Representations of post-modern spaces in Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down


“Tu’un me loose, fo’ I kick the natal stuffin’ outen you,” sez Brer Rabbit, sezee, but de Tar-Baby, she ain’t sayin’ nuthin’. She des hilt on . . ..”

Michael Boughn

Space is of course as fundamental to war as war is to space, though we don’t always think of it that way. We think of war as the extension of politics, or, more recently, politics as the extension of war. But however we choose to think of the meaning of war, of its content, it remains in every case determined by, even as it determines, fundamental qualities of space. Space, in that sense, is not a container for war. It determines the nature of war. Clausewitz, the great analyst of modern war, understood war in the context of a world in which nations competed for territory. The goal of war was the occupation, integration, homogenization and disciplining of space. In order for those tasks to make sense, space needed to be of a distinct nature. It had boundaries, surface, and depth. It was penetrable. It was capable of holding or containing fluid formations that became stable formations once the space was occupied. It was commensurable using Euclidean measure. But this space of nations, which is the space of modernity, is only one possible space.

Space, in other words, is both Taken and Given in equal measure. The shapes, textures and folds of space, its emptiness and vastness, its crowdedness and its intimate closeness are functions of imagination, and imagination itself is implicated (and explicated) in shared modes of being in the world. When decisive changes have been made in the thinking and practice of war, it has involved the recognition and creation of new space. Oliver Cromwell, a new kind of warrior from a new class, was able to see the space of battle not as a container of fixed positions, as his opponents did, but as a field of dynamic forces. He altered the organization of the military, its technology and its tactics, to successfully maximize the use of that space at Marston Moor and Naseby. The new English bourgeoisie never looked back.

            As an institution and as an organization, the modern military is highly mobile, technologically advanced, and overwhelmingly powerful as we recently witnessed in Iraq. But its differences from Cromwell’s New Model Army are quantitative rather than qualitative. Although it is bigger and faster and saturated with information, it continues to operate in the same space as Cromwell’s army. For Paul Virilio, instant communication has led to a new kind of war which is sometimes called post-modern. That may very well be, but as the U.S. invasion of Iraq demonstrated, the objectives and the strategy remain determined by the State’s push to penetrate, occupy, and homogenize space, and having done that to then recreate itself in viral and geometric fashion. It just does it faster and more efficiently, and always against someone who has no hope in that space of standing up to its overwhelming force.

Ridley Scott’s 2001 film, Black Hawk Down, explores what happens when the modern military institution finds itself engaged in conflict in a different kind of space. Filmed in 2000, the movie’s general release was held up until January 2002 because of worries about the how the movie would be received after the events of September 11, 2001. Even so the film opened to extremely mixed reviews. It was largely seen as an action movie and criticized from all political directions for lacking a political viewpoint. This is because Scott never makes any explicit moral claims in film. Rather than an epic tribute to the sacrifice of soldiers such as Saving Private Ryan was, or a moral condemnation of violence such as Apocalypse Now was, Scott’s film explores in minute detail how the State’s military is undone when it attempts to use its mobile technological might to penetrate Mogadishu. It is undone because it is unprepared to deal with the spaces of Mogadishu which are neither the space of modernity, the space of nations, nor the tribal spaces the colonialists encountered in their first occupation of Africa. Scott recontextualizes the notion of post-modern war imagined in terms of the U.S.’s advanced technology and information control. Of course all that’s there in spades. Arguably much of the trouble the U.S. forces get enmeshed in is due to the arrogance overwhelming technological might breeds. But Black Hawk Down seems to propose that whatever makes this war other than modern, it’s more than just changes in equipment, logistics, and communications within the modern State’s military. Scott represents the very ground the war is fought on, both literally and figuratively, as of another world and another order, an order that cripples the State’s might.

