October 3rd, 2013 is the twentieth anniversary of Operation Gothic Serpent, more popularly known as Black Hawk Down, the mission to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Mark Bowden wrote an extraordinary book about that day. Later, Ridley Scott made the movie. “BHD” is as celebrated in some circles as the landings at Normandy, or Tet; it illustrated the willingness of the few to risk their lives at a time when the many might have described their lives as peaceful. Foreign conflict wasn’t central to Americans’ psyches then, despite a dangerous world; 1992 had been the year of “It’s the economy, stupid.” And Somalia wasn’t technically war, was it. It didn’t look like prior wars. The special operators that day were warriors, though. They went into a brutal place where the enemy didn’t use rules of engagement. There are no trenches in the Bakara Market.
Having spent a few years thinking about the history of American special operations (I gave my novel’s central character October 3rd as her birthday), I still know very little. One thing is true: it’s hard to process stories of conflict, even long after they’ve occurred. It’s not only because of the “fog of war.” In my case, it’s not only the fact that I’m a civilian. It’s time. It takes time to understand events because it takes time to understand the choices of the people who participated in them, as well as the aftershocks of those choices. That sounds simple but it was something I had to learn.
I think I came to understand a bit of what war was from images. After college, I worked for Francis Ford Coppola; I watched an early cut of Apocalypse Now Redux sitting in a midtown office. I remember thinking the “French Plantation” sequence was more interesting than those helicopters set to Die Walkure. The irony of Playboy bunnies in the jungle went over my head, though I later referenced those bunnies in my book when trying to channel the mind of a guy in a raid in 2011. He would understand their irony, I thought. He would understand those copters set to Wagner.
It was only when I started listening to stories from veterans that I got a new view of things, one at once less and more sentimental—though that’s a controversial word. The stories I heard confirmed something I’d suspected: the finest war stories come from the men (and women) who’ve fought in them, and their ability to tell their stories is unique. This was a revelation Mark Bowden had, too. His opinion of soldiers “did an about-face,” as he put it, in the introduction to The Battle of Mogadishu: Firsthand Accounts From the Men of Task Force Ranger. In my case the about-face was from ignorance to empathy.
My father served in the military, and served on missions classified for a time. He never talked about them though; he couldn’t. He was fascinated by war’s history but never sentimental. When we watched Apocalypse Now Redux, he, too, preferred the French plantation scene. He felt it said more about Vietnam than those helicopters. Those helicopters were our story, not theirs. The film had premiered at Cannes in May 2001, almost a decade after Somalia, three months before nine eleven and everything after.
“Some people go through loss and find God, Lea,” someone said after my father died. “You went through loss and found the United States military.” That sounded extreme, even as a tease. Yet it revealed something I hadn’t been conscious of: I had changed. Actually what I “found” was a desire to look at something I couldn’t believe I’d never studied, something that seemed so central to history.
The pilots who flew those Black Hawks into Mogadishu played music, too; the shots of them along the beach echoed Vietnam, and we will likely see that shot again with different pilots in a different war, assuming we will still have pilots. We can assume we’ll still have wars. Cormac McCarthy, in Blood Meridian, put it like this: “War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.” Bowden chose this as the epigraph for Black Hawk Down. And Bowden knew: the view from the men in the fight is critical. If they share stories, those stories shape scholars’—and perhaps novelists’—understanding of what was like.
“This week is no different than last week,” Matt Eversmann told me. “I live with the memory every day.” Sergeant Eversmann was the central character in Black Hawk Down (though he’d dodge that description). Bowden captured his voice, and those of his men. He took readers right into that Market, and as long as we look back on this day those descriptions remain. The book’s immediacy became its timelessness; not every story catches that combination of accuracy and distance. Hitting military history on the mark is timing plus skill plus emotion. Plus access, or accident.
Recently I met a writer I admire; he’s covered multiple wars and knows more than I ever will. Yet we shared a sense of humility in terms of what we could ever really know. We were talking about Vietnam when he said, “The definitive book on Vietnam hasn’t been written.” I asked why. “It’s too soon,” he said, echoing Enlai on Robespierre.
Twenty years, forty years, one hundred and fifty: we will gather what we can in the present, and pass it on.