Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down

In the spring of 1993, two years into the Somalian Civil War, the United Nations launched UNOSOM II, a joint venture between the U.N. and the United States military to stabilize the country and deliver much-needed food aid. UNOSOM I, begun in 1992, without the backing of the U.S. military, was an unqualified failure: cease-fire negotiations between the U.N. and the various tribes warring for control of the country proved futile, and food relief dropped into the country was quickly confiscated by warlords. Supported by the firepower of the U.S. military, UNOSOM II was more ambitious. Under the advisement of Jonathan Howe, a former four-star U.S. Navy Admiral and Special Representative for Somalia, a military operation, codenamed Gothic Serpent, was launched with the mandate to capture Mohamed Farrah Aidid, leader of the most powerful faction. The logic of the mission should now be familiar to us: if only we take out this one sonuvabitch, peace and democracy will follow.

What ensued, however, was perhaps the greatest U.S. military catastrophe, and certainly the bloodiest, between the Vietnam and Iraq wars. It began with a July helicopter attack on a safe house thought to be housing Aidid. A 17-minute bombardment of missiles and machine gun fire killed 60 people – but not Aidid. What the attack did accomplish, however, was to shift Somalia’s perception of the American intervention, from essentially benevolent to sinister. Islamic fundamentalist groups distributed leaflets among the civilian population insisting that the Americans were conducting a holy war. Months of tension ensued, including the capture of significant members of Aidid’s organization, and the shooting down of a Black Hawk helicopter by Aidid’s militia. Prior to the downing of this helicopter, the Black Hawks – virtually immune to small arms fire – were thought to be untouchable, a potent symbol of American military superiority, capable of conducting operations in Somalia with impunity. The takedown of the helicopter was written off as bad luck, the fluke shot of an RPG, and so, by October, when new information placed Aidid’s foreign minister and top political adviser – and possibly even the elusive Aidid himself – in a hotel in the middle of Mogadishu, the commanding officers were eager to spring into action.

The plan itself was simple: the faster, lighter MH-6 Little Bird helicopters would transport the military’s elite Delta Force to the hotel, where they would secure the building and extract the targets inside; simultaneously, four more armoured, combat-ready Black Hawk helicopters would drop four chalks (military slang for a group of paratroopers) in an area around the hotel, where they would be tasked with securing a perimeter. When the targets were secured, a convoy of armoured vehicles would rush to the scene to extract the men. All of this was to take place in under an hour, in broad daylight, on a Sunday afternoon, when much of the population of Mogadishu would be out of doors, visiting the nearby markets. Only command’s confidence in the versatility and efficacy of their helicopters made such a mission conceivable.

When it came time to move from planning to execution, problems arose almost immediately. One of the Black Hawks accidentally dropped their chalk a block north of their intended target, leaving a gaping hole in the perimeter. RPG fire, cleverly aimed at the rotors of the helicopters, downed two more Black Hawks, killing the pilots of one and severely injuring the crew of both. Meanwhile, Aidid’s militia used megaphones to rally the citizenry to their cause. Makeshift roadblocks, erected out of the trash that littered the streets of Mogadishu uncollected for weeks, prevented the armoured vehicle rescue convoy from reaching the soldiers. For the next 12 hours, the men of Operation Gothic Serpent were trapped in Mogadishu, surrounded by hostile forces, without adequate provisions or equipment to fight a prolonged battle. Their enemies were a mixture of armed citizens of the city – inexperienced, untrained, and inaccurate with their weapons – and Aidid’s militia, seasoned fighters who used their more inept compatriots to draw American fire as they positioned themselves for better shots. To the horror of the Americans, many of their adversaries were also high on khat, a plant that, when chewed, releases alkaloid cathinone, a potent stimulant, resulting in psychosis, heightened alertness and hyperactivity, as well as a loss of inhibition. In practice, that meant hundreds of men – teeth blackened from chewing khat – putting themselves into the line of fire or acting recklessly, seemingly unfazed by the prospect of their own death.

When the last of the American troops were rescued, the number of casualties was staggering: 18 of the 160 American troops were killed, 85 wounded; as for the Somalis, estimates of the dead range from 800 to 1000, with some 3000 wounded. Images of the mutilated corpses of American servicemen, dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, were broadcast on CNN, at a time when the average American had no idea that their military had any presence in Africa whatsoever. One of the pilots of a downed Black Hawk, Mike Durant, was held hostage by Somali insurgents, and the drama of his capture and eventual release dominated a news cycle. The political fallout, too, was severe: President Clinton was blamed for the catastrophe, as was his Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, who had denied the army’s requests for more heavily armoured vehicles.

By 1999, however, when journalist Mark Bowden sought to tell the story of this doomed exercise in American intervention, it had been all but forgotten. As a consequence of the political fallout, America withdrew from Somalia, and the nation has been in a state of perpetual civil war ever since. Bowden did the admirable leg work of not only assembling all of the available information on the mission itself – imagine the sheer volume of data, from mission logs to communication transcripts – but of conducting interviews with the men of Task Force Ranger, many of whom were still on active duty. Black Hawk Down is therefore a compelling narrative account of a frightening military battle, as well as a lesson in the pitfalls of intervention and the limits of American military might. History has accorded the Battle of Mogadishu even greater relevance, since the Islamic fundamentalists who trained Aidid’s militia in the art of using RPGs to down helicopters were veterans of the Soviet-Afghan war. In the 1990s, these men were largely forgotten to the world, so much so that Bowden refers to them only as “Islamic fundamentalists” in the text proper, but by the early 2000s, the world would know them by another name: al-Qaeda. The Battle of Mogadishu revealed something to America, and to its enemies: the nation no longer had the will to pay the price of conflict: “The lesson our retreat taught the world’s terrorists and despots is that killing a few American soldiers, even at a cost of more than five hundred of your own fighters, is enough to spook Uncle Sam.” The tragedy is not only America’s, but Somalia’s, for the international community has largely turned its back on that beleaguered country. “The great ship of international goodwill has sailed. The bloody twists and turns of Somali clan politics no longer concern us. Without natural resources, strategic advantage, or even potentially lucrative markets for world goods, Somalia is unlikely soon to recapture the opportunity for peace and rebuilding afforded by UNUSOM.” Understandably, the surviving members of Task Force Ranger are angry about that. What, in the end, did they fight and die for?