The Big Picture
- Black Hawk Down fails to provide important context surrounding the Battle of Mogadishu, leaving out significant events such as the Bloody Monday raid and the killing of Pakistani soldiers, which led to misunderstandings about American involvement in Somalia.
- The film downplays the role of Pakistani and Malaysian soldiers in the battle, failing to credit them for their crucial support in providing resources and tanks to American soldiers. This lack of acknowledgment has been criticized by former Pakistani President Pervez Musharaff.
- The portrayal of key figures in the film, such as Osman Ali Atto, is inaccurate and misleading. Atto disputes his arrest being portrayed as peaceful, stating that it was actually a bloody event. Additionally, the film’s depiction of Somalis and Mogadishu does not accurately represent their physical features or cultural reality.
Thirty years ago, on October 3, 1993, the Battle of Mogadishu happened. It is also known as the “Battle of the Black Sea” by the US veterans who took part in it, or “Day of the Rangers” by the Somalis, and is popularized as “Black Hawk Down.” Ridley Scott directed the film Black Hawk Down, an adaptation of Mark Bowden‘s book of the same title. The name “Black Hawk Down” emanated from the radio call following the shooting and the ultimate fall of the US war aircraft called “Black Hawk.” A revered war film based on a true historical event, Black Hawk Down earned two Oscars, but unfortunately for Scott, he failed to win the Best Director award for the second successive time despite being nominated (the other time being with his Oscar-sweeping Gladiator the previous year). That hasn’t dampened Scott’s enthusiasm for making historical and period movies, and his upcoming Napoleon is a testament to his passion for retelling history through film. But while Black Hawk Down is acclaimed for being a game changer in depicting war, it has numerous historical inaccuracies. So, what did Ridley Scott’s blockbuster get wrong?
Black Hawk Down
The story of 160 elite U.S. soldiers who dropped into Mogadishu in October 1993 to capture two top lieutenants of a renegade warlord, but found themselves in a desperate battle with a large force of heavily armed Somalis.
‘Black Hawk Down’ Misses Important Context About the Battle of Mogadishu
Telling the story of a war that took place over 24 hours within the course of a film is no walk in the park. Ridley Scott has been praised including by military experts for how he showed the realism of urban warfare in Black Hawk Down. The film remains largely faithful to Mark Bowden’s recollection of events in his book. However, while the film attempts to put events leading up to the battle into context using text cards at the beginning, it falls short of some significant facts. For example, the film leaves out the Bloody Monday raid also known as the Abdi House raid or Operation Michigan which took place on July 12th, 1993, and had a significant influence on the Battle of Mogadishu. During the operation, the United Nations Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM) attacked the attendants of a meeting that was being held at Mohammed Farrah Aidid‘s Minister of Defense Abdi Hassan Awale‘s Mogadishu villa. Bowden notes in his book that casualties from the raid were upwards of 70, confirmed by interviews with various witnesses. This figure is disputed. The UN puts it at 13. American and UNOSOM officials insisted, according to Bowden’s book, that the operation was necessary to rid of Aidid’s staunch hardliner supporters.
Bowden, many local and foreign journalists including American war correspondent Scott Peterson (in his book Me Against My Brother: At War in Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda) as well as justice organizations like Human Rights Watch disputed the claims stating that the meeting was by clan elders meant to convince Aidid’s political party to make peace with UNOSOM. According to Peterson’s book, the significance of this raid was that it turned Somalis against Americans and foreigners, and four foreign correspondents covering the conflict were killed by locals. In the film, the locals’ rage toward American troops is vivid with their feelings on display in the scene where the “Black Hawk” is shot down. This problematic lack of context to the events in Black Hawk Down gives the impression that Somalis were against Americans who had gone to help them for no apparent reason.
Another contextual misrepresentation in the film is the killing of Pakistani soldiers by Aidid’s militia as depicted in the texts at the beginning of the film. While the film notes that, “In June, Aidid’s militia ambush and slaughter 24 Pakistani soldiers,” it fails to give the context of it. The Pakistani soldiers had reportedly gone to Radio Mogadishu which was popular in the city, and Aidid’s mouthpiece against UNOSOM, to inspect an arms cache located at the station. There had been reports circulating beforehand that the UN was planning to seize Aidid’s broadcasting infrastructure. The attack on the Pakistani soldiers by Aidid’s militia was out of that fear. While Aidid was indeed a feared, ruthless warlord, he was one warlord among many others. His portrayal of the murder of the Pakistani soldiers without this context demonizes Aidid as the sole villain responsible for Somali problems and shows his men as savages who kill for nothing. This is further enhanced in the opening sequence of the film which shows Aidid’s militia shooting at benefactors of food aid. At the time of “Black Hawk Down”, President George Bush-sanctioned US personnel had already helped alleviate the starvation problem and handed over the program to the UN. The latter in the film, particularly misleads that the American soldier’s mission leading to the Battle of Mogadishu was intended to stop Aidid from interfering with food aid for starving citizens, yet the goal of the mission was to arrest or kill Aidid following his involvement in attacking UN peacekeepers. It is this misrepresentation of facts that has led some to criticize the film as a one-sided, American-aggrandizing, rewriting of history.
