Sunday, June 28, 2009

Book Review: Black Hawk Down

I don't think it's possible to spend much time in the Middle East without hearing about Black Hawk Down, the movie. It played on MBC2 practically every other week when we were in Syria and enjoyed inexplicable and universal popularity among my young male English students in Damascus. Somehow I managed to avoid seeing it, though. Jeremy watched it a couple of times - once by his own volition and another time while waiting to get his hair cut at a barbershop in Amman (it was playing on the TV there).

Then I read Guests of the Ayatollah a few months back, and loved it. I noticed that Mark Bowden had also written Black Hawk Down, so I checked it out. I just finished reading it last night and although my expectations were very high from reading Guests, they were not disappointed in the least.

Black Hawk Down is the story of an American military operation in Mogadishu, Somalia, that went terribly awry. The actual events of the operation belong to multiple points of view, are myriad, confused, complicated, and at times obfuscated, and ocurred in a distant, foreign environment. And yet the author manages to take the thousands of tiny pieces that make up the disaster and fit them together into a manageable, cohesive whole that aside from being true makes a riveting story. That is one of Bowden's major talents, and I admired the same skills at work in Guests.

Bowden's other strength that makes Black Hawk Down so readable is his ability to give each one of dozens of characters a recognizable trait that humanizes them for the reader. Then, he doesn't hesitate to bring up that trait again and again throughout the narrative to remind us of who he's talking about. I hope the real-life versions of these men don't mind having their entire self converted into a kind of narrative shorthand (the coffee-lover, the guy who fell out of the helicopter, the guy who cut off his own cast to join the operation, etc.). In a book with as many different detailed plot threads as this one, it really helped me jump back and forth between the various areas of action and be able to recall in an instant who was doing what when we last left them.

That is essential, because the story of Black Hawk Down is absolutely frenetic. In some ways it is what I expected it to be - violent and tragic - but I was caught off guard by the humanity of the story. I thought I would be turning the pages gingerly, averting my eyes from a gore-fest, but instead I was hardly able to tear myself away from reading it. There is violence and death, yes, but they are presented tastefully rather than in a sensational or voyeuristic manner.

In fact, I'll be totally honest: this book made me cry. I couldn't believe I was reading about a bloody street fight between two groups of soldiers and actually weeping. I was moved to tears by two specific parts of the story that I'll share briefly (SPOILER ALERT).The first was as I read the account of a combat medic's attempts to save a young soldier's life in impossible circumstances (they were still very much in the middle of a street fight and were temporarily taking cover in a courtyard they'd taken over). The soldier had been wounded quite badly and was slowly bleeding to death despite the medic's best efforts. Everything depended on the wounded soldier being evacuated from the scene as soon as possible. And yet everything seemed to be conspiring against that very thing being able to happen.

The other part that affected me deeply was when two Delta operatives volunteered to try to rescue the crew of a downed helicopter, the second that had crashed that day (of four that would eventually be shot down). All of the actual rescue components had already been sent to the first helicopter crash site, leaving none to assist this second chopper that had been shot down in a more vulnerable part of the city. Even as the Delta soldiers were dropped into the area, a crowd of hundreds (if not thousands) of angry, armed Somalis were running through the streets to the site of the crash. There was almost certainly nothing the two Delta operatives could do for the injured and isolated crew. But they went anyway, and defended the helicopter's crew for as long as they could until they, too, were killed. In my world, I would be tempted to say that was stupid or pointless, but in theirs it was simple duty and bravery, and that really moved me (SPOILERS OVER).

Even if you don't like "war books," as I generally don't (with this recent exception), I think you could really appreciate Black Hawk Down. It may not be gentle or sanitized, but it is intelligent, straightforward, and compelling. Just be warned: it might make you cry.


Liz Johnson said...


Thanks! I'm really excited for this one!

Amanda said...

We rented this movie from CleanFlicks (is that place still around?) when I was at BYU and even the edited version made me want to throw up it was so violent. But you've made the book sound better so maybe I'll check it out.

Kristen said...

I have been wanting to read this does it compare to Lone Survivor? I want to read them both. The author's ability to identify each of the "characters" is one little thing I felt was missing in Desperate Passage. I found myself often flipping to the chart in the front of the book to remember who was who.

Bridget said...

Kristen, Lone Survivor is more "earthy" and much narrower in scope. I enjoyed both for different reasons. Having read Lone Survivor first helped me understand Black Hawk Down better, because it goes into so much detail about special forces training.


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