The spaces of Mogadishu in the film are the antithesis of the isotropic, homogenous spaces of modernity. Those spaces are represented in the American camp with its broad open spaces largely determined by the needs of its technology, and to a lesser degree in the invocation of suburban America itself during a scene where a soldier attempts to phone his wife before the mission begins. The spaces of Mogadishu are cramped, close, indeterminate, shifting, and hostile to communication. They are fold upon fold refolded. The channels are fluid and constantly moving. What was a street one moment becomes a dead end the next. What was a cul-de-sac unexpectedly becomes a passage. It’s a place in which the progress of the fighting is utterly fickle and unpredictable, moving in fits and starts and swirling bursts. In one of the film’s darkly comic moments, two American soldiers who have dug into a classic defensive position find themselves suddenly abandoned by the war which has swept around them in a chaotic tumult. They have to reluctantly abandon their fixed position and chase after the fighting. There is no stability in these spaces and the line of sight is limited to the other side of the street or across the square. No one can see what’s going on. Increasingly, and significantly, this includes even General Garrison, the U.S. commander, back the base watching the events unfold through his not-so-panoptic eye in the sky.

These unsettled spaces of flows, of blockages and interferences and unpredictable discharges are unrelated to economic “development”—as in not enough, as if there were only one possible mode of becoming developed and ordered with all human worlds stretched out along its singular line. These spaces have been formed not out of want (not that there isn’t want) but from the multiplicitous energies growing out of Europe’s great sweep across the planet. They do not precede the space of modernity. They follow from it, multiplying in its wake. Postmodernity in the Mogadishu represented in Black Hawk Down has its own measure, one whose trajectory is heavily inflected both by its tribal heritage and its influences from Europe, but which is other than both.

This Mogadishu is anything but “primitive,” undeveloped, or unordered as the Americans tend to think. The Somalis’ access to technology, markets, and media all tend to level out many of the disparities that once characterized their relationship with the European powers. The 1964 film, Zulu, depicts a crucial moment in the European colonization of Africa where the Africans, though vastly outnumbering the English, are unable to overcome them, mostly because of an enormous gap in technology—rifles against spears and a different attitude to warfare. Black Hawk Down depicts a similar moment some 150 years later, the main difference being that the African warriors are now armed to the teeth with many of the same weapons that the Americans have including, most significantly, rocket-propelled grenades, arguably the Colt .44 of postmodern warfare. As well, the international markets in which the Africans purchase the arms, the changes in their organization because of new communications technology including conspicuously, cell phones, the knowledge and manipulation of the panoptic attentions of the international media, all contribute to an overwhelming sense of the sophistication of the Somalis—a sophistication all the more sharply etched for it’s contrast with the Biblical conditions of their circumstance.

Bruce Sterling, in an early dystopian critique of globalization (Islands in the Net), ended on a despairing vision of the Globalized Corporate State absorbing and commodifying the very technology that the resistance developed to fight it. Scotts’ film proposes that the opposite actually has become the case in postmodern warfare. The enormous technological advantage of the State turns into its crucial weakness in a double sense. The State, even as it relies on technology to provide an advantage of force, cannot control the dispersal of that technology among those it intends to overcome. This is not even an issue of the so-called weapons of mass destruction that has become an obsession with the current Anglo-American axis. It’s a matter of cell phones and rocket propelled grenades. Because technology itself is out of control, the resistance to the homogenizing push of the State gains access to critical means of communication and force that tend to equalize its relation to the State. The other problem for the State is that the more complex and powerful the technological force it mobilizes (and at the same time becomes enslaved to as Heidegger pointed out some time ago), the more vulnerable it is to the uncontrollable distribution and circulation of that technology. All it takes is one child with a cell phone to alert the warriors in Mogadishu to the impending U.S. attack, neutralizing the elements of speed and surprise the U.S. forces counted on. All it takes is one guy in a cheap nylon shirt with an RPG to bring down the first Black Hawk, bringing the entire American operation to a screeching halt.

In one of the early scenes in the movie the Americans capture a Somali arms merchant, Osman Atto. He is a fellow clan member with Aidid and a businessman who is supplying Aidid’s militia with weapons purchased in international arms markets. He is interrogated by General Garrison, the American commander (played by Sam Shepard). Most of the scene is shot as a close up of Atto’s perspiring face as he smokes a Cuban cigar and verbally jousts with Garrison over whether or not cigars made in Florida (which Garrison smokes, having declined Atto’s offer of a true Bolivar) could ever match a real Cuban. Implicit in the exchange over cigars is a debate about international politics that sets up the extraordinary tension between these two men. The intensity of Atto’s gaze, the sense of intelligence and malice that haunt his voice and eyes, position him not as a prisoner but as an opponent, and one who may very well have the better hand. At one point Atto admonishes the American:

Don’t make the mistake, General, of thinking because I grew up without running water I am simple. I do know something about history. See all this? [He gestures toward the outside.] It’s simply shaping tomorrow, a tomorrow without a lot of Arkansas white boy ideas in it.

