Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War
Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War
Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern WarINTRODUCTION
Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War is the true account of a battle between American and Somali forces in the war-torn city of Mogadishu along the eastern coast of Africa on October 3, 1993. Mark Bowden considered the idea of writing a book about what became known as the Battle of the Black Sea after meeting the father of an American soldier who was killed in Mogadishu. Bowden was surprised to learn that no one had yet written a detailed account of the mission in Somalia, especially given the gruesome images—seen by millions of Americans on television news—of angry Somali mobs dragging American corpses through the streets of the city.
The battle, which left eighteen Americans dead and was the longest continuous firefight for U.S. troops since Vietnam, seemed the perfect subject matter for a book. Bowden, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, was struck by the intensity of the battle, not to mention the human drama of ninety-nine American soldiers trapped in an African city fighting for their very survival. Eventually, three years after the battle, Bowden began working on the story. He had very little official information to work from since the units involved in the battle, mostly Delta Force and the Rangers, operated in secret. In fact, most of it remained classified. While many politicians were reluctant to discuss the action—mostly because outside the special operations community it was seen as a failure—Bowden found Delta Force operators, Rangers, and even Somalis willing to tell their stories.
Bowden's minute-by-minute recounting of the battle, which began as a mission to snatch two top lieutenants of the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, first appeared as a twenty-nine-part series in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Two years later, in 1999, Black Hawk Down became a domestic and international bestseller.
Bowden begins the account inside a Black Hawk helicopter at liftoff, as a force of U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force operators prepare to drop in on a gathering of clan leaders, including the top lieutenants, in the heart of Mogadishu. The snatch-and-grab mission, while complex and difficult, is to last only an hour. However, the plan quickly falls apart and the U.S. force finds itself fighting to stay alive. A series of setbacks, terrible losses, miscommunications, added to a dangerous degree of overconfidence, all contribute to the longest day in many of the soldier's lives. For eighteen of them, it will be their last. For the Somalis, the toll is catastrophic, with conservative counts at five hundred dead and over a thousand wounded. In addition to the Americans killed in action, many are badly wounded. Two MH- 60 Black Hawk helicopters are shot down. Two more crash land. The bodies of dead Americans are beaten and dragged through the streets. A pilot is taken hostage.
The deadliest and most technologically advanced military in the world finds itself out-numbered, ill-equipped, and pinned down in one of the poorest, most dangerous neighborhoods on earth. Yet despite all the odds against them, the American Rangers and Delta Force manage to return to safety, albeit at a high price.
Bowden's account not only made forgetting the plight of the Rangers and Delta Force impossible, it also brought attention to the horrors of combat, brought dignity to those who fought in it, and even affected U.S. military policy. Black Hawk Down became a New York Times bestseller and was a 1999 National Book Award Finalist. Not long after publication of the book, it was made into a major motion picture produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Ridley Scott. The film won two Academy Awards, further cementing the book's reputation as a military classic.
Black Hawk Down opens with Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann saying a Hail Mary before lifting off with a force of U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force operators in a Black Hawk helicopter. Their mission is to capture two top lieutenants of the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Eversmann's Chalk Four—a "chalk" being the informal term for a unit of soldiers—consists of twelve men, the youngest of whom, Private First Class Todd Blackburn, is just out of high school. The code word for the mission is "Irene." Waiting for the code are a host of attack and transport helicopters, as well as a ground convoy that will haul back prisoners and the assault forces. Nearly one hundred and sixty men are ready for the mission.
The average age of the Rangers on this mission is nineteen. Trained for full-time war, their motto is "Rangers lead the way." The Delta operators, or "D-boys," are an elite group of soldiers who occupy the top rung in the military hierarchy. Chief Warrant Officer Mike Durant, the pilot of the lead Black Hawk, Super Six Four, announces the go-ahead call. They are off to attack Somalis, whom they call "Skinnies" or "Sammies," and most of the men are eager to do so.
