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Book News


A special feature brought to you by
Salon Magazine
bookcover

Book recreates the gory confusion of battle

'Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War'
by Mark Bowden

Atlantic Press Monthly

Review by Mark Schone
www.salonmagazine.com

(SALON) -- One reason movies about war are so hot right now is that few American males have had to face the real thing. For a man who's never braved enemy fire, who's never been "tested," "The Thin Red Line" and "Saving Private Ryan" can seem like parables of character. Would I, the ticket buyer wonders, be willing to die for a nameless hill or an unknown soldier?

But the blood in these filmed battles is spilled for a larger cause, by men of every station. In real time, long after the last Good War, the dying hasn't stopped; now, though, it's done by blue-collar volunteers in morally muddy police actions. Never has the murk been more obscure than it was in Somalia on Oct. 3, 1993, when, in the American military's nastiest firefight since Vietnam, 19 soldiers died in the name of little more than one another. An incident that began with two downed helicopters ended with American casualties being dragged through the streets and American policymakers scrambling for the exit.

EXCERPT Begin reading 'Black Hawk Down'

"Black Hawk Down" re-creates, with exacting detail, the gory confusion of that day, when questions of heroism were far from cinematic. Mark Bowden's work ethic inspired him to track down 50 veterans of the conflict and bring back Mogadishu whole. He conveys the sound and the feel of killing -- of what it's like to watch your bullets splash through a stranger and of the claustrophobic panic you feel when the strangers you are shooting at begin to close in. He established such trust with his subjects that they told him about everything from the banal ("It felt like a movie") to the brutal (trying to plug a spurting artery with an index finger) to the embarrassing (masturbation in combat). We're reminded that these are young men with excess animal energy that surfaces in both violence and sex, that the flip side of valor is an evil carnal thrill. "That was the secret core of all the hoo-ah ... esprit," Bowden writes. "Permission ... to break the biggest social taboo of all. You killed people."

Mogadishu has already inspired several books and documentaries, with another set for CNN in April. Spy planes and surveillance cameras made it one of history's best-documented battles. Bowden's rendering, however, is the most accurate and extensive, because in addition to first-person accounts he wrangled access to confidential Army action logs. He also moves beyond Soldier of Fortune-style bravado, interviewing dozens of enemy combatants so that we can learn why a thousand angry Somalis threw themselves into the high-tech maw of the Army Rangers, sacrificing their lives just to teach the U.S. government a lesson. Sometimes the book bogs down in this conscientious detail -- Bowden wants us to know where every man was at every minute. So much data and so many different dramas and casts are braided into this one engagement that the account becomes confusing; more maps and recaps might've helped keep it straight.

This is the sort of crowded time line that Web sites were invented for. In fact, the Rangers have used Bowden's original Philadelphia Inquirer articles as the core of their own Mogadishu cyber-memorial, linking the text to maps and bios in a shorter, tighter version of events. But if Bowden had also opted for simplicity, imposing a dramatic arc on confusion and paring away supporting characters, he'd have left some men's last hours unremembered. In other words, if he'd made his peerless record of this forgotten war more like a Web site, he'd have been making it more like a war movie. And that will happen soon enough anyway, because Jerry Bruckheimer has already bought the rights to the book.

Mark Schone is a senior contributing writer at Spin.

News, Views, Issues, Interviews. It's all here. Get your fix with Salon Magazine's Newsreal.


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