The Long View: Black Hawk Down

I think I read Black Hawk Down after I read John's review of it. It has been long enough that I'm not quite sure anymore. Regardless, this is a classic of war journalism, and is worth reflecting on the Battle of Mogadishu twenty-one years later.

Our involvement in Somalia's civil war in 1992 and 1993 is the connection between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the Global War on Terror, even though we didn't know it at the time. Somalia's collapse was what the other end of the peace dividend looked like. We [and the Russians] stopped spending money in Third World shitholes, and some of them imploded from the sudden change in cash flow.

We got involved because this was arguably partly our fault. The original mission was primarily to protect aid workers who were distributing food. Once the famine ended, and most of the troops went home, local political entrepreneurs began looking to fill the power void. If Mohamed Farrah Aidid had avoided targeting local collaborators and UN peacekeepers in his quest for power, likely we wouldn't have bothered to get further involved.

However, Somali rules for war don't include niceties like "non-combatants". All that matters is whose side you are on. If you want a battle where the rules of war were observed to the letter by both sides, you need to go look at Gettysburg. This was definitely not Gettysburg, although it was a pivotal battle in United States history.

In principle, it shouldn't have been. These were routine snatch and grab type missions. Fast rope in, handcuff some guy, toss him in a waiting truck and drive off. In many ways, this kidnapping operation was also a success. The intended targets were indeed captured. Unfortunately, the Somalis seem to have been the first to really exploit the weakness of helicopters to RPG fire. In the firefight that ensued after two Blackhawks were shot down by RPGs, the Rangers clearly gave much better than they got, no matter whose account you credit.

Nonetheless, this was widely perceived as a failure of will on the part of America [which is at least partly the argument of this book]. That may or not be a fair judgement, but public opinion is notably unfair. One might even go so far as to suspect that this event played a role in the formulation of Osama bin Laden's campaign of bombings intended to break the will of the American people. It does seem clear that we were sucked into a war we didn't understand, with unclear goals and an infinite faith that our technological superiority would allow us to eventually prevail. As such, Mogadishu seems to be more typical than not of our never-ending war.

Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War
by Mark Bowden
Penguin Books, 2000
392 Pages, $13.95 (Paperback)
ISBN: 0-14-028850-3


In this account of the battle of Mogadishu of October 3, 1993, Mark Bowden, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, says that he "wanted to combine the authority of a historical narrative with the emotion of a memoir, and write a story that read like fiction but was true." While a theoretical argument can be made that this ambition is impossible, readers will have trouble avoiding the conviction that Bowden succeeded. The book is based on dozens of interviews with the hundred or so Rangers and Delta Force members who spent the night pinned down in an armed and hostile city, as well as with their commanders, elements of the relief column that finally extracted them and a sample of Somali bystanders and militia. These people get to speak for themselves through the author's narrative, which adopts the point of view of the primary sources for each incident in the story. The result is more than a Tom Clancy novel with better characters: the accounts of combat in Black Hawk Down are an important contribution to military history. The book also examines the leadership and tactics that lay behind the engagement. While Bowden, commendably, does not present any easy answers, one could argue that there were in fact glaring errors in these areas.

The battle of Mogadishu (sometimes called "the Battle of the Black Sea" after the neighborhood in which most of it occurred) was the climax to the UN-sponsored, American-led intervention in Somalia that began in 1992. That country had disintegrated politically when both superpowers lost interest in supporting its tyrannical government after the end of the Cold War. The resulting famine in the south provided several weeks worth of photogenic misery for global television, which in turn led to widespread calls for international humanitarian military intervention. After some delay and despite its better judgment, the outgoing Bush Administration committed 28,000 Marines as the backbone of an international contingent to provide security for famine-relief organizations operating in and around Mogadishu, the nominal capital.

The effort succeeded. The famine ended, and the warring clans into which Somali politics had decomposed largely stopped fighting each other. The new Clinton Administration honored its predecessor's pledge to withdraw American forces from Somalia as quickly as possible. The Marines were brought home, and only a residual American force remained. The peace thereafter was supposed to be overseen by a modest international contingent as the UN assembled a new Somali government. This is not what happened. Clan violence resumed, due in no small part to the ambitions of the Habr Gidr clan and its leader, Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who hoped to dominate any new government. Aidid's forces assassinated Somalis working for the UN and began attacking UN peacekeeping forces. In one incident in July, 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed and their bodies mutilated.

The chief of the UN mission in Somalia at the time, retired US Admiral Jonathan Howe, was outraged by this turn of events and determined to intimidate the Habr Gidr into cooperation. Using his connections in Washington, he contrived to secure the deployment of a special operations force, Task Force Ranger, including a contingent of the legendary Delta Force.

Army Rangers are select paratroopers. Typically, they are about 19 years old, sport brutal crew cuts and go "Hoo Ah!" when they greet each other. (Other sources say they go "Ooh Rah!") While they are a formidable force, the Rangers are not trained or intended for special operations. D-boys, as Delta Force members are called, really are special operations troops. They are older than the Rangers and cultivate a studied indifference to things like rank and uniform. They are also probably the best soldiers in the world for what they do. What they were supposed to do in Mogadishu was raid the residences and bases of the leaders of Habr Gidr. The Rangers would provide a screen while Delta extracted the bigwigs. Any one raid involved about 160 men. They might arrive in Black Hawk helicopters and then leave with their prisoners in a convoy of Humvees and trucks that met them at the target, or they might arrive by convoy and leave by helicopter. These raids occurred for the most part in densely crowded civilian neighborhoods where a substantial fraction of the population was hostile militia. The trick was to get in and out before resistance could be organized.