The flight to the target building, a residence across from the Olympic Hotel in the Bakara Market, lasts about three minutes. Two Delta teams, led by Sergeants First Class Paul Howe and Norm Hooten, first storm the wrong building before finding the correct target. Rangers descend from the Black Hawks by rope. Eversmann's Chalk Four ropes down from about seventy feet above the street. Eversmann is the last to leave the helicopter, and when he lands he sees Blackburn, who missed the rope and fell straight down to the ground. He is unconscious and in dire need of medical help that will never arrive.
Weeks earlier, Major General William F. Garrison, commander of Task Force Ranger, warns Washington about the dangers of fighting in Bakara Market: "There's no question we'll win the gunfight, but we might lose the war." Several embarrassing mistakes, including the accidental arrest of nine United Nations employees and a raid on the residence of a close ally, put General Garrison's leadership on the line. Going into this mission, he cannot afford another misstep.
One of several chapters from a Somali perspective, Chapter 4 focuses on Ali Hassan Mohammed, a student and part-time shopkeeper. On the morning of the mission, after Rangers invade his house and his youngest brother is killed by helicopter gunfire, Mohammed joins with his friends to exact revenge for the death of his brother.
The last of the assault forces, Sergeant Paul Howe's Delta unit, enters the target building. They round up the two main targets, Omar Salad and Mohamed Hassan Awale. Sergeant Howe's men are shot at by confused American troops, further heightening his scorn for the "lower orders of soldiering, which pretty much included the whole regular U.S. Army." The D-boys, who often operate in secrecy, look more like civilians and enjoy a personal freedom that the Rangers envy. The price for this freedom, however, is increased danger and expectations for them to outperform regular soldiers.
Mark Bowden was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1951. He grew up in Illinois, New York, and Maryland, graduating from Loyola College in Maryland in 1973 with a bachelor's degree in English literature. Since 1979, he has been a staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, though he has also written for other publications.
Prior to writing Black Hawk Down, Bowden had never even covered war as a newspaper correspondent. In spite of the author's lack of firsthand war experience, the novel spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Bowden also authored the international bestseller Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw, which tells the story of the hunt for the billionaire Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar.
Bowden's other books include Doctor Dealer: The Rise and Fall of an All-American Boy and His Multimillion-Dollar Cocaine Empire, Bringing the Heat, Finders Keepers: The Story of a Man Who Found $1 Million, and Road Work: Among Tyrants, Beasts, Heroes, and Rogues. As of 2005, Bowden, who also teaches creative writing and journalism, lives in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Several Rangers experience combat for the first time, being shot at, wounded, or forced to kill people. Specialist John Stebbins, the company's "chief coffee maker," is reassured by a D-boy before the mission starts: "Look, for the first ten minutes or so you're gonna be scared s—less. After that you're going to get really mad that they have the balls to shoot at you." One soldier's fingertip is shot off, and he kills the Somali who injured him. The rules of engagement—when to fire and when not to fire upon people—become difficult to assess. Lieutenant Larry Perino watches Somali children point out Ranger positions to Somali shooters hiding around corners. He throws a flashbang grenade to scatter the kids. Sergeant Chuck Elliot sees an armed man hiding behind a woman. He fires at them and both fall dead. Specialists John Waddell and Shawn Nelson encounter a Somali shielding himself with two women kneeling beside him.
The prisoners are taken to the ground convoy. On video surveillance at the Joint Operations Center (JOC), the mission appears to proceed like clockwork.
The convoy, headed up by Colonel Danny McKnight, makes its way back to the hangar through roadblocks, barricades, and intense gunfire. Lieutenant Dom Pilla, a big kid with a "Joy-zee accent" is struck in the forehead by a bullet and dies instantly. Pilla is the mission's first soldier declared KIA (Killed in Action). McKnight's convoy returns to the base.
