricate than the whims of a handful of individuals. As such, directly addressing issues of economic insolvence, food shortages, and creating avenues for socio-economic advancement for would-be insurgents is vital to ending the conflict and reducing the chances of it flaring back to life. This viewpoint is reflected by the arms merchant, Atto. After his capture within the first 20 minutes of the film, Atto openly criticizes the Americans' simplistic understanding of the war as well as the facile solution they offer. He predicts the Americans would be recalled after failing to change anything with the exception of a few faces. Atto’s predictions come to pass with his release from American custody following their withdrawal from the still conflict-riddled nation. The US, of course, seemed to be too preoccupied with securing their energy interests in the region to establish a stable central government. The lack of which allowed the US to authorize American oil companies to exploit nearly two-thirds of Somali oil reserves (Hahn 2007). One such company, Conoco, had the protection of American military personnel and their main compound acted as the American embassy in Somalia (Hahn 2007).
Consider Atto’s predictions in relation to the various “wars'' on crime or drugs or poverty. Thousands of people trained extensively in killing are sent into extremely complex situations that have little to nothing to do with their training. Substitute the military for the police, and Somalia for the ghettos, and this film is remarkably applicable today. It is and has been obvious to people that are over-policed that law enforcement officials are the wrong people to do the jobs they are tasked with. Regardless of their intentions or the quality of their characters, police departments are adding fuel to the fire in at-risk neighbourhoods. The school-to-prison pipeline creates crime and more importantly, it creates criminals. Make note of the distinction between people that are punished for crimes and criminals. There are thousands of Black people in prison in North America for non-violent drug possession crimes. White people will often not go to prison at all or do so with much lower sentences for similar infractions.
Really now? No-one is being left behind?
You cannot arrest crime out of existence. El Chapo is serving a life sentence in prison after however many millions were spent yet the Sinaloa Cartel is still extremely powerful despite his absence. Terrorism did not stop with Osama Bin Laden’s death. Crime is the symptom of more complex systemic issues like poverty, underfunded schools, economic insolvency and a lack of avenues of economic advancement. Increasing police budgets will not solve a single one of those issues but it will put more people in prison which has unfortunately been the goal. This is not to say that no-one should face consequences for criminality because of course El Chapo deserves to be in prison. The criminal justice system should be built on helping people avoid crime in the future rather than retributive acts which create criminals. Overcrowded prisons lacking resources for education, mental health issues, resume workshops and so on release people without tools for reintegrating into society successfully. Then when looking for work, people with a criminal record are turned down for jobs due to background checks which greatly reduces their options for making a living. For many, the only option is returning to criminality which is a great contributor to the recidivism rate. Being genuinely tough on crime and terror are the same thing. Stop exploiting poor people. Spend the money used on military interventions and policing on social programs and sustainable revenue streams. Spend that money on after school care, teachers and parental leave. Spend it on local mental health workers, local doctors and local artists. Spend it on quality infrastructure and supporting local businesses.
The nuance of the civil war was lost on the American military apparatus upon the utterance of these iconic words. “Black Hawk down.” This declaration completely refocuses the American interests in Mogadishu. Rather than a ‘pragmatic’ operation to cripple Aidid’s inner circle, Operation Irene becomes a rescue mission because, as the film’s characters repeatedly exposit, no-one (meaning American soldiers) will be left behind. Somewhat ironically, this warriors code is directly responsible for the vast majority of casualties in the film. By not leaving anyone behind, the Americans retain or even gain honour which leads to the perpetuation of the militaristic traditions--but it kills far more people than it saves (Dalby 2008, 446).
The propagation of masculinized notions of state identity also plays an important role in the film. There is not a single line of dialogue from a woman and the Americans are all men. Predominantly white men at that. Women appear sparingly throughout the runtime although almost always in compromised positions: a teacher hiding with her students, the women used as shields by the militia men, the grieving women dragging dead men out of the street. The masculinity displayed in the film is characterized by aggression, thrill-seeking, and hierarchies--be they rank or racial. It promotes the management of violence with more violence (Whitworth 2005, 90). This is a driving force of the plot because despite the casualties, both sides continue to aggressively combat each other.
While this topic deserves its own essay, I will make passing mention to the various ways women are also victims of conflict: gendered violence, sexual violence, displacement, famine, and the burden of raising children are just beginnings of an exhausting list.
The reason I choose not to address the film in direct reference to the reality of the conflict is because it is likely that much of the intended audiences' primary reference point for the Somali Civil War is BHD (Slotkin 2017, 1). The moral, ‘pragmatic’ and humanitarian conclusions the audience will draw are more likely to come from the film itself rather than in depth analysis of the various sides of the conflict. Despite leaving Somalia with no discernible impact on ‘restoring’ order to the country and failing spectacularly to accomplish a relatively quiet raid on Aidid’s cabinet, the protagonists are depicted as heroic throughout the film. Look no further than the patriotic score that follows the Americans as they kill hundreds of Somali people to escape an area that they went to great lengths to place themselves in (Scott 2001). The valour attributed to the American soldiers came not from achieving the US’s strategic objectives in the region but rather from their allegiance to themselves in a time of crisis. They kept each other mostly alive against what looked to be dire odds (Dalby 2008, 447-449).
