Based on Mark Bowden's 1999 book, the movie version of "Black Hawk Down" depicted the botched 1993 raid by Army Rangers sent to capture a Somali warlord. Eighteen U.S. soldiers were killed; the mutilated bodies of a pair of chopper pilots were dragged through the streets. Soon after, the Clinton administration ended its relief operation in Somalia and pulled out its troops. Director Ridley Scott's movie, which was released just three months after 9/11, while America was still in thrall over the war in Afghanistan, was a commercial and critical success, grossing more than $100 million and earning an Oscar nomination for Scott. His version of "Black Hawk Down" may have been antiwar on the surface, but I believe it was fundamentally prowar. Though it depicted a shameful defeat, the soldiers were heroes willing to die for their brothers in arms. The movie showed brutal scenes of killing, but also courage, stoicism and honor. The overall effect was stirring, if slightly pornographic, and it seemed to enhance the desire of Americans for a thumping war to avenge 9/11.
Over time, Americans seem to view war the way mothers look on delivering babies: they are amnesiac about the pain. Sometimes it takes a few decades to forget, sometimes only a few years. The pattern repeats: by the 1890s, some 30 years after the Civil War, the bloodiest of all American conflicts, we were clamoring for war again. A new generation had never seen combat, and young men felt a need to prove themselves. The Spanish-American War may have been a "splendid little war," as Secretary of State John Hay put it, but the subsequent counterinsurgency in the Philippines was not, costing about the same number of troops America has lost in Iraq so far and producing many atrocities, including the first American usage of waterboarding as torture. But we always forget; by 1917, young Americans were flocking to join "the war to end all wars," World War I.
Movies are a perfect mirror of America's susceptibility to the seduction of fighting, proof of the ancient Greek adage that only the dead have seen the end of war. After Vietnam, there were no war movies for a time, then some bitter ones, like "Coming Home" (1978) and "Platoon" (1986). But then came a wave of nostalgia for the Greatest Generation and "Saving Private Ryan" (1998), which glorified the male bonding even as it showed the horrors of combat. The current vogue of Iraq movies is dark and downbeat, and none has been a box-office success. But give Hollywood time. We will be celebrating war again before too long.