The other convoys take and return heavy fire. A rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) hits one of the Humvees. Staff Sergeant Dave Wilson is found with legs "stretched stiff " and "splashed with bright red blood." A bullet breaks the arm of Private Clay Othic, the smallest man in the company.
The firefight continues to take its toll. Eversmann's only uninjured Chalk Four man, Specialist Dave Diemer, taps Eversmann on the shoulder and says, "I think I just saw a helicopter get hit."
BLACK HAWK DOWN
Bowden presents Somali perspectives to explain the hatred some Somalis express toward the Americans. While many Somalis initially welcomed the American and UN presence, constant attacks and civilian casualties push some to loathe the Americans, particularly the Rangers.
Many of the Rangers witness an RPG strike the tail of Black Hawk Super Six One. Seeing the helicopter spiraling to a crash "crack[s] the task force's sense of righteous invulnerability." Sergeant Ray Dowdy, who mans the helicopter's minigun, selects Somali targets below who are shooting at them. Dowdy goes into "full payback mode" when he recalls the mutilation of fellow Black Hawk crewmembers by Somali mobs after a crash on an earlier mission. The helicopter spins out of control, and Cliff "Elvis" Wolcott makes the last transmission from the helicopter: "Six One going down."
At JOC, General Garrison watches the crash through video surveillance. A sinking feeling overcomes the officers at JOC. The mission, meant to be swift, now becomes, in part, a rescue attempt. The officers realize that they have "lost the initiative."
Nelson gets a good fix on the downed Black Hawk and, with several other Rangers, heads to the crash site. The pilots of another helicopter find a crewmember of Super Six One, Staff Sergeant Daniel Busch, up against a wall bleeding from the stomach. He is mortally wounded. Another Black Hawk, Super Six Four, piloted by Chief Warrant Officer Mike Durant, takes the downed helicopter's place to provide cover.
Bowden provides background on Admiral Jonathan Howe, dubbed "Animal Howe" by the Somalis. Admiral Howe is primarily responsible for bringing the Rangers to Mogadishu. He is convinced that capturing Aidid will bring peace and order to Somalia. The U.S. presence in Mogadishu, particularly a deadly attack months earlier on the Abdi House, has turned Aidid into a folk hero. Aidid's clan, the Habr Gidr, views this attack as an official declaration of war against the Somalis.
Minutes before Super Six One crashes, there is confusion, described as "the fog of war," among the ground forces. Once word of the crash spreads, the ground troops receive orders to go to the site. The ground convoy meets up with Eversmann's stranded Chalk Four unit. Many in the convoy do not know a helicopter has been shot down. The convoy battles intense gunfire. Durant's Black Hawk, Super Six Four, circles a low orbit. A grenade hits the chopper and blows a piece off the rotor. Durant tries to control the Black Hawk, but recovery is impossible. Durant shouts into his radio, "Going in hard! Going down!"
Bowden follows a Somali fighter, Yousuf Dahir Mo'alim, moments before his crew fires the grenade that hits Super Six One. The men are mooryan, or bandits. They are also called dai-dai, or "quick-quick," for their erratic and nervous mannerisms. Many are addicted to chewing khat, a local flowering plant with stimulating effects. They shoot down the Black Hawk because it is "a symbol of UN power and of Somali helplessness." They also take advantage of the American unwillingness to leave any soldier behind. Shooting down a helicopter means drawing more Americans into fire.
The ground convoy experiences heavy casualties. Delayed driving directions further handicap the vehicles. Drivers of some vehicles are unaware of their destination, which is the first crash site. An RPG strikes a Humvee in the convoy, injuring or killing several soldiers. Sergeant Casey Joyce is killed when a blast of gunfire pierces his heart. At the rear of the convoy, Sergeant Lorenzo Ruiz, a boxer from El Paso, slumps down inside the Humvee after being shot. Like many of the men, Ruiz had removed the ceramic plate from his protective vest; the men did not think they needed such armor. Corporal Jim Cavaco, who takes over for Ruiz, is shot in the back of the head and dies instantly. All the while, the convoy receives the wrong directions for exiting the area.
