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Culture Vulture: Somalia: The New Far West

By CLAUDE SALHANI   |   Jan. 8, 2002 at 11:23 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Jan. 8 (UPI) -- In light of the horrific events of these last few months you may have been asking yourself why people in the Middle East, or other developing countries, hate Americans so much.

The answers of course are many, and often, too complicated to address in a single column. One attempt to offer some insight might be observed in two simple lines of text that appear at the end of the film "Black Hawk Down," that opens in the United States, Friday, Jan. 11.

Before the credits start to roll at the close of Oscar winner Ridley (Gladiator) Scott's latest film, the audience is informed that as a result of the battles that have just unfolded during the previous 2 hours and 15 minutes, "about 1,000 Somalis were killed and 19 Americans died. It then goes on to name the 19 Americans.

There is no doubt that the Somalis engaged in the battle against a United Nations-sanctioned force were bad guys -- undisciplined, murderous, ragtag militiamen loyal to warlord Mohammad Farah Aidid--who pushed Somalia into famine, civil war, and other associated disasters. The result of Aidid's actions and those of other warlords provoked the deaths of more than 300,000 people in a country slightly smaller than Texas.

What Aidid and his henchmen did to Somalia make the actions of Mullah Omar and the Taliban in Afghanistan appear tame by comparison.

Yet, the lack of sympathy shown toward the "locals" is exactly what much of the world begrudges the United States: lack of care for the "other side," and a belief that Americans regard their lives to be worth more than others.

A similarity can be drawn with the recent reports from the current war that about 1,000 civilians were killed by U.S. aerial bombardments in Afghanistan - reports that have attracted little or no attention in the American press, and that the Pentagon shrugs off as inaccurate.

In the film, American soldiers -- Delta Force and Rangers -- continuously refer to the Somalis as "skinnies," and the capital is called "The Mog."

"No one here calls it Mogadishu," a newly arrived G.I. is corrected.

The sole American in the film who says he "respects" the Somalis for being able to survive without an infrastructure, education, hope, or even a future, is practically ridiculed by his fellow Rangers.

The film, based on Mark Bowden's acclaimed book, depicts a realistic vision of the inferno offered by combat. It tells the true story of America's short and disastrous involvement in the devastated East African country during President Clinton's Administration. This was America's first war -- or rather attempted war -- on terrorism.

Much like Afghanistan, when the United States abandoned it after the Soviet pullout in 1989, and Iraq, after Bush 41 called an early end to the 1991 desert campaign, here too, America's 1993 Somali involvement was too short and the end too abrupt.

American foreign policy once again suffered from continued interest-deficiency syndrome -- and paid the price for it.

Don't be surprised if you see American troops return to the God-forsaken impoverished East African country in the very near future as the Bush

administration continues to ferret out Islamist radicals and al Qaida operatives.

Technically, the film is extremely well done, and although filmed in Morocco, the sets have been faithful in recreating the proper East African atmosphere. It's not surprising, seeing that Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer hired senior American military officers who directed the real battle from the command and control center at Mogadishu airport, and from the C-2 "birds" that flew continuously over the battle zone, to advise them.

"Black Hawk Down" offers a modern version of the classic "Western epic" -- of cowboys and Indians. Except here bows and arrows have been replaced by

Kalashnikov AK47 assault rifles, six-shooters by M16s, Winchesters by M203 grenade launchers and Soviet-made RPGs; horses were traded in for Black Hawk helicopters, humvees, and pickup trucks mounted with 120mm recoilless cannons and 50mm caliber machine guns.

Even small details, such as the Ranger bringing his head into his shoulders as he crossed a street under intense enemy sniper fire, gave the film certain realism. This tactic was once taught to this correspondent by a French mercenary fighting with Christian Lebanese militiamen in Beirut during a crash course on urban warfare survival. It was a tactic that paid off.

The film is almost one, long, continuous gun battle interrupted by short bursts of gory scenes depicting soldiers badly in need of immediate medical attention, which is hard to get in the heat of battle. This is definitely not a movie for the faint of heart, or those who cannot stand the sight of blood.

While Rangers and Delta Special Forces troopers look extremely cool in their fighting outfits, night vision goggles, and expensive deadly toys for big boys, the reality of death and injury in battle might just discourage many from seeing this movie.

This film should be required viewing for anyone about to order young people into battle.

Why men continue to inflict such horror upon their fellow men never ceases to amaze me. "Why do we do it?" asks one of the soldiers the moment he realizes that he has survived the battle and will live to see another day. Like anyone who has survived such madness, he carries about him that elation of knowing he has seen death, looked it in the face, and cheated it.

Others died, but not him. That, in itself, is reason enough for celebration. Yet, he is ready to go back in and tease death once more. Why? It's a feeling and a question that only combat veterans - fighters and those who document it -- will understand, and possibly offer answers that only others who have faced similar predicaments might understand. Others will call them fools.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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