But in fact, Garrison does make that mistake. In a response that seems prophetic given the situation in Iraq, Garrison says condescendingly, “Well, I wouldn’t know about that. I’m from Texas.” It’s a moment that comes back to haunt him when he finds his precision operation suddenly entangled in a space it can’t extricate itself from.  

            It is space without a heart, which is not the same thing as heartless space. There is no Kurtz there—by which I mostly mean Coppola’s Kurtz who embodies a revelation of delusional frenzy at the heart of Imperial (American) culture at that relatively recent moment when it re-encountered its deep internal division as a kind of self-devouring psychosis. But his Kurtz is something more as well. If Conrad’s Kurtz embodies the madness that flows from the revelation of the utter artificiality of good and evil, civilized and primitive, the whole structure of thinking that justified Europe’s great adventure, Coppolla’s anticipates, though only by a year, Gilles Delueze’s and Felix Guattari’s vision of the War Machine, a nomadic remnant of a pre-State warrior culture that not only exists outside the bipolar axes of the State (Dumézil’s jurist-priest and magician-king), but in so doing acts to challenge the State’s self-determined authority, including its military institution.[1]  

The most telling revelation of this force in Coppola’s film comes in Kurtz’s camp. Sailing up the last leg of the river, Willard finds himself thrown into in an archaic hell. The boat encounters a final boundary of white ghost-like figures in dozens of primitive canoes that close behind the U.S. soldiers as they pass through. They finally penetrate into the heart in which bloody bodies dangle from palm trees, and anonymous dead drape the terraces of an ancient temple. It is the realm of the dead and the technology is primitive and direct—bows and arrows, spears, machetes, some small arms. Warriors in loin cloths squat with spears held loosely between their legs next to severed heads that dot the temple steps. Next to them are U.S. soldiers (Willard’s predecessor) and regular Viet Namese army holding M16s.

The War Machine, as Deleuze and Guattari propose it, is an undisciplinable force. It is nomadic and exists on the borders of the State’s order. Originally warriors and herders whose mode of being was an itinerant territoriality, they became part of a tradition realized in the unsystematized, skilled knowledges of itinerant labourers. Kurtz embodies the recognition that this War Machine, deterritorialized and unrestricted by the various disciplines of the Military constitutes a kind of pure violence untainted by the bureaucratic and political contaminations that can cripple (or pollute) the Military, making it the stereotype of absolute might and development.

Imagined as a heart, Kurtz both establishes the space of war as classically Euclidean in its penetrability, and at the same time sets in motion and maintains the physical and mythic action and their revelatory relation to one another. He doesn’t move beyond Conrad’s radical bipolarity. He embodies its revelation in revelation’s very possibility, the possibility of the visible and hidden, the surface and the depth, the revelation of the heart as War Machine. He sets up a kind of metaphysics of war that determines the fundamental nature of the agon.

Mohammed Farah Aidid, the object of American desire in Black Hawk Down, is, in contrast, nowhere. Throughout the film he seems almost to float in a featureless room, never encountering anyone, never speaking. He sits and smokes. He is the counterpart, the weight of another world, the other player to Garrison in his panoptic war room. But whereas Garrison is increasingly frantic as he helplessly watches his forces become entangled and savaged in the complex, incommensurable spaces of Mogadishu,  Aidid rocks and smokes alone in a room, preternaturally aware of the events unfolding outside.

In this mode the War Machine takes on a different sense than it does in Coppola’s film. It is not a heart, not a revelation of some foundation, but a kind of remnant, a “minus-1,” as Deleuze and Guattari might put it, a wild, diverse, antithetical force that actively resists the State’s homogenizing might.[2] In Coppola’s film, the War Machine is represented as a purity, an horrific purity, but a purity that both reveals the source of the state’s might and the limit of its control. Willard’s State sanctioned murder of Kurtz is required to return the State to the illusion of unfounded unity. The foundation must be obscured, though it remains the foundation. In Black Hawk Down the War Machine’s antithetical trajectory is of another order. It exists utterly outside the State’s parameters. It is another world, another space and a present time.

