Book Review: Black Hawk Down

On October 3rd, 1993, a small, elite group of U.S. Rangers and Delta Force soldiers were dropped by helicopter into the swarming heart of Mogadishu, Somalia. Their assignment was to kidnap several high-ranking deputies to warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and escort them out of the city. Simple, right?

But what began as an hour-long mission soon devolved into something much worse: pinned down by thousands of heavily-armed Somalis, the men fought for their lives through an entire night of bloody urban combat. By morning, eighteen Americans were dead and over seventy badly wounded.

Mark Bowden chronicles those events in Black Hawk Down: a gritty and relentless story filled with the blood, noise, and heroism of battle. Drawing on official reports, army records, radio transcripts, video tapes, and countless interviews, Bowden has crafted a non-fiction narrative so intensely real, you’ll feel that you’re standing right next to the men you’re reading about.

Coupled with this meticulous attention to detail is the author’s prose – skilled and stripped-down and unpretentious. Consequently, the book gains a forcefulness that would’ve been lacking had Bowden opted for rhetorical flamboyance. He points away from himself: bidding us marvel, not at his prowess as a writer, but at the valor of the men who fought and died in Mogadishu. He says,

Readers who picked up the book were not supposed to be struck by my cleverness, but by the extraordinary courage and humanity of those young soldiers They made mistakes. They were terrified. Sometimes they shot at people they shouldn’t have shot at. Sometimes they shot at each other. They became tragically confused and some of them were killed and others horribly injured. The story raised all sorts of questions about the wisdom of their leaders, about whether and when it is appropriate to send young soldiers off to fight and die, and what that decision means in the real world. But along with all of these mistakes and questions, the story captured the undeniable nobility of military service, and was shot through with my respect for these young men who felt so entrusted with this story, and who shared it with me. (pp. 357-358)

For those thinking about picking this book up, be warned: it’s not a light or casual read. It’s gritty. It’s gut-wrenching. It’s exhausting. You can’t simply pick it up every once in awhile and read a few lines. It demands complete mental and emotional investment on the part of the reader.

But it’s worth it.

If you take the time to read Black Hawk Down (and I strongly recommend that you do) you will find yourself repaid a hundred-fold. It is a searing and hellish depiction of modern warfare. In that respect, I’ve seldom read an uglier book. But I’ve also seldom read a more beautiful one. The picture it gives of camaraderie, sacrifice, and raw, manly courage is unforgettable.

They say “war is hell”, and Black Hawk Down shows us what that really means. Violence throughout is bloody and punishing: men are shot to pieces, dismembered, and eviscerated. There’s nothing funny or glamorous about it. It’s sickening. And it makes you respect the heck out of the guys who endured it. There’s also quite a bit of hard language, shouted in anger and frustration, as well as some sexual references. Make no mistake: this is an R-rated book. Prospective readers should take that into account.

I’ll leave Bowden the final word (from pp. 345-356):

Many of the young Americans who fought in the Battle of Mogadishu are civilians again. They are beginning families and careers, no different outwardly than the millions of other twenty-something members of their generation… In my interviews with those who were in the thick of battle, they remarked again and again how much they felt like they were in a movie, and had to remind themselves that this horror, the blood, the deaths, was real. They describe feeling weirdly out of place, as though they did not belong here, fighting feelings of disbelief, anger, and ill-defined betrayal. This cannot be real. Many wear black metal bracelets inscribed with the names of their friends who died, as if to remind themselves daily that it was real.

To look at them today, few show any outward sign that one day not too long ago they risked their lives in an ancient African city, killed for their country, took a bullet, or saw their best friend shot dead. They returned to a country that didn’t care to remember. Their fight was neither triumph nor defeat; it just didn’t matter. It’s as though their firefight was a bizarre two-day adventure, like some extreme Outward Bound experience where things got out of hand and some of the guys got killed.

I wrote this book for them.

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13 thoughts on “Book Review: Black Hawk Down”

  1. Great review, I think it’s the grittiness of war that we really fail to see, partly due to the Hollywood portrayal of it, and partly due to our own lack of concern. Sounds like a solid read, thanks for sharing.

    1. I think it’s the grittiness of war that we really fail to see, partly due to the Hollywood portrayal of it…

      Agreed. Violence is trivialized in much of today’s entertainment. Every now and then, a book (like Black Hawk Down) or a movie (like Saving Private Ryan) comes along to remind us how horrible it truly is.

  2. I’ve seen the film, and it was powerful and like Seth has said, gritty and well done – it doesn’t glamorize it all, but shows it in its truer form. I have this book on my shelf, but keep setting it side, as I generally stick to fiction. But I know I’ll read it soon, thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Jules!

      If you loved the film, you’ll love the book – I guarantee it. :) And really, the book is as riveting and fast-paced as any fiction title. Heck, it puts most “thrillers” to shame in that regard. It’s the ultimate non-fiction novel.

  3. My goodness. Your review alone moved me. I can’t imagine what the book will do. Anyway, I’m hunting this down and reading it as soon as I can. I have a sneaking feeling it will become one of my favorite (or at least most-respected) books. Thanks for the amazing review, Corey!

    (also, you have a review of the Black Hawk Down film around here somewhere, right?)

  4. Great review. I’ve read the book twice. The movie is great, but not quite as good as the book. Anyone who appreciates Bowden’s writing should also check out Guests of the Ayatollah. If you want to read more about the battle of Mogadishu, I also recommend Mike Durant’s book In the Company of Heroes.
    -Ben

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