The latest war blockbuster to hit the silver screen, "Black Hawk Down," a recount of a deadly Army gunfight in Somalia, is being compared with Steven Spielberg's World War II epic "Saving Private Ryan" for graphically depicting the fog of war. Indeed, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Ridley Scott do a splendid job of showing how confusion is only heightened in the breakneck pace of urban warfare. The Army agrees. "It's a movie--particularly for those who fought in a war--that you experience. I don't think it's a movie you necessarily enjoy," said Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. John Keane in a recent Defense Department press releasing touting the movie that opened nationally two weeks ago. Army Secretary Tom White also played movie critic and, in true Roger Ebert-style, gave the picture a "thumbs up." The movie recounts how an October 1993 attempt to round up the associates of Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid left 18 U.S. soldiers dead and dozens more wounded, two Black Hawk helicopters destroyed and more than 1,000 Somalis dead following an 18-hour gun battle in the burned-out streets of Mogadishu. The film was based on the extensive research of Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden, who first detailed the battle in a newspaper series and then expanded on that work in the widely praised and bestselling book, Black Hawk Down. The Pentagon was eager to turn the military's bloodiest gunfight since Vietnam into a motion picture. The Army even had a hand in the film, allowing the movie makers to borrow actual Army Black Hawks, permitting the actors to go through Ranger training and sending dozens of soldiers to provide support and act as extras when the movie was shot in Morocco. (The filmmakers reimbursed the Army several million dollars for the use of the helicopters and the Ranger training.) Surely, the military and civilian leaders who work in the Pentagon consider the money well spent since the movie gives viewers a taste of how nasty urban warfare can be. And most viewers will walk out of the theater viewing the military special forces as heroes of the 'Battle of the Black Sea.' Still, the two-hour drama falls short of its enormous potential to educate the American public about why the U.S. intervenes in Third World nations. The movie also never fully addresses why the mission, while successful in capturing Aidid's henchmen, was fraught with casualties and led the military to leave Somalia within weeks, as if it had been whipped. Fortunately, Bowden's book sketches in the background of U.S. involvement in Somalia and provides a complete picture of how intra-service rivalries, poor air-to-ground communications, a lack of commitment from Washington, and challenges in managing a multinational force doomed the mission. A two-hour film probably does not have the time, and maybe not the audience interest, to delve into all these issues, but even a glimpse would have provided a truer portrait of modern warfare. To its credit, the Army has made Bowden's book required reading for its top officers. Bowden, who never wrote about the military before his assignment in Somalia, has even been asked to lecture on what he learned at service leadership training conferences. Last week, the Newhouse News Service reported that soldiers in the Army's 10th Mountain Division, who are on hair-trigger alert for deployment in the war on terrorism, were ordered to watch "Black Hawk Down" as part of their preparations. Not a bad idea, but here's a better one: Bowden's book should find its way into the knapsacks of those soldiers when they are deployed. They could read it the on the long plane ride to the 21st century's urban battlefields.
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