Aidid resembles a heart, but the resemblance is misleading. He is the trigger to the Americans’ unilateral action and the focus of their animus. The operation represented in Black Hawk Down is one piece of a larger plan to capture or kill Aidid. But he is not locatable because the Americans think they are in one kind of space, but in fact are in another. And even if he was locatable, as Atto points out, it would make no difference—because there is no heart. The initiating penetration of Mogadishu falters when it becomes entangled in the complications of that space without a heart. The American force seems to penetrate the space, but then its thrust is blunted. The helicopters land on the roof and the warriors, moving like a machine, set up a perimeter, searching the building and securing the captured clan heads for transport back to the U.S camp. They do all the right things. But then comes the guy in the nylon shirt with the RPG. Suddenly the nature of the space is revealed as other than what the Americans thought it was. The surfaces, eddies, bursts and folds proliferate and circulate becoming a Tar Baby, an endless pellicular entanglement, the confounding of communication.

At that point, for all its pan-optic power (embodied in the image of Garrison back at the U.S. camp watching every move unfold on a T.V. screen with a live feed from a helicopter hovering over the action) all illusions of the invulnerability of the State vanish in an explosion of chaotic, random, uncontrolled force. And even though the Americans eventually extricate themselves (at the cost of 18 dead Americans and hundreds of dead Somalis), they have lost not just the battle but the “war” because the very measure of what’s winning and what’s losing has shifted into a new modality.

            The old modality was determined by the penetration of space and its eventual occupation, manipulation, homogenization, and stratification, all geared toward the reproduction of the State on its pacified body. The essence of this modality is might, overwhelming power. This is the mode of the American assault, as we lately witnessed in Iraq. In the multiplicitous warrens of Mogadishu the US troops discover that that modality no longer functions in this strange space where all attempts to penetrate, whether “successful” or “unsuccessful” come to naught. They come to naught because the depth becomes an endlessly unfolding surface that generates an unpredictable circulation of force that in turn endlessly occupies the Occupiers. In Black Hawk Down, even though the “mission” is successfully completed (the tribal leaders who were the object of the attack are captured and removed), and the Americans kill hundreds of Somalis for every one of their own casualties, the battle is lost, and beyond that, so is the war, because the State’s ability to continue its action is determined by a kind of late capitalist, neo-liberal, bottom-line contract with it’s population; e.g. it can do whatever it wants as long as the “cost” (lives, money) remains within a manageable “budget,” and the loss of eighteen lives (and more importantly, the public humiliation that flows from the entanglement) constitute an immediate and decisive deficit.

            More recently a similar situation has occurred in Iraq, though the lessons of Mogadishu have allowed the Americans to more successfully disguise their defeat. The initial plans of the Bush administration called for recreating the State in Iraq specifically in the image of the U.S. State, the suspected fantasy of all American international policy towards everyone since at least Woodrow Wilson, if not Thomas Jefferson. Iraq was to be transformed into “a secular, pluralistic, market driven-nation.”[3] This proposed transformation was not simply the gratuitous desire of ideologically driven theorists. It was the crucial foundation of a strategy to deprive Islamicists of a possible base and recruiting ground by transforming a large Arab country into a clone of the United States by imposing on it a State whose form was derived from the principles of the European Enlightenment. But the jubilation and triumphalism that followed the initial “penetration” of Iraq has given way to the recognition that the U.S. is now entangled in another kind of space and that in order to extricate themselves (especially before the Presidential election in November 2004) they must abandon their plans. In the last several months they have had to give up plans for free markets, a  constitution, the abolition of militias (a.k.a the War Machine that operates within the dynamics of the anti-State forces of tribe and family and that is both the foundation of the resistance to the Occupation and a significant enabling condition of the future civil war), the overhaul of Saddam’s national food rationing program, and the privatization of State owned businesses—in other words, the Works, the whole caboodle of born-again neo-liberal recipes for Utopia that were to have transformed Iraq into America-lite.