Many men in the convoy are at the breaking point. Some are terrified and crying: some feel physically ill. Others have moments of clarity. If they have to, they tell themselves, they will go down fighting. They fight not only for their own lives but because the other soldiers need them. Some question how it is possible for things to get so out of hand: "Somehow it didn't seem right that they could be reduced to this … bleeding, dying! This wasn't supposed to happen."
On the move again, the convoy is steered toward the wrong crash site. Frustration, confusion, and disbelief settle in. Many believe they are going to die. Somalis line up at intersections to take shots at the vehicles as they pass.
Specialist Eric Spalding is struck twice by bullets, once in each leg. The driver of the Humvee, Private Maddox, is momentarily blinded when a bullet strikes the back of his helmet with great force. Spalding shouts directions to Maddox who continues to drive blind.
Of the nearly seventy-five men in the convoy, including prisoners, about half are hit by bullets or shrapnel. Eight are dead or dying. Another ambush awaits them.
Though part of the strongest military power on earth, the U.S. force is now stretched beyond its limits. Because it is low on ammo, with most of its crew badly hurt, reinforcements are sent. An airborne rescue team drops over the first crash site. An RPG strikes the helicopter, but the pilot drops off two men on the ground, Sergeant Tim Wilkinson and Sergeant Scott Fales, and makes it back to the base for a crash landing. The new soldiers find that the rescue team's D-boys and Rangers have set up a perimeter to guard the first crash site. Fales is shot through the calf.
Sergeant James McMahon, a crewmember of Super Six One, pulls the body of Bull Briley from the wreckage. The pilot, Wolcott, is also dead, but his body is pinned between the ground and the Black Hawk from the waist down.
Only blocks away, Rangers fight to reach the crash site. A grenade injures Specialists Rob Phipps and Gregg Gould.
Across the city, Somalis spill into alleyways heading toward Durant's crash site. With two Black Hawks down, rescue efforts for Super Six Four have to wait. General Garrison assembles an emergency ground convoy, but Super Six Four is only minutes from being overrun.
Bowden describes life at the hangar, focusing on Dale Sizemore, who injures himself days before and is left out of the mission. The accommodations on base are rough—cramped sleeping spaces, with mosquitoes, rats, filth, and a leaky roof, amid nightly mortar attacks, and with general boredom among the troops. Sizemore, who is close to Ruiz, worries about him. He does not know his friend is already dead. Both had written final letters to their families. Before the mission, Ruiz reminds Sizemore about the letter. "Shut up," Sizemore tells Ruiz. "You'll be back here in a few minutes."
Brad Thomas, a Ranger who was in the Humvee when Pilla was killed, fears going back out. For him, emotionally, the fight is over. Those not out in the battle listen to broadcasts of the fighting. Ranger Steve Anderson is "infected by the panic on the radio." Some Rangers volunteer to head out, like Sizemore, who cuts off his cast to help his buddies. Others, like Anderson "would go out into Mogadishu and risk his life" but only "because he didn't dare refuse."
Sergeant Jeff Struecker's Humvee tries to advance to the second crash site but encounters roadblocks and heavy gunfire. The only alternative route is to go around the city, which places Durant and the crew of Super Six Four in further peril.
Delta snipers Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon volunteer to be lowered down to Durant's crash site.
Several Delta and Ranger teams struggle to make their way to the first crash site. The streets are like shooting galleries, and the casualties mount. Sergeant Howe and the D-boys meet up with Captain Mike Steele and proceed together to the crash site. Differences in leadership style create conflicts between Howe and Steele, emphasizing the disdain each has for the other's leadership style. Unit integrity breaks down. Delta Sergeant First Class Earl Fillmore is fatally shot through the neck. Fillmore's death stuns many Rangers who feel a sense of security from the Delta presence.
