Penguin, 2000 revision of 1999 original, 392 pages, ISBN 0-14-028850-3
Even casual collectors know that the first edition of a book is almost always worth more than any subsequent printing, even more so when the book has enjoyed some success. The first edition presents the book as it first arrived in the world, without too many expectations or any idea of its true impact. A nice signed first edition copy of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club or Barack Obama’s Dreams of my Father (to pick two high-profile examples) could have, at their author’s peak popularity, netted you a few thousand dollars.
But for readers, sometimes it’s better to get a latter, updated edition –especially with nonfiction books: They can include updated information and conclude the narrative arc a bit more firmly. So it is that a fine first edition of Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down will cost you a few dozen dollars, but a far cheaper paperback edition will get you an updated afterword that explains how the book became not only a commercial success, but a classic of military writing and an enduring epitaph of its subjects along the way. After all, many readers of this review will have heard about Ridley Scott’s 2001 movie adaptation, and associate the city of Mogadishu with what the back cover of the book describes as “the longest sustain firefight involving American troops since the Vietnam War”.
Which isn’t all that bad considering that when Bowden set out to write the book, the events were on their way to collective oblivion: Americans don’t like to think about their military defeats, and their intervention in Somalia practically qualified as such. As one of the more acute manifestations of the US’s self-image as the world’s policeman following the end of the Cold War, Somalia interrupted the triumphalism of the Gulf War and pushed Americans toward a more cautious foreign policy… at least until 2001. The turning point of that Somalian adventure was the battle that Bowden describes in Black Hawk Down: a routine capture mission that turned spectacularly wrong when two helicopters were downed and American forces had to fight their way into the city to rescue their own. The engagement lasted for hours and by the end of it, Americans had suffered nearly a hundred casualties –and left ten times as many Somali dead or wounded.
Black Hawk Down tells the story of that engagement as a narrative: Based on personal recollections, recordings of the events, contemporary documentation and other sources familiar to investigative journalists, Bowden meticulously reconstructs the battle from as many perspectives as he can, then attempts to present the events as a story with recognizable characters. The result isn’t just an exceptional piece of reporting: it’s a suspenseful, compulsively readable account of what it feels like to be under fire. Bowden is able to get in the soldiers’ heads and portray the strange mixture of excitement and terror that comes from mortal danger. Such credible portrayals are rare, and it’s no wonder if Black Hawk Down became mandatory reading for a generation of American military officers. The decade since its publication may have been tumultuous in terms of geopolitics, but its impact remains: The images that we get from reading the book aren’t that different from the ones broadcast during the American invasion of Iraq.
When Bowden started working on Black Hawk Down in the mid-nineties, he wasn’t the most likely writer to attempt such a project: An investigative reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, he had none of the military knowledge or unofficial connections one would presume from the final result. But as he explains in the revised edition’s afterword, he attacked the subject like the reporter he was, and it may be this outsiders’ perspective that makes the book so accessible to various kinds of audiences.
What’s more, Black Hawk Down has found another niche as an enduring remembrance of everyone who was involved in the events. For a military engagement that seemed destined to be forgotten, the “Battle of the Black Sea” has, thanks to Bowden and the film adaptation of his work, now been given it due. And the book remains as an acknowledgement of what soldiers go through in modern military engagement, portraying them at their best when confronted by the worst. More directly, though, Black Hawk Down is a perfectly-mastered book that will continue to astonish readers for a long time, no matter which edition they can get.