This is similar to movies about the police in “the hood”. They oversimplify issues in a way that is marketable and / or palatable for white audiences with no proximity to the setting. Over time, these representations prime audiences to apply the depictions to real places. When I say “Iraq,” you think “war” or “terrorism” or “oil". I say “Compton” and you think “gangs”. People forget that the West is responsible for the wars and terror groups in the Middle East because colonial and imperial powers felt the right to exploit the region. The US created ghettos through racist policy and over-policing because they feel the right to exploit and undermine Black people. The current state of political domination, economic dependence and cultural imperialism is then used to justify further domination, dependence and imperialism.
Perhaps the soldiers should not be criticized as greatly because their task and training could not be further dichotomous (Dalby 2008, 441). The US military has been developed technologically and politically to combat other state or state-like militaries (Dalby 2008, 441). Military personnel are trained to “focus on combat and decisive victory” by killing with extreme efficiency (Dalby 2008, 442; Fussell 2003, 115). The battle in Mogadishu ran contrary to this military tradition. The close quarters urban fighting against a difficult-to-define enemy is an extremely challenging task on its own but is further complicated by the additional objective of “rescuing people from death with the greatest efficiency. And those rescued are, crazily, not just members of the familiar, homegrown army but the despised enemy as well’’ (Fussell 2003, p. 115). The antithetical relationship between these objectives is exemplified by the use of “skinny” as a derogatory term for Somali people. Militiamen are skinnies, the informant who made the Mogadishu raid possible is a skinny and the civilians in need of foreign relief from the wartime famine are skinnies as well. This term further blurs the lines between who can and cannot be shot at. There are a number of instances in which the Americans fire into crowds of people that are not all combatants. The soldiers face no consequences for shooting whatever black and brown body stumbles into their crosshairs. Ridiculously, they are even greeted by the cheers of Somali people upon escaping the hostile zone. Somali people who are almost certainly not privy to the details of the American mission nor the manner in which it unfolded. Civilian casualties are treated as collateral damage and little else. Somali lives are given little characterization throughout the film and amalgamated into a single statistic just before the end credits: “over 1000 Somalis died and 19 American soldiers lost their lives” (Scott 2001). The Somalis simply died while the Americans lost their lives. There is no retraction of valour for being complicit in civilian deaths. The protagonists do not achieve the humanitarian goals that led to the initial deployment of the US military in Somalia. They did not kill nor capture Aidid. In fact, Aidid did not die until 1996. They did not restore order in the troubled nation. The valour of the American soldiers is not tied to the wider political outcomes of their mission at all. Rather, it is tied to their allegiance to themselves (Dalby 2008, 447-449).
“... And those rescued are, crazily, not just members of the familiar, homegrown army but the despised enemy as well’’ (Fussell 2003, p. 115).
Does this not sound remarkably like the way the police operate here? They are trained for the wrong jobs, do a poor job of protecting marginalized communities and are then rewarded for the carnage left in their wake. Rather than an overt slur like “skinnies,” police departments rely on weak profiles to get their points across. “Black male” is not a profile. It’s hardly a description and definitely should not be enough to constitute probable cause. I look nothing like Idris Elba yet we are both seen as IC-3s--the identification code for black people used by the British police in radio communications and crime recording systems to describe suspects or victims. We’ve seen time and again that police are unlikely to face any consequences for murdering unarmed Black people. This trend of abuse is too prominent and too consistent to not be acknowledged as treating Black bodies as expendable. Officers get medals for causing trauma and all we get is pain and paranoia. It is not possible to stop crime this way.
With this in mind, I urge you to consider what it means when a non-Black person says the N-word. Not listening when Black people tell you not to say it is proof that it is dehumanizing. How many marginalized groups are so consistently asked to explain why you should not refer to them as a slur or use them at all?
While dehumanizing language is typically used to create a clear dichotomy between us and them--between good and bad--when the Major General uses the derogatory term ‘skinny’ in reference to an allied informant, it muddies the waters. Many of the soldiers express their excitement to shoot at the vaguely defined ‘skinnies’ however, as a Somalian man, the informant is extremely likely to be read as a potential threat and shot by the Americans he is selling information to. Through the establishment and widespread use of the term, the Americans other all Somali people to the status of the them which is then used to validate unjust or paternalistic treatment by the us. They, the Somali people, are killing each other and cannot maintain a functioning state so we, the Americans, must intervene and restore order.
