By Matt Seuferer
“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” -Plato
The epigraph of Black Hawk Down (2001) sits boldly on the screen, announcing its anti-war contention. Fade into almost dreamlike, slow-motion shots tinted blue to emphasize despair. Powerful images of a country in the grip of civil war and forced into famine bleed into each other: starving children with legs the size of bones, elders mourning over their loved ones, and a body wrapped in ceremonial cloth. However, these shots of despair seem like apparitions simply glimpsed in between action sequences in the narrative of this film. Perhaps the most striking of these appears before the title as a Somali warrior stands facing the ground, hands clasped in anguish as the camera slowly trucks back to reveal that his house has been completely destroyed. In between cuts, the shrill Swahili vocals of the opening song fade into the overpowering and eminently patriotic Hans Zimmer strings. The low pounding of drums escalates and peaks at the opening title and blends into the chopping sound of the MH-60 Black Hawk.
Following the opening, and in every image of U.S. soldiers, the shots are tinted green, complementing the colors of their desert camouflage. Cut to an aerial shot of an MH-60 scouring Mogadishu for trouble. An aerial reaction shot reveals a Somali crowd on the ground running towards a truck attempting to distribute food to the starving people. Already, the film implies that the collective city of Mogadishu houses an essentially chaotic horde who scrambles onto the truck, pulls at bags of grain, and shouts incoherently in Swahili. Various medium shots show their struggle to grab food: a man unsuccessfully tries to grab one of the bags, but receives a beating by a militia man, and the crowd pushes forward and collapses on the truck like a wave. A swish pan masks a cut to a militia gunman opening fire, sending chunks of flesh and blood in the air as people in the crowd fall dead to the ground. Cut to a reaction two-shot of Eversmann and his crew chief who ask for permission to open fire. With disapproval from the J.O.C. (Joint Operation Command), the MH-60 pilots find they have no choice but to fly away, as the leader of the militia watches them leave. Obviously he defies the U.S./N.A.T.O. intervention as he stands in front of a Red Cross flag on the truck and chuckles while aiming a megaphone at the retreating MH-60 like a rocket propelled grenade. They are more like muscled urban American gangsters than poor starving Somalis.
The Ameri-centric Perspective
The opening scene of Black Hawk Down demonstrates not an objective briefing of the battle but an historical narrative designed to entertain American audiences. Glamorization created through director Ridley Scott’s striking formal nuances such as color and composition overpower any anti-war message inherent in his film. Scenes, such as the opening, romanticize the U.S. military and its technological might through stunning cinematography but at the same time short-circuit the logic involved in the film’s anti-war message. The film constructs a myth of binary opposition from the very beginning: the good Americans versus the evil Somali horde; the Special Forces code of “leave no man behind” versus a bloodthirsty mass of starving people. Unfortunately, the truth is that the thousands of Somali people killed in the battle ruined the humanitarian mission altogether. The same Somali people that the U.S. Marines came to rescue from hunger died on the streets of Mogadishu during the battle.
While this complexity ought to undermine the simple good versus evil binary, the film sets up a standard of polar representation that now serves as a structural guide for news coverage of conflicts such as the current war in Iraq. Embedded reporters operate autonomously to find the juiciest story to report on and often manipulate facts like Black Hawk Down does in order to create dramatic narratives. And, like Black Hawk Down , they short-circuit the logic of their message through narrative conventions such as the good versus evil myth. Viewers digest these ideologically manipulated images in television war coverage. The commercialized and subjective coverage permeates “objective” media just like cinema. With the use of real-time statistics, air strike footage, and embedded reporters, war coverage on television has become more dramatic by acquiring formal and narrative cinematic conventions.