‘Black Hawk Down’ Downplays Malaysian & Pakistani Soldiers’ Roles
Black Hawk Down doesn’t credit Pakistani and Malaysian soldiers who had a significant role in the battle. According to Major Jeff Struecker (portrayed by Brian Van Holt in Black Hawk Down), when the American soldiers ran out of the necessary resources for the battle, they sought the help of the UN, and several countries, particularly Pakistan and Malaysia, came to their rescue. Struecker offered kind words for the Malaysian soldiers whose actions he described as courageous and selfless. He said together with the Pakistani soldiers, they provided them with armor and tanks which was key to their survival in the battle. A Malaysian soldier even lost his life in the rescue mission. This historical fact is not included in Scott’s Black Hawk Down. Former Pakistani president the late Pervez Musharaff was dismayed by the lack of acknowledgment of the role his compatriots played in the battle in the film and criticized Black Hawk Down in his autobiography, In the Line of Fire: A Memoir.
Osman Ali Atto Disputes His Portrayal in ‘Black Hawk Down’
Osman Ali Atto was Aidid’s financier and one of the key assets that the American soldiers captured and interrogated to lead them to Aidid. In Black Hawk Down, Atto (George Harris) is arrested while in transit when the soldiers acting on intelligence, immobilize his three fleet of cars. Also in the film, Atto’s capture is largely peaceful as he surrenders upon being cornered. In an interview with the BBC, Atto disputes this portrayal. He says the arrest was bloody. “I was only traveling with one Fiat 124, not three vehicles as it shows in the film,” Atto is quoted saying, adding that his car was hit at least 50 times and people were killed.
In Black Hawk Down, Atto is a cigar-smoking, arrogant, sarcastic, earring-wearing big man, a common trope in Hollywood’s portrayal of war and drug lords. But in person, Atto is far from the character he’s portrayed as in the film. The BBC described Atto as “nothing like that in real life.” The BBC further reports that he does not smoke cigars nor does he wear any earrings, which is not only a misrepresentation but also risks cultural appropriation as traditionally, only Somali women wear earrings, and a man in his leadership position for a conservative society as he wouldn’t go against such a tradition. However, Atto seems to agree that not everything depicted in the film is untrue, and he agrees that he didn’t give his interrogators any information regarding Aidid.
It is not just Atto whose portrayal has raised criticism. The general portrayal of Somalis and Mogadishu is far from reality. Somalis have unique physical Cushitic features and the actors playing Somalis in the film do not represent that. In any case, the film has been criticized for not featuring Somali actors. The language spoken in the film is also not the language spoken in the Horn of Africa country. Mogadishu of the time too, as described in Bowden’s book, was colorful. In Scott’s Black Hawk Down, it is a ravaged, dull city.
In ‘Black Hawk Down’, Ewan McGregor’s Character’s Name Was Changed
In Black Hawk Down, Ewan McGregor plays Ranger John Grimes. Grimes, like the real person he represents, is portrayed as a hero. But the real soldier that Grimes’s character represents is Ranger John “Stebby” Stebbins. As per The Guardian, Mark Browden, the screenwriter of the film and the book it is based on has said that he was pressured by Pentagon to change the Stebby’s name after the ranger was court-marshaled and found guilty of assault and rape of an underage girl. In the Guardian article, Stebby’s wife, Nora Stebbins, wrote to the New York Post lamenting about her ex-husband’s heroic portrayal. She wrote in part, “My ex-husband is portrayed as an all-American hero when the truth is he is not.”
Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down is a visually stunning and technically impressive film whose realism of war and the feel-good human aspects of sacrifice, working together, and courage stand tall. One of Scott’s best works, it is a film you can see again and again, and thirty years after the real event it is based on, perhaps, it’s time to see it once more. However, in a world where cinema has so much influence, Black Hawk Down‘s historical inaccuracies, especially while bearing the tag “based on true events” can significantly impact public understanding of history. Black Hawk Down‘s inaccuracies while appearing like minor events, are glaring for the Somali culture and people’s perception of the Battle of Mogadishu, also known as “Black Hawk Down.”
Black Hawk Down is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video in the U.S.
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