            Scott’s analysis of this situation extends from the external spaces of Mogadishu to the internal spaces of subjectivity, to the nature of the warriors engaged in this decisive battle. Kurtz as heart holds space to an economy of repression and revelation in which subjects, like the space they are in, are informed by a “dark heart.” They are both implicated and explicated in that space. They have “depth,” “character” and “act autonomously,” though each of these terms signifies only within a specific kind of space. This is the case as well with the Americans in Black Hawk Down. There is an identity confusion among them at the beginning of the film caused by all the identical haircuts, but it quickly resolves into the recognizable personalities of a classic war film. The soldiers are proposed as being “persons,” important to the State, as is asserted in the often-repeated slogan, “No one gets left behind.” This is in sharp contrast to the Somalis of whom only three are ever identified as persons. Aidid’s space leaves no room for the illusion of the depth of subjects. Instead they are represented as what might be seen as a mass.

But not all masses are massive, nor do we necessarily understand what is involved in being individuals. Farimbi draws attention to the complications of these concepts in his interview with the captured pilot, Michael Durant. After asking Durant if he is one of the Rangers who has been killing his soldiers, Firimbi appeals to something very like individualism (whose absence among the Somalis some critics of the film deplore), suggesting that he and Durant can negotiate “soldier to soldier.” Of course Durant can’t, and his obvious inability to do so reveals the illusion of individuality—or perhaps more accurately reveals the price the Military extracts from its soldiers. The Americans are of course all “individuals”—they have names, faces, play chess, call their wives, make fun of each other, debate the purpose of the war—but there is cost for this “individuality” and one measure of it paradoxically is that they must become part of the machine, a cog in a hierarchical Institution with carefully and precisely defined roles.

It’s as if the individuals aren’t really individuals, or as if being an individual is not quite what we think it is. In the same sense, then, perhaps the mass of Somalis is not a mass, at least not as we have been trained to think of it in relation to individuals, but something else. The very idea of mass is determined in the sense of a “loss” of something and so tied to an implicit defense of the presence of that thing. The OED has “mass” as “a multitude of persons mentally viewed as forming an aggregate in which their individuality is lost.” That “loss,” at its most obvious, has been represented in war films largely through caricature that renders it grotesque, simultaneously laughable and despicable. That’s the stuff of open propaganda. Think of the representation of the NVA in Green Berets, a movie whose determining gesture, following the propaganda films of WWII, was to caricature “the enemy” as mindless and soulless and the U.S. soldiers as having inherently special, almost supernatural, “human” characteristics. More recently and more subtly, the Randall Wallace/Mel Gibson film, We Were Soldiers, rises slightly above caricature, but still manages to imply a kind of implicit evil to the faceless “enemy.”

These images are very different from those Scott creates, with their extraordinary energy and seemingly undirected intelligence. When the Somalis pour out of various buildings to seize the second downed helicopter they flow like water from the structures surrounding the Black Hawk, a pliant force that erupts into uncontainable and unpredictable flows of bodies riding untranslatable energies. Rather than singular Might directed by pan-optic vision, Scott gives us an image of an a-centered force in which all individuals are interchangeable. They are a multitude, not a mass. Their numerousness is not to be confused with facelessness or unity, and especially not with the loss of something. They are another kind of force. We could say tribal if that’s understood as a fundamentally different form of social organization, a different kind of machine, say, than the Military Institution of the State. It’s not a question of “mechanical” as opposed to “organic,” but rather of different modes of connection (industrial, tribal), different machines, unfolding into different modes of force. One is orderly, disciplined, and requires individuals trained and drilled to work as a unit, while the other is random, spontaneous, and chaotic and requires members who respond with absolute precision and knowledge to unpredictable flows.

The entire body of the people—men, women, and children—comes alive in this space to maul and expel the Occupiers, something the Americans never understand. In a remarkable scene at the beginning of the U.S. operation, a number of children call in to report the approaching Black Hawk squadron. One holds up a cell phone to transmit the sound of the helicopters back to the city, and an American soldier, misinterpreting the gestures as a sign of welcome, waves at him in a moment that reveals the incommensurability of the two worlds. These children are everywhere. As the fighting intensifies, every member of the community seems to join in, picking up the guns of the fallen to continue the attack.