Television’s attempt to construct objective war stories falls into the same problems that Black Hawk Down faces. Primarily, these stories cater to an American audience. In the good versus evil myth, the U.S. is always on the good side, no matter what reasons they are fighting for. Cinematic and television media dehumanize the opposition. By grouping them into a horde, the representations minimize the shock of casualties for the American viewing public. The opposition is dehumanized and grouped together into a horde so that casualties on their side are less shocking to the American public. In the case of the Somali home video of a soldier being dragged through the streets, the myth was flipped over and shown from the Somali point of view. An American, instead of a Somali, was treated as part of a dehumanized mass worthy of being mutilated, and the Somali people victorious in expelling the American soldiers from Mogadishu. While this representational anomaly could have served to subvert typical American narratives, it instead recalled the Vietnam Syndrome and then was reconstructed from the American point of view in the film. i This hot-button imagery overwhelmed U.S. viewers because it threatened to unearth the Vietnam Syndrome, which, coming from the recesses of the American psyche, could damage the collective spirit of its people. For Black Hawk Down , Scott admittedly catered to an American audience:
But it’s a movie primarily about these American soldiers told from an American perspective, for an American audience. We do mourn our losses more deeply than the people who are shooting at our soldiers. Maybe one day someone will write the Somali version.
In his statement, Scott acknowledges the fact that we mourn our own dead soldiers more so than the Somalis do, but he declines to entertain how it felt for the Somalis mourning over 1,000 of their own, which included not only soldiers but innocent men, women and children. Scott also assumed that American audiences wanted a jingoistic film that would reinforce his and most people’s interventionist attitudes following September 11th. He released the film two months earlier than scheduled, in December of 2001. This film as well as the vast majority of television news coverage not only reflects but also creates an “Ameri-centric” hegemony that diametrically opposes the plural values of democracy and an independent press.
As a possible solution to hegemonic television war coverage, the U.S. military and major news outlets reintroduced the use of embedded reporters. This way, the viewer sees war as closely as do the soldiers, from a variety of locations. It is surely a more objective approach to television war coverage than CNN, MSNBC, or CSPAN due to its timeliness, allowable by satellite transmissions overseas. Additionally, because a variety of reporters are in the field a plurality of perspectives on the war are made. The current war in Iraq continued this practice that started in Vietnam with Walter Cronkite. Unfortunately, military security issues limited a lot of what they could say over the air, and the focus tended to be on battles on the road to Baghdad. Once inside, reporters raced to shoot victory celebrations by the people. Capturing the destruction of previous icons of the Hussein regime was paramount to achieving high ratings.
“In the postmodern, media dominated world we live in, we should all be obligated to fight for plurality in television news coverage.”
Following the U.S. victory, more U.S. soldiers died in the streets of Iraq than in the war itself. The grim reality that soldiers die on a semi-daily basis does not bring high ratings. It is repetitive and depressing to the viewer. To bolster ratings reporters make connections to previous battles in U.S. military history, especially Mogadishu. Experienced fighters who hide and ambush soldiers constantly pressure U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq. In Mogadishu, Special Forces soldiers were pinned down by Somali warriors shooting around buildings or above rooftops. Additionally, like Mogadishu, the insurgency in Iraq aims to make the statement that the U.S. should leave. To help justify the U.S.’s presence and create entertaining stories, reporters borrowed the good versus evil myth that Black Hawk Down uses to emphasize heroism despite utter failure. Iraqis have become dehumanized in television war coverage: passing scenery on the road to a democratic Iraq. Unfortunately, embedded reporters perpetuate the ratings-driven struggle to create entertaining (and thus manipulative) war stories from an American perspective. In the process, the media deprives Americans of an Iraqi perspective and in effect, a plurality in media perspectives.
Creating a Plurality of Perspectives
To achieve this plurality of perspectives in television war coverage, it is necessary for reporters to eliminate certain barriers in the media machine. The most important of these are editorial, governmental, and military gateways that stories need to pass through in order to be aired. For example, network restrictions allow entertaining stories to take precedence over more objective reports based on subject manner that fails to entertain. Because the competitive nature of journalism, reporters take creative liberties in constructing entertaining stories which manipulate the people watching them such as the story of Private Jessica Lynch. However, the goal of television war coverage should be to convey objective rather than entertaining stories. In theory, by eliminating the gateways through which stories have to pass, whether it is network programming decision-making or military restrictions on what can be shot, a plurality of perspectives can be achieved.
“Through discussion and debate, people are able to make sound political decisions.”
