'Setting the Record Straight' on 'Black Hawk Down'

July 7, 2008 - 8:03 PM

(CNSNews.com) - The author of "Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War" says his book, and the new movie based on it, were intended to focus on the individual successes and heroism of the American soldiers who took part in the 1993 gun battle in Somalia.

While most Americans remember that battle as a notable failure of the Clinton administration, the word "failure" does not apply to the men who fought there, said Mark Bowden, the book's author, and Jerry Bruckheimer, the movie's producer.

They, along with military officials who took part in the Somali battle, gathered in Washington Tuesday for a panel discussion about the positive aspects of a mission gone wrong. The movie "Black Hawk Down" premiered in Washington several hours later.

"There is no question that because of this battle, the loss of those who participated in the fight, the political decisions made to abandon that mission, and in a sense, our whole effort in Somalia...the public perception of [the battle] is that it ended in failure," said Bowden.

In the early 1990s, the United Nations sent a coalition into Somalia, a country ravaged by famine and chaos, to try to stabilize the country. U.S. Special Forces were stationed just outside the Somali capital, Mogadishu, where they planned to take out Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and his infrastructure.

On the afternoon of Oct. 3, 1993, U.S. Special Forces went into Mogadishu on what was supposed to be an hour-long mission to capture two of Aidid's top lieutenants. The mission did not go as planned, however, and from one misstep to the next, a small group of American soldiers ended up surrounded and pinned down by an entire city of armed and angry Somalis.

Two Black Hawk helicopters crashed; 18 U.S. soldiers died; and dozens more were injured. On the Somali side, the toll was five hundred killed and over a thousand wounded.

Shortly after the mission - recounted in excruciating detail in the book -- the U.S. pulled out of Somalia.

'Betrayed, abandoned, misunderstood'

Bowden says there were two sides to the battle, one political and one militaristic. He said that despite the public perception of failure that surrounded the political aspect of the battle, the military men who fought in it were successful.

"What Black Hawk Down, the book and the movie, do is focus on the military mission of Oct. 3 and 4, during which this task force went out to find two lieutenants, top figures in Aidid's inner circle, target them, arrest them and carry them out of the city," Bowden said.

"We accomplished that mission, (although) they clearly encountered far greater difficulty and hostility than they had ever imagined...but they succeeded and most of them fought their way out of the city alive.

"The military men regarded their mission as a success that day, and that helps you understand why so many men who fought this battle have felt so betrayed, abandoned and misunderstood by the public perception," he said.

One of the major criticisms of the mission involved the lack of military backup for the Army Rangers and Delta Force soldiers who went in to Mogadishu.

President Clinton's Secretary of Defense Lee Aspin, just weeks before the mission began, had denied Task Force Ranger the use of the AC-130 Spectre gunship, which was considered to have among the best aerial firepower in the military.

Bowden said that had the weapon been made available, the mission would have gone much differently.

"The Clinton administration had decided not to send the AC-130 gunship with the force, because it was a very high-profile weapon," Bowden said. "There is every reason to believe that if [U.S. troops] would have had that weapon that day, that there wouldn't have been this tremendous loss of life, either Somali or American."

Colonel Thomas Matthews, a military consultant for the film who served as the Air Mission Commander with Task Force Ranger in Mogadishu in 1993, said the public perception of the battle was and still is misguided.

Matthews said subsequent television images of an angry mob of Somalis dragging dead American soldiers through the streets gave Americans the wrong impression of the success of the battle.

Matthews said the military operation - on a tactical level - was a "kick-butt accomplished mission."

"What people don't understand oftentimes is that when you employ the military...there is a cost and a consequence.

"There was a lack of awareness [in the media], that was what people were reacting to when they saw those pictures, but when you employ the military, you have to be able to stand up and accept responsibility [for using military force]," he said.

Colonel Lee Van Arsdale, a military consultant for the film and the officer in charge of the Joint Operations Center who helped lead the rescue envoy into Mogadishu, said the film - set for nationwide release on Friday -- does a good job of setting the record straight on the success of the soldiers who took part in the battle.

"I remember well the reports that came out immediately after the fourth of October," Arsdale said. "You couldn't see a headline that didn't have the word debacle, or failure, or bungled mission, and that is the perception that continues today.

"That is one reason I am glad this movie is being made [because it]will counter that perception that it wasn't a failure, debacle, but none of the above," he said.

Accentuating the positive

Jerry Bruckheimer said his movie seeks to emphasize the American soldiers' individual acts of heroism, rather than focus on the 'debacle' aspect of the entire operation.

"I like to make films about heroic deeds, brotherhood, and things we hope we find in our daily lives, especially these young men who fought, who gave up their lives for the man next to them. Those are deeds I feel are wonderful," Bruckheimer said.

"When I read ["Black Hawk Down"], and when you look into this battle, [I saw] something other than what I saw on CNN, the young rangers being dragged through the streets, [which is] all I knew about Mogadishu before I read this book.

"I felt, as a filmmaker, I had to set the record straight," he said. "They don't make the policy, they enforce it. They are given a mission, and in this mission, they had one hand tied behind their back."