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In December, 1992, then U.S. president George Bush authorized the deployment of U.S. forces in a humanitarian mission to Somalia in eastern Africa. The purpose of this mission, Operation Restore Hope, was to alleviate the famine, caused by drought and aggravated by civil war, that was killing between one thousand and three thousand Somalis every day. At first, American forces were greeted warmly by the Somalis, and the mission seemed to be achieving its goals. By the summer of 1993, however, the operation had been expanded in an attempt to create political stability in this chaotic nation. After clansmen loyal to warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid killed twenty-four Pakistani U.N. peacekeepers, the United States, in accordance with the expanded scope of its mission, set out to capture Aidid. Aidid proved elusive, and his aggressive pursuit by the Americans led many Somalis to come to regard the United States as a hostile occupying force.

This is the background for the events of October 3, in which U.S. Rangers and elite Delta forces mounted a raid aimed at snatching two top Aidid lieutenants from a house near the Bakara Market area of Mogadishu, where Aidid’s militia was strong. That deadly mission is the subject of Mark Bowden’s riveting book, a masterpiece of battle reporting that conveys in gritty detail the experience of being an American soldier fighting through an unceasing and wholly unexpected barrage of hostile fire on the streets of Mogadishu that day and night.

The Americans expected the mission, which began at 3:00 p.m., to take no more than one hour. Having mounted six previous similar missions without taking any casualties, they were confident of success. The AK-47 assault weapons customarily used by the Somalis were no match for the high-tech weaponry that the U.S. forces possessed. The “Sammies” or “skinnies,” as the U.S. soldiers called them, were poor shots, tending to fire wildly and then run off. They also took time to muster their forces, and usually the U.S. teams acted swiftly enough to be out of the danger zone before any organized opposition could appear.

At first, it looked as if the operation would go as planned. Delta operators (known to the Rangers as the “D-boys”) stormed the building that housed the wanted men and arrested them. At the same time, the Rangers roped down from Black Hawk helicopters to secure the surrounding area.

However, the Americans soon ran into considerably more opposition than they were expecting. Thousands of Somalis raced to the area, many of them armed. They burned tires to send up smoke signals that would summon others to the scene. Soon the Rangers, taking fire from all directions, realized they had descended into a hornets’ nest. Still there were few signs of the disaster to come. Commanders back at base, watching images from aerial cameras, expected the task force to be on its way back in a mere twenty minutes more.

Then came trouble. Not only were the Rangers sustaining casualties, but a Black Hawk helicopter was hit by a rocket- propelled grenade and crashed a few blocks away. From that point on the situation deteriorated. Battle plans had to be improvised at each moment as the Rangers tried to fight their way to the crash site to secure it. Some went on foot; others were part of a vehicle convoy that became involved in a black comedy of errors as they took directions from the command helicopter above, which was itself relying on surveillance information from a spy plane. This led to delays and errors: the convoy went past the crash site, turned and then ended up where it had begun, all the while taking heavy casualties. The combat action for which all the men had longed had turned into a nightmare, and this is well conveyed by Bowden’s visceral prose:

The city was shredding them block by block. No place was safe. The air was alive with hurtling chunks of hot metal. They heard the awful slap of bullets into flesh and heard the screams and saw the insides of men’s bodies spill out and watched the gray blank pallor rise in the faces of their friends, and the best of the men fought back despair.

Finally the convoy, with nearly half of its seventy-five men wounded, returned to base as the remaining Rangers and D-boys, supported by the airborne arrival of a search and rescue team, began to secure the crash site.

Meanwhile, there had been another disaster for the Americans. A second Black Hawk, commanded by Mike Durant, had crashed in the city. American forces were now stretched to the breaking point. A Quick Reaction Force from the 10th Mountain Division was assembled to secure Durant’s crash site, but it could not get through the roadblocks and ambushes set by the Somalis. Two D-boys volunteered to be dropped at the crash site, but they were shot and killed within minutes. The only survivor was Durant, who was captured by a Somali mob.

As darkness fell at the first crash site, no relief was in sight for the American forces. They would remain pinned down in an area covering three blocks for the entire night—a group of ninety- nine American soldiers, many of them wounded, desperately trying to survive, surrounded on all sides by well-armed Somalis.

Help was coming, though slowly: a one-hundred-vehicle relief convoy, including Malaysian armored personnel carriers with Malaysian drivers but crews of U.S. soldiers, four Pakistani tanks (which could not go all the way through narrow streets), and “Condors”—steel dumpsters that were built for six men, with room for a gunner at the back. The convoy was nearly two miles long and contained nearly five hundred men.