In an apparent attempt to lessen the distance between the battlefield and the American public, embedded reporters attempt to create plurality by offering reports from a variety of locations. However, these reporters fail to engage significant questions about the war itself. In the attempt to engage the audience in each story, embedded reporters only serve as measurements of progress in whatever location they are in at the time. However, when comparing these stories to Black Hawk Down , itself a marketable myth currently used, they are different. Networks market television war stories as objective reports, and as a result many people deem them factual. In our country, 40% of the entire voting population constructs their political opinions based on conservative radio programming. Through discussion and debate, people are able to make sound political decisions. To counter subjective television news programming, television news stories should have corresponding, real-time Blogs posted on a third-party website so that people can discuss and debate any particular report they have seen. The idea behind the third party website is that the networks do not have the power to moderate discussions. As political Blogs progress, users digest and share information to add to the debate. Essentially, the internet provides an accessible forum for political debate. It tosses formal and narrative manipulations aside and engages perspectives from people all over the world. Instead of using a frenetic stream of news and information, a Blog has the potential to construct an informative, multi-faceted discussion. It eliminates the hegemony created by the dominant American perspective that Scott caters toward in Black Hawk Down and which contemporary television war stories borrow.
In addition to open political debate through Blogs, awards at universities across the U.S., including the USC Annenberg School for Communication, would encourage plurality. These awards would reward individuals whose war coverage brings different perspectives to the American public. By recognizing work that strives for pluralistic television coverage of war, competition would ensue. Creative new ways of reporting would help bring about a change in television war coverage. While the Blogs create a plurality of voices, these awards would provide a plurality of structures on which to create an objective war story. New methodologies that would concentrate on the enemy’s perspective in addition to that of the U.S. would come as a natural choice. Additionally, networks should create discussion boards on their own websites, involving question and answer sessions with the people involved in the story, and preset topics. This will not only create a dynamic discussion of television war stories, but they will encourage viewer loyalty by way of their involvement in the discussion boards. At the same time, it will help loosen the editorial stranglehold on network reporting. An example of this type of discussion board already in use is on the PBS Frontline website, which provides an excellent discussion of the battle in Mogadishu. Through the new plurality of voices and structures created by Blogs, awards, and dynamic discussion, more progress will be made in the movement towards objectivity in television war coverage. In the postmodern, media dominated world we live in, we should all be obligated to fight for plurality in television news coverage. This is especially true of war coverage, which is vital in the formation of public opinion in the U.S. Understanding the significance of such events such as Mogadishu allows for people to form rational opinions when it comes to war. Because public opinion directly affects political policymaking and subsequently trickles down to shape our futures as citizens, it is vital to have access to a forum that allows for objective war coverage.
About the Author:
Matt Seuferer is a student of the USC School of Cinema-Television and is pursuing a major in Critical Studies and a minor in Business Administration. Originally from Berkeley, California, Matt is editor-in-chief of Palaver, a university-wide creative arts publication, and a photographer for the Daily Trojan. After graduation, he plans to study abroad and later pursue a degree in law.
i Vietnam Syndrome: explicates the tendency of the U.S. military to withdraw, present since the U.S. lost the Vietnam War.
ii Charity, Tom. “Do the Fight Thing.” Time Out (London) 9 Jan. 2002. p. 3
iii Private Jessica Lynch: Providing reporters with colorful details and dramatic night-scope footage, Central Command in Qatar helped turn Private Lynch’s ambush and capture into a blockbuster suspense story with a happy ending. Other informants added juicy details, many first reported in The Washington Post. According to that paper’s widely quoted narrative, Lynch, nineteen, fought desperately, shot enemy soldiers, and was badly wounded when the Iraqis captured her on March 23. In a prison hospital, she was beaten sadistically by an Iraqi goon – then snatched from her bed in a daring April 1 commando raid.
iv Embedded reporters have been assigned to various units since WWII, but were seen as a negative presence in the Vietnam war, as the grim realities of jungle warfare fueled the isolationist feelings back home, thus contributing to the U.S.’ decision to pull out. This explains the military’s strict control of the media in Panama, Granada, and the first Gulf War. However, the military showed little restraint in presenting footage from cameras mounted on high-tech guided missiles, and the positive response created has prompted the return of embedded reporters.
v PBS: Ambush in Mogadishu