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FIRST-PERSON: ‘Black Hawk Down’ ennobling fare compared to ‘M*A*S*H’

EVANSTON, Ill. (BP)–Film director Robert Altman has just raised his ugly voice to say, “When I see an American flag flying, it’s a joke.” In 1970, he raised an ugly movie called “M*A*S*H,” now just released with exquisitely bad timing on a special-edition DVD.

Another movie, “Black Hawk Down,” currently is number one in the theaters, and the two films couldn’t be more different.

Black Hawk Down is a chronicle of stunning heroism. M*A*S*H is a celebratory fantasy of cynicism, promiscuity, obscenity, blasphemy, insubordination and slovenliness.

As one of the M*A*S*H stars, Tom Skerritt, recently put it, it shows “the absurdity of war.” Yeah, that was pretty absurd, that Korean War — six of one and a half dozen of the other, whichever side won. I’m sure that Stalin’s buddy, Kim Il Sung, would have done the folks of Seoul proud had he been allowed to prevail. Maybe no Pastor Cho (who leads the world’s largest congregation), no Billy Kim (the current Baptist World Alliance president) and no Prayer Mountain. And yes, there’s that ticklish matter of North Korea’s tendency to ship arms to Iran, Libya and Syria. USA Today, meanwhile, reports that 10 percent of North Korea’s 22 million people have starved to death. (Remember when we collected winter coats to send to Pyongyang?). But let’s not be picky. Better to hover above the absurdity of war with Brother Robert and his cognoscenti.

Of course, Korea was not Altman’s main target. “I did everything that I could do to make the audience feel that this was Vietnam,” the director says. The elite consensus was and is that Vietnam was a disaster, but there is a growing counterargument in the publishing world that our persistence in Southeast Asia was a significant nail in the Soviet coffin, that it helped to win the Cold War by forcing Moscow to invest heavily in the cause of this client state.

Be that as it may, we might ask the Baptists of Vietnam how things are going under the rule of Hanoi. Would they say things are fine, just as if South Vietnam had won?

Altman would squawk at the slightest hint of infringement of one of his many liberties. Would he lift a finger to defend the religious liberties of those his film ill served? And by sneering at the Vietnam War, he contributed to the collapse of our national will to persist in that effort. Perhaps there was a point in getting out when we did, but Altman didn’t have it or make it. And neither did the “superior,” often charming folks in the Larry Gelbart’s TV spinoff.

I should hasten to say that the characters in Black Hawk Down are not uniformly prime candidates for your next pastor search committee. They have their rough edges. But they show faithfulness unto death on a mission to break the reign of warlords whose thugs are starving the populace. They run into the line of fire to rescue their buddies, making vivid Christ’s pronouncement, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan has done well to focus on the scene where the ambushed convoy commander pulls a dead driver from behind the wheel of his truck and yells to a soldier, “Get into that truck and drive.” “But I’m shot, Colonel.” “Everybody’s shot. Get in and drive.”

In a society obsessed with victimhood, Noonan sees this as an antidote to our whining. “It means something we used to know. It means everyone has it hard, everyone takes hits, everyone’s been fragged, everyone gets tagged, life isn’t easy for anyone.” So let’s spend less time cultivating and parading our hurts and get on with it.

This Mogadishu raid was tactically flawed, crippled by constraints imposed in Washington. It had its absurdities. But director Ridley Scott found the grandeur of riflemen (and not just sensitive doctors) in the midst of it all. And we are ennobled in the viewing.

I trust that Altman would be hooted down should he attempt another M*A*S*H today. After Sept. 11, we’re smarter than he is, and smarter than the character Hawkeye Pierce. Perhaps we can subtitle Black Hawk Down, “Hawkeye Down.” That would be nice.
Coppenger is pastor of Evanston (Ill.) Baptist Church. Other reflections by Coppenger can be viewed at www.comeletusreason.com.

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  • Mark Coppenger