Farimbi says that in this world, to kill is to negotiate, and that “there will always be killing, you see, in our world.” What’s at stake here, then, is the question of killing that has not been appropriated and legitimated by the State but remains the provenance (and responsibility) of the multitude. The Somalis have what might be characterized as an active, social relation to death, or perhaps even an intimate relation, and within that relation resides the ability, even the responsibility, to negotiate. For the Americans that relation has been co-opted by the State in exchange for the promise not to be left behind. But even that promise, Farimbi points out, is part of a world in which the Americans lead “long, dull boring lives” which to each of them is divinely unique, preordained, dramatic—and fatal in any deviation from the prescribed norm.

Atto suggests that the U.S. attempt to capture Aidid, while ostensibly for “humanitarian” reasons, is actually governed by the mythologies of individualism associated with the American west. “What do you think this is,” he asks Harrison, “the K.O. Corral?” He implies that the American “strategy” of getting Aidid is governed by a deep mythic compulsion toward individual shoot-outs, that the Americans see themselves in the position of the Earps in a showdown with the Clantons, and that such a mythos will not signify within the “space of Aidid.” Harrison’s response, a condescending snigger and a smug correction—“You mean O.K. Corral”—dismisses Atto’s critique by asserting his own superior knowledge of American pop culture, while at the same time ignoring the meaning of it.

Apart from raising the issue of the ways in which differing illusions of forms of subjectivity affect the strategies of the opposing forces, Atto’s comments also raise the question of the role of governing narratives in the film. Perhaps he’s right, and at some deep level, the OK Corral lurks as governing narrative for the Americans. But it’s not one that circulates openly as rationale for the military adventure. It doesn’t serve as master narrative in the sense that Jean-François Lyotard has proposed.[4] The fundamental arguments for the American presence are covered in an informal exchange between two soldiers just before the mission is launched. One (Eversmann), characterized by his comrades as an idealist, articulates the idea that the U.S. must act to relieve the suffering of the Somali people. The other, represented as a hardened warrior (Hoot), counters that all that matters once the fighting begins is to take care of yourself and your comrades: “They won’t understand it’s about the man next to you, that’s all it is.” These attempts to provide narrative coherence are supplemented by others during the course of the combat: “watch out for the man next to you,” “nobody asks to be a hero, they just are,” “it ain‘t up to you, it’s just war,” “no one gets left behind,” and so on. Each of these narratives in turn has been put forward by various critics and marketers as the master narrative for the movie. Yet their sheer plenitude makes it impossible to single out one to play that role. No one of them dominates the discourse and provides coherence. Instead they all circulate freely, contesting and competing for legitimacy.

Strangely missing is the master narrative that informed the last 50 years of American military and political mission: the defense of “liberty” and “freedom” in the struggle with fascism and communism. That defense focused on a real or perceived threat to the security of the State, and established a space of unity within which the State could reproduce and introject its singular self under the rubric of defending freedom. The resulting massification of fractured American experience continues to serve, as Fredrick Jameson has argued, as “the great Utopian moment of national unification.”[5] In Scott’s film, the absence of such a master narrative is glaring, though the nostalgia for it is everywhere. There is simply no way to mobilize that narrative in this space. The local stories that circulate among the soldiers do not replace that master narrative. Instead, they circulate within the space left void by it and draw our attention to the black hole of its absence.

In that sense Black Hawk Down, unlike Coppolla’s film, is not interested in making moral judgments about war and violence. If there’s a sense of horror, it’s local rather than global. Rather than the horror of violence, it’s about disaster, the disaster the State’s military institution faces when it engages the War Machine in the territory of post-modernity. The War Machine—tribal and nomadic—exists outside the parameters and structures determined by Modernity and so evades its symbolic metaphysics of emanation and penetration. Scott’s sense of the War Machine is not as a deeper or more penetrating moment of violence, a revelation of primal integrity. It is of another order, one that is impenetrable to the State because it is all surface. Its organization is anarchic and spontaneous, unpredictable and contingent rather than technological and disciplined.[6]

            Absent any rationalizing uber-narrative, what’s left is the drive by the State to recreate itself. The pursuit of Aidid is part of a larger plan to remove power from the competing (and brutal) multiple centres of the War Machine and resettle “Somalia” in the form of a unitary State under the rubric of a “transition to democracy.” Although it’s not part of the material of the film, such a move presumably is a step toward integrating “Somalia” into the State’s globalized Empire of capital. It is as simple and blunt as that. Everything about the American undertaking is geared toward and defined by the massive unity of the State, the State’s desire to eliminate difference and to reproduce itself: E pluribus Unum. But in the end as the American troops run through the gauntlet of the Mogadishu Mile, Atto’s observation about the future hovers over them.