There had already been a handful of American casualties in Somalia, and one Black Hawk associated with the 10th Mountain Division, the principal US reserve in the country, had even been shot down with a rocket-propelled grenade. Nonetheless, Task Force Ranger managed to complete five raids of this type with only trivial injuries to themselves. On October 3 their luck ran out. Around three in the afternoon, the force arrived in helicopters at the site of a meeting of Habr Gidr notables. They quickly secured some of the surrounding streets and bundled the prisoners into a truck in a small convoy. Then one of the Black Hawks was shot down, crash-landing nearby. The force then had to go to that site to rescue survivors (there were some) and to destroy sensitive equipment. A few minutes later, another helicopter was shot down.

What turned an unfortunate mishap into the biggest fire fight involving American forces since the Vietnam War was that the convoy was unable to find the first crash site. (The second site was soon overrun, despite a last-ditch defense by two members of Delta, and the pilot taken prisoner.) Whether despite or because of the guidance it received from observation aircraft, the Lost Convoy, as it became known, blasted its way up and down the city, narrowly missing its destination on several occasions and taking 50% casualties before arriving back at its base. A relief convoy was soon organized, manned in large part by support personnel, but was similarly defeated by the terrain of the city.

The Somalis' new-found facility with rocket-propelled grenades argued against extraction of the force around the first crash site by helicopter. In fact, three other helicopters had been badly damaged but managed to return to friendly territory. It was not until nearly midnight that a relief column of 500 men could set out, including tanks borrowed from the Pakistanis and armored personnel carriers from the Malaysians. (For a variety of reasons, the interface between the Rangers and the Malaysian drivers was not altogether happy.) This column knew exactly where it was going, and it was big enough to ignore most obstacles in its way. Nonetheless, mostly because of a long delay at the crash site to remove the body of a pilot from the Black Hawk, it was not until after sunrise that the column pulled into a sports stadium that was pressed into service as a field hospital.

The toll for the Americans was 18 dead and several dozen wounded. The figure usually given for deaths among the Somalis is 500. The most disturbing feature of the book is the account of the casual killing of civilians.

Since the objective of capturing the Habr Gidr notables was achieved, the Rangers insist to this day that the mission was a success. By most accounts, Mohamed Farrah Aidid was indeed deeply shaken. After the dispatch of an aircraft carrier and some diplomatically phrased threats from Admiral Howe, the captured pilot was released. However, such support as remained in the US for the Somalia intervention collapsed. The raids by Task Force Ranger ceased. The US withdrew entirely a few months later. Aidid was back in the diplomatic loop until his assassination in 1996. (His son, oddly enough, is a veteran of the US Marine Corps Reserve.) Somalia in the year 2000 remains a legal fiction.

Black Hawk Down is not about high politics. Still, Bowden does have some sensible if debatable things to say about who was responsible and what, if anything, should have been done differently. He is something of a partisan of the Task Force Ranger commander, the now retired General William F. Garrison. Bowden debunks the strange stories that had arisen in which Garrison is pictured as conducting the battle from a high-flying helicopter, and says that his extensive interviews with the members of the force did not reveal the unhappiness with Garrison's style of command that other writers have alleged.

Nonetheless, the fact remains that a unit under Garrison's command was being sent out to perform what was pretty much the same maneuver, time after time, in the same area. It really is predictable that, in such circumstances, the enemy will develop counter-tactics. There may have been some good reason Task Force Ranger had to persevere with the snatch-and-grab strategy, or perhaps the operations themselves were significantly varied. If so, however, these things are not apparent from the text.

The battle of Mogadishu was prominent among the reasons for the resignation of Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, but Bowden finds the decisions made by the Bush and Clinton Administrations at least defensible. Aspin was most faulted for turning down the initial proposal to include heavy armored vehicles in the residual force the US was leaving after the Marines pulled out. Later, when Task Force Ranger was deployed, it did not ask for armor, for the excellent reason that they were not an armored group. Still, one could argue that the dispatch of Task Force Ranger should have caused a reassessment of the decision not to send armor, since obviously the new force would have far more occasion to get in trouble than the force originally contemplated. The estimate that the armored vehicles could not have reached Mogadishu by October 3 in any case is probably exaggerated.

As for President Clinton, Bowden finds that, despite reports to the contrary, he was following developments in Somalia before October 3 as closely as could be expected. Clinton had approved the task force on expert advice, and the experts never gave him any reason to think that there was a fundamental flaw in the strategy. Bowden suggests that, after the primary goal of relieving the famine had been achieved, the US would have been better advised to have suffered the renewal of civil war. He quotes an anonymous source at the State Department as saying people in places like Somalia "don't want peace. They want victory." On the other hand, he also echoes what seems to have been the universal opinion among the veterans of the battle: having taken a position in Somalia's civil war, the US should have continued the policy until Aidid was killed or captured. There is certainly a very good argument that the Clinton Administration's decision to withdraw simply promoted the idea that the US, or at any rate President Clinton, would not persevere in any military commitment that could involve even small casualties.

While there is little to quarrel with in these assessments, there is one point of my own that I would like to add. What was Task Force Ranger doing? Was it a war? A police action? A safari? I don't understand where a strategy of repeated kidnapping raids into a city the attacker has no intention of governing fits into the categories of political science. Were we trying to annoy the Somalis into responsible self-government?

The task of special forces is to make assaults that are sudden, surprising and limited. Such operations can be an invaluable component of a larger campaign. The special forces operations in this instance, however, were the whole of the campaign. This was something like using a scalpel to cut down a tree. At the end of the attempt, the tree will still be standing, and the effect on the scalpel is predictable.

Copyright © 2000 by John J. Reilly

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