At the second crash site, the pilots regain consciousness. Both are badly injured. To their relief, Shughart and Gordon arrive. They lift Bill Cleveland out of the helicopter, and they fire at the gathering Somali crowd. Super Six Two provides cover support. RPGs regularly fly up toward the helicopter. The battle is now at its most confusing point. An RPG strikes Super Six Two. It crash-lands, safely, in a friendly port nearby.
The situation worsens when Gordon, one of only two rescuers, screams that he has been shot. When Shughart hands Durant a weapon, he realizes for the first time that they are stranded. Somalis are now reaching the crashed Black Hawk. Durant resigns himself to a terrible fate, recalling the "gruesome, horrible things" angry Somali mobs did to captured fighters. The Somalis find Durant, and one strikes him across the face with a rifle. Mo'alim, the Somali whose men downed the first Black Hawk, claims Durant as a prisoner. The Somalis drag Durant away, and he passes out.
Combat Search And Rescue (CSAR) members Tim Wilkinson and Bob Mabry reach the first crash site and rescue Dowdy, but cannot free the body of Wolcott. A storm of bullets pierce the Black Hawk, and everyone inside is hit.
Sergeant Howe overtakes a Somali family's house and turns it into a command post and casualty collection point.SergeantHowe's impressions of the military further emphasize how aghast he is at those in charge. He views the orders now given as "pointless," since "the very idea of adhering to rules of engagement at this point [is] preposterous."
Lieutenant Larry Perino and his men move to a small tin shed to take cover. More injuries occur. Eight of the eleven men in Perino's chalk have now been hit.
Corporal Jamie Smith's injury is critical. The bullet pierces a femoral vessel and retracts into his abdomen. Medic Kurt Schmid digs his hands into Smith's open wound, trying to clamp the severed artery. "If I don't get him out of here right now, he's gonna die," Schmid pleads.
With darkness coming, some hope the Somalis will just drop their weapons and go home. The men wait for the ground convoy, which they expect to arrive at any moment. Despite the horrors they are experiencing, the men manage to find humor. Stebbins, who is badly injured, smokes a cigarette. Wilkinson advises him that "as your health care professional, I feel I should warn you that narcotics and firearms don't mix."
The trapped units are re-supplied, but no medical evacuation (or "medevac") will take place. Back at the hangar, medics divide the wounded into two tents: one for those who may recover, and the other for those who are certain to die.
Nightfall worries many men. They came unprepared, without full canteens of water, night vision technology, or combat essentials, all because they thought the mission would be over quickly. Steele sees their predicament as a "perfect illustration of why not to ignore procedure." Attempts to secure a medevac for Smith are futile. When word arrives that the ground convoy is on its way, Steele learns that Smith's heart has stopped. Smith's death shatters the men.
When darkness falls, the stranded troops move indoors. Radio transmissions continue to promise that a rescue column will be dispatched. As Bowden describes it, "They were going to be there in twenty minutes. Then, an hour later, in forty minutes. After a while it got to be a joke." Shawn Nelson thinks that he will never be the same; he feels no remorse for the people he has killed. Mike Goodale thinks turning over "responsibility for his life, his very existence, to the U.S. government" is a terrible thing.
The D-boys plant infrared strobes on the rooftop for the rescue helicopters to see. Somalis are still taking shots at the Americans, and crowds form around the perimeter. By midnight, the rumble of the rescue convoy is heard.
Mo'alim, the Somali leader who seized Durant, gives him up to a better armed and larger band of mooryan, who consider Durant a negotiating tool. From where he is held hostage, Durant hears shooting and explosions.
News of the fighting in Mogadishu reaches Washington. At the time, another event—Russian President Boris Yelstin fending off an overthrow of his government—takes precedence. President Bill Clinton and the American public remain ignorant of the battle.
Rangers and D-boys, as well as soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, meet up with a multinational force. There is some confusion over who is in charge and how the mission should proceed. The men grow irritated and angry.
