I don’t normally do movie reviews. In fact, I’ve never written a review about a movie, ever. Movies, for me, are mainly entertainment. Sometimes they can be more than that; but I would only take away themes and ideas, references to refer back to in my actual writing, rather than bother to write about the movies themselves. But when MALBATT: Misi Bakara came into cinemas in time for Malaysia’s Independence Day in 2023, I went to see it. It was a long-awaited film about the omitted Malaysian part of the rescue mission in Hollywood’s Black Hawk Down, and the trailer actually looked really good.
The movie was unexpectedly so good, and led me to several new insights in geopolitics and international relations, that I felt compelled to write this review. This review is, therefore, going to be less about the technicalities of movie-making, and more about insights from events depicted in the movie, particularly the scenes that I felt were especially powerful.
Obviously, this review contains many, many spoilers.
- Breaking the silence on “Black Hawk Down”
- First rescue mission: Asymmetry from the get-go
- Not tho’ the soldier knew / Some one had blunder’d
- Theirs not to reason why
- The strange actions of the Pakistan units
- Theirs but to do and die
- The boy in the middle of the street
- Back from the mouth of hell.
- Review summary
Breaking the silence on “Black Hawk Down”
Something important to mention at the outset, is how unusual military movies like this are in Malaysia’s cinematic culture. There might have been some, set in the World War period. But not after.
Of course, you might say that one reason is the fact that modern Malaysia isn’t involved in wars. But then again, the Malaysian armed forces have been engaged in combating insurgency in modern times. And Malaysia has volunteered several times to serve under the banner of the United Nations, as peacekeepers. The rescue mission depicted in the movie occurred during one such peacekeeping mission.
No, it’s not that there isn’t enough material to make into compelling military movies. My view is that the reason is really Malaysia’s culture, which considers discretion concerning such deployments as part of professional foreign policy.
So, when the movie Black Hawk Down came out in 2001, even though people knew that an important part of the story is left out, we let it go*.
But times change, and Gen Y is a lot more willing to spill the tea. Upon learning of the true untold story behind the Mogadishu rescue mission, millennial film director Adrian Teh was like “why do we not know about this?” So he did something about it.
First rescue mission: Asymmetry from the get-go
The movie drops you into action from the very first scene. It’s 1993, and a unit of Malaysian soldiers were facing down Somali militants on a mission to rescue media hostages. They moved through the building where the hostages were held. Resisted by militants, they responded with fatal, military efficiency.
I don’t know if the director deliberately did so, nor whether other audience members were as struck by it. But those opening scenes brought to sharp relief the difference in what the two sides had. The professional Malaysian soldiers were fully uniformed with complete infantry protective gear, well armed, equipped with communications, supported with a field medic, and clearly well-trained to deliver the mission as a unit.
But the Somalis only wore shabby civilian clothing, without even proper shoes.** Poverty was obvious upon them. They were well armed, but that was all they had. They fought with desperation and defiance. But, lacking training, they were gunned down easily.
The scene drove home what a dangerous weapon the trained soldier is. Even though you understood why they went on the mission in the first place, you witness the reality that once you have to resort to sending in a soldier, someone will probably die – whether they deserve to or not.
And I wept at the tragedy, even though the rescue mission was successful. I think the movie intended that. For as the unit returned to base, we see its assigned Somali interpreter in the APC^, solitary in his grief. He had failed to persuade the Somali commander to surrender, and the deaths of his countrymen seemed to haunt him alone.
Not tho’ the soldier knew / Some one had blunder’d
After the rescue mission came the ‘character introduction’ scenes. Having been in the military reserves myself (albeit in the navy), the screen depictions felt real. Some of the guys really can be that annoying, but you’d miss the flirts and the blustering show-offs. Then you have the upright family men, most are regular small town guys. The primary characters probably don’t actually depict the personalities of the real soldiers inspiring the movie, but they were not unrealistic either.
At first, we get the sense that the soldiers felt honoured at being part of the UNOSOM peacekeeping mission. However, as the movie progressed, they began to have a growing unease.***
From the relatively cheerful scenes when the unit was back at the base, we begin to have snippets of conversation questioning what they saw and heard in Mogadishu, while on their patrols and in the markets. You understood that the local Somalis resented the peacekeepers’ presence. A soldier spoke his resentment to his comrade about being accused as a traitor to the faith. (The Malaysian soldiers were, of course, overwhelmingly Muslim, like most Somalis). “Is it Islamic to let your people starve like this? Is it Islamic to capture innocent prisoners?” he said defensively, as he drew a line between the “terrorists” and the “good Somalis”.
