In January 2002, I saw the film “Black Hawk Down” at Knoxville Center Mall, and afterward, I sat in my car and cried for 15 minutes.
I was still two months away from getting clean, and that movie — about the failed October 1993 raid into Mogadishu, Somalia, and the ensuing battle that left 19 American soldiers and thousands of Somalis dead — shook me to my core. At one time, I considered joining the military, and I even took an ROTC course in college, but my own self-doubt and self-centered fear kept me from ever following through.
To watch such a visceral film and see the bravery, the heroism, the gallantry that American soldiers displayed on those dusty African streets, it shook me. What, I wondered through a haze of guilt and self-loathing, was I doing with my life?
It felt like a betrayal, almost, of those men … of all men who wear a uniform and shed blood for this country … that I was caught up in the narcissism of addiction, more concerned with what I could put into my arm than making anything close to the sacrifice that members of our armed forces do on a daily basis. That’s one thing “Black Hawk Down” did well: It took me by the shoulders and forced me to see the world through the eyes of the soldiers who fought and died there.
Even though I watched the movie unfold from the comfort of a cushioned theater seat, relaxing with my girlfriend beside me and strangers surrounding me, it threw me into the middle of the chaos and cacophony of combat. While the men on screen fought for their lives and the lives of one another, I had trouble catching my breath, and after it was over, it wasn’t a film that I would ever describe as enjoyable. It's not funny, even though there are moments of levity. It's not an action film I relished, taking delight in the explosions and gunfire because I knew it isn't real.
This was real. The names of the characters each actor portrayed are real. They went and fought in Somalia, and 19 of them died there. It's not a documentary and doesn't feel like one, and it's not a rah-rah, God-and-country patriotic film to rally those who see it around the flag. For lack of a better explanation, it is what it is — a powerful, visceral, gut-wrenching movie experience. And I left feeling more worthless and hopeless than ever before.
This weekend, we commemorate Memorial Day, a holiday set aside to honor all fallen soldiers. Regardless of your politics, regardless of your opposition to war, regardless of your feelings about violence … they deserve the respect of a grateful nation, especially one populated by far too many of us who can’t begin to imagine sacrifice beyond waiting two days for a new smartphone or 10 minutes in a fast-food drive-thru line.
Speaking for myself, I’m thankful that they signed up to do something I never found the courage or the determination to do. I’ve made peace with my past and the things I did in my active addiction to harm society and the people that I love, and I don’t feel inadequate for not having done so. But I also recognize that I can be opposed to conflict while being profoundly grateful for the men and women who find themselves in harm’s way, and I can take a few moments to send up a silent prayer or two for those who didn’t make it home.
I pray for the day when war will no longer be necessary, but I’m afraid that may be a pipe dream. As humans, we are war-like creatures, and I can’t conceive of a future when the blood of soldiers won’t be a required sacrifice for self-interest or self-preservation. Around the world, there are men and women who stand in the breach, waiting to protect us from those who would do us harm or mete out justice when our leaders demand it. And when — not if — violence is required of them, it will be messy and dark and life-changing … and unless it’s a global or catastrophic conflict, most of us will probably have no idea that some of them have perished.
This weekend, we can at least call a time out and give thanks to them for the sacrifices they have made and will make under the banner of American ideals — democracy. Compassion. Justice for all.
Such courage is the very embodiment of everything the United States stands for, and regardless of our different ideologies and beliefs, we can all find inspiration in that.
Have a blessed Memorial Day, friends. Here’s a song to mark the occasion.