(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 1942 words.)