The incoming force fought a pitched battle on their way into the city, finally linking up with the besieged Rangers and D-boys at dawn, fourteen hours after the battle had begun. Then, incredibly, for the return journey, there was not enough room in the vehicles for all the men, and some were left to follow the convoy on foot, running and shooting for all they were worth as what seemed like the whole of Mogadishu erupted in gunfire around them:

They ran through the oily smell of the city and of their own bodies, the taste of dust in their dry mouths, with the crisp brown bloodstains on their fatigues and the fresh memory of friends dead or unspeakably mangled, with the whole nightmare now grown unbearably long, with disbelief that the mighty and terrible army of the United States of America had plunged them into this mess and stranded them out there and now left them to run through the same deadly gauntlet to get out. How could this happen?

At the end of the mission, 18 Americans were dead and 73 injured, more than half of the 160 men who had set out on the original mission. Durant was in enemy hands; he was not released until eleven days later. Although technically the mission had been a success—the two Somalis whom the U.S. forces had set out to capture remained in U.S. hands—it exacted a terrible price.

The Somalis suffered grievously too. A conservative estimate put the number of Somali dead at five hundred, with one thousand injured. One of the merits of Bowden’s book is that he interviewed a number of Somalis who were present on that day, and he presents their point of view too. To the Somalis, the Americans were invaders from another world, swarming down in their helicopters like huge predatory birds, dealing out random death and destruction. One Somali, observing the Rangers’ body armor and helmets with goggles, “could see no part of them that looked human. They were like futuristic warriors from an American movie.” Time and again the book brings home how apt this comparison is, particularly when one reads Bowden’s accounts of the awesome firepower of the Black Hawk and “Little Bird” helicopters, whose barrages of rockets would literally shake the ground and tear to pieces anything in their paths.

Of course, these “futuristic warriors” were in truth just young Americans barely out of their teens, thrust into a terrifying situation that would test them to the limit. Bowden does a fine job in telling their individual stories, which often include defining moments experienced in battle. One soldier, after his first kill, has a reflective moment, wondering whether he has done the right thing. Another man relishes the killing—he is doing his job and has no second thoughts. Still another soldier in an extreme moment is pushed beyond any care of himself. He feels that his own life no longer matters. What matters is that the other guys should not get hurt—he must go on fighting because they need him. It is this type of reaction that underlies the numerous accounts of bravery and heroism, as soldiers drag wounded comrades to safety under a hail of fire.

One soldier thinks that he must get out of the army as soon as this nightmare is over. Then something changes. As bullets whistle around him, he thinks, “I can’t get out of the army. Where else am I going to get to do something like this?” Another Ranger discovers that under fire he reaches a peak of in-the-moment mental and physical alertness that he has experienced before only as a surfer riding a huge wave. At the opposite pole of experience, one man candidly admits that he went out on the relief convoy only because he did not dare refuse orders, and that during the battle he felt out of his element.

The aftermath of the Battle of Mogadishu was that the United States immediately called off the hunt for the warlord Aidid and, after a token show of boosting its forces in Somalia, withdrew all its troops by March, 1994. Somalia was no closer to having a stable government than it had been before the U.S. intervention.

How did a well-meaning humanitarian operation turn into a ferocious bloodbath? It was one of those situations where each step taken seemed logical at the time, but in retrospect, it is clear that the American exercise in Third World “nation- building” was ill-conceived; the idea that order could be restored and democracy promoted simply by removing one troublesome clan leader was at best a vain hope, at worst a naïve blunder.

Although the Battle of Mogadishu fills only a small page in military history, it has had wide-reaching effects on U.S. military policy. In the 1994 invasion of Haiti, for example, the primary purpose, according to Bob Shacochis in his book The Immaculate Invasion (Viking, 1999), was to establish a stable and secure environment for the U.S. troops, not to stop the brutality in that country. The military had clearly decided that there would be no more Somalias. The debacle in Somalia also ensured that there would be no U.S. intervention in another African country, Rwanda, when genocide broke out there in 1994, and it also partially explained the reluctance of the Clinton administration to intervene in the civil war in Bosnia.

The Battle of Mogadishu may not have been the finest hour of the American military, but Bowden’s Black Hawk Down is a fine tribute to the bravery of the men who fought on that day. It will take its place as one of the classic accounts of the horror and the exhilaration of combat.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 95 (January 1, 1999): 822.

Library Journal 124 (January, 1999): 128.

The New York Times Book Review 104 (March 14, 1999): 6.

Publishers Weekly 246 (February 1, 1999): 67.

Washington Monthly 31 (April, 1999): 36.

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