            If his reference to “Arkansas white boy ideas” refers specifically to William Jefferson Clinton, the U.S. president at the time of the Mogadishu events, it also resonates beyond that to challenge the assumption of those representing the State that the political institutions of Euro-American Modernity are universally applicable and desirable. This Utopian vision of a single world united by one market and one State form has, as John Gray has eloquently argued, unleashed as much violence on the world as any of its competitive utopian visions, including Marxism and Islamism.[7] Like any utopian movement, its greatest weakness is its belief in its Truth. In Black Hawk Down, that belief staggers and stumbles in the final scenes of the film. It’s an astonishing moment. Finally rescued by the Pakistani U.N. forces that they initially dismissed in their unilateral assault (in another of Scott’s prophetic moments), the American Rangers and D-boys are forced to run out of Mogadishu on foot pursued by the Africans. It’s a running battle in which men, women, and children pick up the guns of the fallen to join the pursuit. In one telling scene, an African-American soldier shoots down an African warrior, and then watches as a woman in a chador runs to pick up the fallen man’s weapon. “Don’t do it,” he mutters, “don’t do it.” But she does reach down and pick up the gun, as she must. And he does shoot her, as he must. The film makes no judgment. It doesn’t question the integrity of the soldier’s plea. But the disaster of the moment is absolute and unspeakable.

            The Americans are stunned. Jogging in full gear out of the city, dogged by African warriors in techs, they find the road lined on both sides with men, women, and children hooting at them, mocking them with what we finally realize must be traditional tribal gestures meant to humiliate a defeated enemy, gestures whose origins for the Americans lie in some alien and inaccessible world of ritualized war: a hand raised just so, the brushing of the hair with the hands, a certain movement of the feet. These are the same people shot down by Aidid’s men in the opening sequence, the people one of the minor narratives claims the Americans are there to feed. It’s a moment in which the two worlds confront each other ‘s utter incommunicability in a space that is all difference.[8]


[1] “1227: Treatise on Nomadology:--The War Machine.” In A Thousand Plateaus.  Tr. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1987 [1980]. Coppola earlier develops the same thread in The Godfather where the Mafia families take on the same weight and significance.

[2]  “The multiple must be made, not by always adding a higher dimension, but rather in the simplest of ways, by dint of sobriety, with the number of dimensions one already has available, always n – 1(the only way the one belongs to the multiple: always subtracted).” A Thousand Plateaus, p. 6.

[3] Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. “Threats Force Retreat from Wide-Ranging Plans for Iraq.” Washington Post, Sunday December 28, 2003: A01.

[4]  Lyotard, Jean Francois. The Postmpdern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Tr. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Theory and History of Literature, Volume 10. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

[5]  Jameson, Fredrick. A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present. London: Verso, 2002: 212. More recently, the current representatives of the American State have attempted to renew this narrative in an attenuated form by raising the spectre of terrorism and claiming that exporting “freedom and democracy” can undo its “breeding grounds.” While superficially similar to the much disparaged “root cause” argument, this argument differs in proposing the “root cause” as being the absence of the State rather than some injustice or exploitation caused or supported by the State.

[6]  It’s not a binary division. The State has access to the War Machine it contains, and vice versa. This occurs in the film when the panotptic power of the State breaks down in the chaos of Mogadishu and the Delta Force platoon attempting to reach the surrounded Rangers abandons the State’s technology (and plan) and enters the city on its own terms.

[7]The era of globalisation is over,” The New Statesman, 24 September 2001.

[8]  I should note that although Black Hawk Down is based on Mark Bowden’s remarkable account of the actual events first published in the Philadelphia Inquirer and later expanded into the book, Black Hawk Down, this scene, as well as the other crucial scenes I have described, especially those in which Atto and Farimbi converse with  Garrison and Durant, are not part of Bowden’s narrative. They are the work of Scott and script writers Ken Nolan and Steve Zaillian.