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Fear and Black Hawk Down

(Happy Holidays! On Violence will leave you with this post until Monday, when we begin our discussion on the most informative foreign policy event of the year. For last minute shopping tips, check out the On Violence Christmas Recommendations.)

Before I deployed to Afghanistan, I feared death. But the first time I truly felt afraid was while watching Black Hawk Down.

I first watched Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down in high school and, like everyone else who was in the movie’s target demographic, I loved it. Filled with violence, heavy weapons and wartime glory, Scott made the perfect war film for young males. True, many young American tragically die throughout the film, but interspersed between the deaths are feats of heroism performed by Rangers and Delta Force, like when William Fichtner throws a grenade through a window like a hundred yards away to blow up a sniper position.

So Black Hawk Down joined my DVD collection. I watched this film all the time in college, sometimes with fraternity brothers, other times with co-eds (Josh Hartnett helped in this regard). Great sound and special effects, based on a terrific book, well directed and shot, what’s not to like?

After my first year at UCLA, I joined the Army ROTC. In the spring, we did our yearly training exercises at a training area near Monterey. I fired my M4 at ranges and participated in squad combat drills with blank rounds. I spent a summer at Cadet Command’s Warrior Forge training for two weeks in squad, section and platoon operations. The sound of an M4 firing became embedded in my head. The sound became real for me.

During my senior year at UCLA,, we received our branch assignments. I would branch into the Infantry, something I both wanted and feared, because I wanted to be a real soldier but I was afraid of dying. I made peace with the fact that I would deploy to Iraq. Deploying became real to me.

A few weeks after receiving our branches, I rewatched Black Hawk Down. All of a sudden, the sounds of an M4 firing were not detached movie sounds. They were real. The deaths of the soldiers were no longer an intellectual fact I simply knew; it was an emotional fact I understood. The soldiers became real; the emotions became my own. I realized I was watching real soldiers who died.

The deaths were real, something that could happen to me.

Suddenly, I was afraid.

ten comments

Must say, I’m quite surprised you liked the film so much. I have to admit, it’s a while ago since I saw it, but I really hated the way they were deployed and wondered what kind of an idiot would act upon such unreliable intel, it just really pissed me off – together with most of the guys not grabbing the basic supplies, because they thought it would be over in no time and then they ran out of water, ammo… well as the audience you then easily loose compassion for the heroes, because as far as some of them are concerned you think they’ve asked for it, because they either weren’t prepared or/and their assessment of the situation was not very accurate. For the rest of the guys I felt really sorry, because as usual, they were the ones who were totally fucked, because somebody else messed up.

Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate your post and most of all your honesty… it just really freaked me out to watch those poor f… being on a complete suicide mission. I really wonder what goes on in the head of such an a-hole who orders an assault like that in broad day light! A person like that surely doesn’t give a damn about anything or anybody and only cares about what he can get away with here and now!

I like Black hawk Down for some of the reasons you mentioned. It shows the Army at it’s highest, like when the one soldier who is bleeding wants to go back out and save more men, and it’s lowest, like leaving the base unprepared. It also is the perfect analogy for American complacency pre-9/11.

In other word, warts and all, it is an honest portrayal. Like Band of Brothers, I think that is why soldiers like it.

I will second Eric’s opinion that honesty is what makes this movie succeed. It was also a very important event in the psyche of the American military.

Great post Michael and I agree with Eric, this movie was honest and that’s what made it stick.

Michael- you wanted to be a real soldier, eh? Looking back, that is probably why I didn’t choose infantry…it was over hyped and attracted all the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

I think it is worth mentioning that the movie & book debunk the ‘real soldier’ ideal.

Happy new year!

Yeah real soldier is the wrong phrase exactly. I just meant more along the lines of the the sharp end of the stick type thinking. You know what I mean though.

I consider Jon more of a soldier, he has a sapper tab.

Did I spell any of that correctly?

I do know what you mean and sapper is spelled correctly. What scared me the most are the soldiers that get pumped up by the film. I’m pretty sure it has ruined the branch selection process for our decade. Everyone wants to be an airborne ranger and kill thousands of untrained third-world militia men with spectacular grenade throws. It didn’t hit me until later that ADSO was a truly scary thing, the guys wanting nothing more than to be a leader in a movie like blackhawk down are now in charge of 35 guys who also joined for the same reason…and they are tasked with fighting a population centric war…scary!

Yeah we have a quote coming up on that sentiment. Basically, that insurgency sucks (or isn’t fair) because the guys won’t stand up and fight you man to man.

I don´t know how many times I´ve heard people say they joined because they saw Blackhawk Down, I don´t think the US military could have asked for a better film for recruiting. Its important to remember though that its just a film, and it has the limitations all story mediums do: its not reality to the listener/reader/viewer. Although it is based on prior events, the listener/reader/viewer is not and cannot be a participant in the story, they will never in reality be the Star Trek extra in a red suit. A good story teller may or may not try to emphasize that point as accuarately or dramatically as possible though, depending on the way they want it to be perceived to the audience.

A good story teller chooses what to focus on in their storytelling on, and in Black Hawk Down the heroism of the Army units involved were clearly emphasized. They didn´t choose to focus on the significance of a lost life either Somali or from US Soldiers. For the soldiers lost it was portrayed as something slightly tragic and a setback to the mission rather than dwelling on the complete implications, and a dead Somali was simply a symbol of the competency and heroism of the Army units involved. In that respect it was only slightly better than a video game to me, those people who did die in those actual events will never be able to offer their opinion though.

I think this post does make an important point though, war is not a video game, a hollywood movie, or a a game of paintball no matter how accurately you try to reconstruct it and portray it:


I had a huge problem with Black Hawk Down not because of the quality of filmography, but because it was based on a true story and there were decisions that agonized me from a command decision standpoint. There’s a point when the survivor of the first downed hawk is evaced out. All that remain are bodies. Dead bodies of American soldiers. We’ve heard the motto “never leave a man behind,” but this portayal takes the adage to the extreme. The cost of removing the dead soldiers is now the lives of other soldiers. My point is, is it worth sending five soldiers to die so one soldier’s family has a full coffin to put in the ground?