The convoy is expected to arrive within minutes, but nearly half an hour passes before word reaches Steele that the convoy is on its way. Two drivers in the convoy take a wrong turn. Gunfire often forces the convoys to stop and go. They wait hours before moving again.
One half of the rescue convoy reaches Durant's crash site, but finds only bullets, blood, and bits of clothing torn from the dead corpses. They set grenades on the downed Black Hawk to keep the Somalis from obtaining sensitive information.
When Malaysian drivers refuse to roll through a roadblock, the Americans separate and move out on foot. Specialist Phil Lepre, almost certain he is going to die, says goodbye to a photo of his baby daughter. After Lepre asks Private James Martin to take over his position, Martin is hit in the head and dies, leaving Lepre guilt-stricken.
The force reaches the courtyard where the D-boys and Rangers have been waiting. It is nearly morning by the time most of the injured are loaded. They struggle to get Wolcott's body free from the helicopter, and "[f]inally, at sunup, the grim work [is] done."
Then a shocking realization comes: there is not enough room on the returning convoy. Some soldiers have to run back through the streets they just escaped. They are terrified but determined to make it out safely. They eventually succeed, all the while incredulous that the "army of the United States of America had plunged them into this mess and stranded them there and now left them to run through the same deadly gauntlet to get out."
Somali perspectives are presented from Mogadishu's Volunteer Hospital and from a Somali who witnesses the dragging of American corpses through the streets. Somali doctors attend to more than five hundred patients. The numbers are even greater at other hospitals. It is described as "a tidal wave of gore." A Somali lawyer is ashamed by the mutilations of the Americans, believing it violates the "reverential treatment and immediate burial of the dead" called for by Islam. A group of UN soldiers tries to stop the crowd, but their lives are threatened and they drive off.
The men return to either the hangar or the Pakistani base of operations, located in a converted soccer stadium. Perino gives up the last seat on a vehicle to Private George Siegler, who is so moved by the lieutenant he decides on the spot to reenlist.
Steele sits with his head buried in his hands, with rows of the dead in body bags behind him. He is shocked when he learns how many men died. He feels an overwhelming sadness but does not dare break down in front of the soldiers.
The wounded wander around dazed, or watch the dead being loaded for transport. Some weep openly. Out of harm's way, things feel normal again, but the men realize the experience has had a fundamental effect on them. The D-boys prepare to go out again, to retrieve the crew of Super Six Four and Shughart and Gordon. When Sizemore finds out about his buddy Ruiz, he cannot stop crying. Nelson breaks down when he finds out his friends Joyce and Pilla are dead.
News reports of "an ugly fight in Somalia" reach the United States. Shock and outrage sweep the nation after television images of dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets are aired. President Clinton, like so many Americans, wants to know how this could happen. The administration decides to pull American forces out of Somalia. As for Durant, a U.S. emissary sends a chilling message to Aidid. If Durant is not released within a few weeks, Mogadishu "will be destroyed, men, women, children, camels, cats, dogs, goats, donkeys, everything."
The families of men who fought in the battle receive information about their loved ones very slowly. For many, the wait is torturous. Some are told only that their husbands are "missing in action." Family members watch TV images of the bodies of Americans being dragged, so they can try to identify them, but the corpses are so mutilated, it is difficult to tell one from another.
The soldiers declared missing in action are accounted for—all are dead—with the exception of Shughart. Eventually, Shughart's body is found, and his wife is informed. Joyce's wife receives a letter he wrote to her while in Somalia shortly before he died. The letter reads in part, "By the time you get this letter I might be on my way home, or real close to it."
The soldiers at the hangar in Mogadishu watch the TV news reports and are angered at the reports of "failure" in Somalia. Eversmann wonders if he made the right choices during the battle. Smith's long and agonizing death haunts Perino for years. Anderson wrestles with his guilt, and grows distrustful of the military. Some of the wounded return home within weeks of the battle. A memorial is erected before the JOC.