A similar dynamic is at play with racial profiling. When criminality is established as a Black trait, all Black people become justifiable targets. When the police operate with impunity, harassing 100 Black people to find one actually doing something wrong seems fine. They can’t help themselves but to commit crimes so we must step in to preserve the law. Media that does not address the conditions and motivations that lead people to take up arms (against the US) perpetuate this othering by maintaining the higher value of white lives at the cost of non-white deaths.
Black Hawk Down is a one sided account of a conflict that has played a pivotal role in the evolution of American foreign policy. Media of various forms does the same for Black people here. While the American soldiers are characterized with goals, aspirations, plans for the future and believable personalities. The Somalis are not quite vilified, but they are not given much characterization. They are, in effect, zombies carrying out the needs of the plot. Watch and listen closely to the news coverage of police murdering Black people. You will hear about how excellent the officers involved are, about their wives and kids, about how difficult and dangerous their jobs are. You will hear about the victims’ criminal record (they always check), their “combative” tone, their “suspicious” behaviours, how they resisted arrest. In BHD, hordes of Black bodies are hurled at the immense firepower of the Americans but little explanation is given for why they are willing to fight and die. Garnering public support to preemptively strike or surveil people is an easier process when the public record does not reflect humanized motivations of the ‘threatening’ group (Graham 2010, 69-71).
Big-budget films that are funded by elites and created with the support of the military are fundamentally political movies (Engert & Spencer 2009, 89). In the case of BHD, the goal was the adjustment of a narrative to establish a “dominant national interpretation of an event” (Dawson 2011, 178; Engert & Spencer 2009, 89). The usefulness of this film was recognized by, then key, conservatives like Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz. Establishing the US’s prior interventions in unstable regions as heroic and beneficial to the country being intervened in was important when making preparations to restart conflict in the Middle East to fight al-Qaeda. President Bush saw the film as a lesson for the US to not hastily pull out of a war zone because it would embolden their enemies to strike back (Slotkin 2017, 1). Bush went as far as to employ the producer of BHD to disentangle the Iraq War from the narrative metaphor of Somalia (Slotkin 2017, 1). The single side of this story keeps the deaths of countless Somali soldiers at a ‘camera-safe’ distance. Despite American lives making up a fraction of the on screen deaths, theirs are the most gruesome. The film makes a point to show dismembered fingers, a body impaled by a malfunctioning rocket propelled grenade, a torso severed from its legs, eyes gouged by glass shards, and a hand with a still ticking wrist watch being stuffed into a pocket during a firefight when it is American blood being spilled. The vast majority of on screen Somali deaths are more sanitized; shot but not dismembered, loud in their killing but much less visible in their suffering. After all, they are just skinnies.
Going forward, I would like you to consider what filmmakers, politicians and news-people want you to think after watching films depicting marginalized peoples.
Consider whose side you take across the runtime. Is it the cowboy’s? The aggressive cop who gets ‘results’? The ceaselessly greedy Wall Street broker? The protagonist is one of the villains much more often than you’d think.
Ask yourself who your us is. We all have these complexes built up inside of our selves.
Watch yourself and the people around you very, very carefully the next time a politician says they will be tough on crime. Everyone wants to feel safe--especially Black people--but this rhetoric is profoundly dangerous and is frequently used as a justification to strip people of their rights.
Dalby, Simon. 2008. Warrior Geopolitics: Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and the Kingdom of Heaven. Political Geography 27 (4): 439-55.
Engert, Stefan, and Alexander Spencer. 2009. International Relations at the Movies: Teaching and Learning About International Politics Through Film. Perspectives : Review of Central European Affairs 17 (1): 83-103.
Fussell, Paul. 2003. “The Boys’ Crusade: The American Infantry in Northwestern Europe 1944-1945.” New York, NY: Modern Library.
Graham, Stephen, 2011. “Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism.” The New Military Urbanism, 59-88. London; New York: Verso.
Hahn, Niels S. C. 2015. Neoliberal Imperialism and Pan-African Resistance. Journal of World-Systems Research 13 (2): 142-78.
Scott, Ridley. 2001. Black Hawk Down. Revolution Studios, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, & Scott Free Productions, 35 mm. From Netflix, Online Stream, 2h 24m. https://www.netflix.com/watch/60022056?trackId=13752289&tctx=0%2C0%2C0e0c1dc1-f55b-44a4-af8a-979a2ada5c52-912694589%2C%2C
Slotkin, Richard. 2017. Thinking Mythologically: Black Hawk Down, the “Platoon Movie,” and the War of Choice in Iraq. European Journal of American Studies 12 (2): 73.
Whitworth, Sandra. 2005. “Critical Security Studies and World Politics.” Militarized Masculinities and the Politics of Peacekeeping, edited by Ken Booth, 89-106. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.