But gradually, the line seemed less clear. The question “what are we doing here” becomes more frequent. The comms tech, a character meant to stand in for the audience’s feelings, voiced his dissatisfaction. A soldier picked up on the Somalis’ association of them with the US troops. Their missions seemed unusual for a humanitarian deployment. As soldiers, they didn’t mind action. But were peacekeepers supposed to be taking down Farah Aidid?
Theirs not to reason why
The unease grew when they received orders to muster for a secret mission.
Once there, they met up with the Pakistani forces, and the Americans. The Malaysians were asked to surrender their APCs to the Americans, for a mission to rescue American soldiers trapped in enemy territory after their Black Hawks went down in the Bakara market of Mogadishu.
The troops rebelled. The APC units vowed not to release their vehicles without being in them themselves. The tank units refused to let the APCs go without their protection. All around was the injured pride and anger, at the perceived insult of not being considered good enough to command their own machines.
But the chain of command prevailed, though not without compromise. The tanks went back, but the Malaysian APCs would deploy with their own drivers and gunners. They would be defended with the Pakistani tanks.
(At this point in the movie, I couldn’t help recalling the poem, The Charge of the Light Brigade.)
The strange actions of the Pakistan units
The Americans briefed the Malaysian and Pakistani commanders on the route that the combined units must take to the two crash sites. There would be a command helicopter flying overhead, providing air support. They were to evacuate all the surviving soldiers, and recover the bodies of the fallen. And get out.
It didn’t escape the commanders that the route chosen was known to be well defended. There would be significant resistance. “Why not take these other routes instead,” asked our commander. He was shut down and told to just follow the order. The Pakistani commander kept a poker face. In the movie, he asked a question that I wondered was historically accurate. He asked to be in the command helicopter with the Americans. “So that our tanks would have up-to-date information,” he said, to avoid any confusion. He, too, was denied.
At that moment, I thought he just wanted to get out of the firefight himself. But as the units deployed, and immediately came under heavy fire, I questioned that. The helicopter was not safer.
Then came the scene when the Pakistani tanks, which were supposed to go first, just stopped. You could feel the Malaysians’ frustration, coming under fire, unable to move forward or around. Eventually, the Pakistanis turned back, citing the lack of night vision goggles.
And I wondered, whether they thought they were being sent on a suicide mission.***
Theirs but to do and die
Cannon to right of them / Cannon to left of them / Cannon in front of them / Volley’d and thunder’d; / Storm’d at with shot and shell, / Boldly they rode and well…
The actual rescue mission unfolded from here on. Coming relentlessly under fire, the Malaysian APCs heard back from their own commanders. There had been four rescue attempts already, and all of them failed. This was the fifth mission. That was why all the other routes were considered not viable. I wondered, if the Pakistanis heard first, and whether that’s why they turned back.
But our units decided to go on. They had agreed to undertake the mission, and so they will. Blocked at every turn by the defending militants, one unit was forced off the route, and became lost. To make matters worse, their communications equipment got damaged as well.
The other was forced to carry on, somewhat more successfully. Pushing ahead, taking hits, and – in a moment most poignant to the Malaysian audience – lost a soldier as an RPG shot straight to the APC he was driving. Picked up the American soldiers, dug out the fallen helicopter to recover everyone. And basically, just carried the mission.
The boy in the middle of the street
But there was a scene – with the lost unit, if I recall – that stayed with me. It brought to relief the paradox of the soldier’s mindset. It at once requires him to shutter his individual morality in order to carry out his role in the team without question and hesitation, but also not so completely that he is unable to recognise the limits and the laws of warfare.
The APC was moving along a relatively quiet street. There, in front of it, standing in the middle of the road, was a Somali boy. Maybe about 11 or 12, he glared up at the APC from a defensively lowered head. His eyes were pools of hate. In his hand held behind his back was a rock, but the soldiers couldn’t see.
The soldiers, on edge from the feral fighting they had just passed through, stopped short. Contemplating the boy, a child and yet with eyes too old, they asked themselves, What are we doing here?
What have they done to this country?
The boy didn’t move. A soldier opened the top hatch and came up with his rifle at the ready. The boy remained standing. Having experienced the perils of the previous scenes with him, the audience flips between concern for the soldier and horror for the child, and vice versa. And I honestly don’t know how many of us can say they feared for the child in that moment, the same as we would normally.
In the end, the soldier decided to fire a shot on the road in front of him. He tossed his rock and ran.
Back from the mouth of hell.
