Monbiot: Both Saviour and Victim [Black Hawk Down]
By George Monbiot
31/1/2002 3:38 pm Thu
The film Black Hawk Down is helping to create a new myth of
American nationhood, which threatens everyone on earth
By George Monbiot. (Published in the Guardian 29th January 2002)
The more powerful a nation becomes, the more it asserts its
victimhood. In contemporary British eyes, the greatest atrocities of
the 18th and 19th centuries were those perpetrated on compatriots in
the Black Hole of Calcutta or during the Indian mutiny and the siege
of Khartoum. The extreme manifestations of the white man's burden,
these events came to symbolise the barbarism and ingratitude of the
savage races the British had sought to rescue from their darkness.
Today the attack on New York is discussed as if it were the worst
thing to have happened to any nation in recent times. Few would
deny that it was a major atrocity, but we are required to offer the
American people a unique and exclusive sympathy. Now that
demand is being extended to earlier American losses.
Black Hawk Down looks set to become one of the bestselling movies
of all time. Like all the films the British-born director Ridley Scott has
made, it is gripping, intense and beautifully shot. It is also a stunning
misrepresentation of what happened in Somalia.
In 1992 the United States walked into Somalia with good intentions.
George Bush senior announced that America had come to do "God's
work" in a nation devastated by clan warfare and famine. But, as
Scott Peterson's firsthand account Me Against My Brother shows,
the mission was doomed by intelligence failures, partisan
deployments and, ultimately, the belief that you can bomb a nation
into peace and prosperity.
Before the US government handed over the administration of Somalia
to the United Nations in 1993, it had already made several
fundamental mistakes. It had backed the clan chiefs Mohamed Farah
Aideed and Ali Mahdi against another warlord, shoring up their
power just as it had started to collapse. It had failed to recognise that
the competing clan chiefs were ready to accept largescale
disarmament, if it were carried out impartially. Far from resolving the
conflict between the clans, the US accidentally enhanced it.
After the handover, the UN's Pakistani peacekeepers tried to seize
Aideed's radio station, which was broadcasting anti-UN propaganda.
The raid was bungled, and 25 of the soldiers were killed by Aideed's
supporters. A few days later, Pakistani troops fired on an unarmed
crowd, killing women and children. The United Nations force,
commanded by a US admiral, was drawn into a blood feud with
As the feud escalated, US special forces were brought in to deal with
the man now described by American intelligence as "the Hitler of
Somalia". Aideed, who was certainly a ruthless and dangerous man,
but also just one of several clan leaders competing for power in the
country, was blamed for all Somalia's troubles. The UN's
peacekeeping mission had been transformed into a partisan war.
The special forces, over-confident and hopelessly ill-informed,
raided, in quick succession, the headquarters of the UN
Development Programme, the charity World Concern and the offices
of Medecins sans Frontieres. They managed to capture, among
scores of innocent civilians and aid workers, the chief of the UN's
police force. But farce was soon repeated as tragedy. When some of
the most senior members of Aideed's clan gathered in a building in
Mogadishu to discuss a peace agreement with the United Nations,
the US forces, misinformed as ever, blew them up, killing 54 people.
Thus they succeeded in making enemies of all the Somalis. The
special forces were harried by gunmen from all sides. In return, US
troops in the UN compound began firing missiles at residential areas.
So the raid on one of Aideed's buildings on October 3rd 1993, which
led to the destruction of two Black Hawk helicopters and the deaths
of 18 American soldiers, was just another round of America's grudge
match with the warlord. The troops who captured Aideed's officials
were attacked by everyone: gunmen came even from the rival militias
to avenge the deaths of the civilians the Americans had killed. The
US special forces, with an understandable but ruthless regard for
their own safety, locked Somali women and children into the house
in which they were beseiged.
Ridley Scott says that he came to the project without politics, which
is what people often say when they subscribe to the dominant point
of view. The story he relates (with the help of the US Department of
Defense and the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff) is the
story the American people need to tell themselves.
The purpose of the raid on October 3rd, Black Hawk Down suggests,
was to prevent Aideed's murderous forces from starving Somalia to
death. No hint is given of the feuding between him and the UN, other
than the initial attack on the Pakistani peacekeepers. There is no
recognition that the worst of the famine had passed, or that the US
troops had long ceased to be part of the solution. The US
hostage-taking, even the crucial role played by Malaysian soldiers
in the Rangers' rescue, have been excised from the record. Instead
-- and since September 11th this has become a familiar theme --
the attempt to capture Aideed's lieutenants was a battle between
good and evil, civilisation and barbarism.
The Somalis in Black Hawk Down speak only to condemn
themselves. They display no emotions other than greed and the lust
for blood. Their appearances are accompanied by sinister Arab
techno, while the US forces are trailed by violins, oboes and vocals
inspired by Enya. The American troops display horrific wounds. They
clutch photos of their loved ones and ask to be remembered to their
parents or their children as they die. The Somalis drop like flies,
killed cleanly, dispensable, unmourned.
Some people have compared Black Hawk Down to the British film
Zulu. There is some justice in this comparison, but the Somalis here
offer a far more compelling personification of evil than the blundering,
belligerent Zulus. They are sinister, deceitful and inscrutable; more
like the British caricature of the Chinese during the opium wars.
What we are witnessing in both Black Hawk Down and the current
war against terrorism is the creation of a new myth of nationhood.
America is casting itself simultaneously as the world's saviour and
the world's victim; a sacrificial messiah, on a mission to deliver the
world from evil. This myth contains incalculable dangers for
everyone else on earth.
To discharge its sense of unique grievance, the US government has
hinted at what may become an asymmetric world war. It is no
coincidence that Somalia comes close to the top of the list of nations
it may be prepared to attack. This war, if it materialises, will be led
not by the generals in their bunkers, but by the people who construct
the story the nation chooses to believe.
29th January 2002