The lost unit did reach one of the crash sites, and recovered the American soldiers. But they lost their vehicles. We see them trapped in hostile neighbourhoods, all ways out leading to fierce gunfire. We meet again the Somali interpreter from the first rescue mission, for his assigned Malaysian officer was in the lost unit. With no good options, he made the decision to lead the trapped soldiers to his friend’s house, which happened to be nearby. Begging the interpreter to grant them sanctuary, we see the anguish of the Somali man on the other side of the door, as he weighed his compassion to his friend and the UN peacekeepers outside, against duty to his vulnerable family inside.
If he let the soldiers in, they must run too, for he would be exposed as a collaborator, and marked for death. But he did. Within, the soldiers found time to rest, and the American medic tended to the wounded Malaysians.
However, there was a moment when it seemed kindness was about to be repaid by violence. The Americans didn’t trust the Somalis. One nearly shot him, when he went to take his own gun from its hiding place. Fortunately for him and the subsequent survival of the unit, his Malaysian friend placed himself in between, and defused the situation.****
We then see both separated units struggle to find their way back out of Bakara. The one, carrying wounded in the APCs and the dead on top, shooting their way through. The other, led by the interpreter, through the narrow streets. But they were discovered, and surrounded. All seemed lost, until the Malaysians fired a flare in desperation. It would reveal their location to even more militants – but might also show the helicopter support where they were.
It worked. But not before the interpreter saw his wife and son gunned down.
MALBATT: Misi Bakara is a very different movie from the typical war movie. There are no ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. It also felt very Malaysian in the worldview that the events are seen from. It captures the courage and deadliness of the soldier, but focuses more on the fallen, than the glory. The soldiers’ Islamic faith is with them in dire moments. And it ends with a Qur’anic verse prohibiting killing.
The final scenes see the return of the Malaysian and American soldiers to base. The brightness of the arena where the separated units met each other again, was a jarring contrast to the havoc that just passed. Some of the soldiers had come into the mission naive, even gung ho. “What would I tell the hometown folks, being deployed to war but not fighting any battles?” They came home a little less so.
I don’t know how closely the movie tracks with actual events that happened. Surely, there must have been some creative decisions to knit together the real parts, and simplify undoubtedly complex military bureaucracy. But after 20 years of griping over the historical inaccuracy of Black Hawk Down, you’d expect that Teh’s film would be quite close. At any rate, the rescue mission events were real, as far as I can tell from viewing videos of veterans’ accounts of the Battle of Mogadishu.
While most reviewers rightfully focus on our soldiers’ bravery, a scene at the end lingers in my mind. It was a mirror of the scene that struck me in the beginning. The interpreter, inside an APC with the soldiers who were relieved after surviving a mission, alone with his grief. But this time among the killed were his own beloved family. His Malaysian friend tried to console him, and he seemed to let go of his loss. But I wonder.
And finally, it didn’t escape me that the bodies of the soldiers were recovered with such danger and effort. But the Somali interpreter had to leave his dead wife and son in the street.
* The US service members themselves do not leave out the valour of their Malaysian fellows, in their recollections. However, the US government only officially recognised the Malaysian contribution to the Bakara rescue mission in 2013, 20 years after the event. Undoubtedly, it is only a coincidence that the recognition came one year after US President Obama announced his ‘pivot to Asia’ policy in 2012.
** The movie does not cinematically show the Somalis in such a way that encourages the audience to assign the ‘villain’ role to them. Instead, it shows them the way soldiers remember, who carry out orders, but do not judge. They are shown to be fighting ferociously, like resistance fighters would. Somewhat one-dimensional, yet not dehumanised. Except for the interpreter (played by a Somali-American), their dialogue is also sparse and repetitive, reflecting only that they wanted the foreigners out, but doesn’t invent guesses as to why. Some commentators took issue with this, as it made the movie less engaging. My guess is that the real soldiers didn’t want the characters to speak dialogue that might not be fair to the real conflict.
*** Malaysia participated in the UNOSOM II peacekeeping mission, during which the events of the movie took place. The history of the situation in Somalia that led to the UN decision to deploy UNOSOM is complex. I like this somewhat lighthearted narration (lighthearted might help with the heavy subject), suitable for Malay speakers. UNOSOM II was a peacekeeping mission fraught with controversy, distrusted by the local population, and also trust issues between the country contingents.
**** I’m not sure if the exact scene happened, but an incident like it is real. Captain (R) Mazlan Fauzi recalled an incident in a friendly neighbourhood when American soldiers were about to shoot curious residents who came out of their homes to see the commotion. He remembered drawing his own weapon on the Americans to stop them, and told them the area is friendly, until they stood down. The Americans don’t do patrols, so they don’t know, he explains.
^APC – armoured personnel carrier