Durant is videotaped by his captors and then later interviewed by international reporters. The reporters try to reassure him that he will survive. His captors allow him to write a letter, which he ends with the acronym "NSDQ." Red Cross officials scratch this out, fearing violation of strict neutrality rules. The abbreviation stands for "Night Stalkers Don't Quit"—a message of his resolve.
Durant hears broadcast calls from American helicopters flying over the city, reassuring him that they will not leave him behind. He also hears his wife on BBC radio. She reiterates the NSDQ message.
Firimbi, the man who guards Durant, grows fond of him. Firimbi tries to explain why the Somalis hate the Americans, and Durant employs his survival training to gain Firimbi's trust. Firimbi often pleads with Durant to say good things about how he was treated when he is released.
The Somalis finally release Durant. He returns to the airport Ranger base where a force of more than a thousand greets him. He learns that he is the only survivor of the crash of Super Six Four. The soldiers around him sing "God Bless America" in his honor.
The conflict comes to be known as the Battle of the Black Sea. The Somalis refer to it as Ma-alinti Rangers (The Day of the Rangers). It is a battle that America—especially its leadership—wants to forget. Though in strict military terms the soldiers accomplished the mission, many view it as a failure. Days after the fight, prompted by outrage from Congress and a horrified public, President Clinton ends Task Force Ranger's mission in Somalia, which began with the best intentions: to help the starving Somali people.
Congress investigates the operation, and Defense Secretary Les Aspin resigns after accepting some responsibility for the tragedy. Major General Garrison, previously criticized for being overly cautious regarding missions, is now blamed for being reckless with his troops. Garrison writes a letter to President Clinton accepting full responsibility for what has happened.
In the following years, October 3 is celebrated as a Somalian holiday among Aidid's followers. Aidid himself dies in 1996, and the region remains one of turmoil and violence.
Heroism, Courage, and Fear
The Rangers and D-boys demonstrate tremendous heroism and courage throughout the long afternoon and night of October 3, 1999. At the same time, they exhibit, or at least acknowledge, the terrible fears associated with war. Gordon and Shughart voluntarily rope down into certain death to provide cover for Super Six Four. Perino gives up his seat on the returning convoy to a frightened young Ranger. Sergeant John Macejunas, who "was said to be absolutely fearless," returns to the city—alone, as a civilian—to try to find the six men still missing from Durant's crash site.
Even the most experienced soldiers face terror and dread, especially in combat. Thoughts of dying paralyze some, and others pray to make it through alive. The anxiety of being shot or killed is heightened, especially for those heading into combat for the first time, when they see the carnage of war. Many accept their fears. Some soldiers admire the bravery and fearlessness of the Somalis, while others view their displays as foolishness and insanity.
Brutality of War
Bowden graphically describes the carnage of war, particularly the damage weapons inflict on the human body. Heads explode, limbs are blown apart, and guts slip out of stomachs. One Ranger's body is ripped in half; another's face is sliced open. Some American soldiers are stunned when they realize the power of their own weapons; they are literally able to disintegrate their targets. The brutality extends not only to soldiers but also to civilians—men, women, and children. For many Americans, the most horrific scenes from Mogadishu came in TV images of American corpses being mutilated and dragged through the streets by angry Somali mobs.
Meaning and Meaninglessness
With death so close, the men find themselves struggling with both large and trivial issues. They grow close to each other, dearly miss their families, and cherish things they normally take for granted. The extraordinary reality of war fundamentally alters who they are as human beings, changing them forever. Nelson realizes that he is just "a human being staying alive from one nanosecond to the next, drawing one breath after another, fully aware that each might be his last." Acts of selflessness encourage some to reenlist. The near certainty of death gives them a strong will to survive.
At the same time, many of the men question why they are asked to risk their lives. The deaths of fellow soldiers seem pointless, causing them great anger and frustration, especially when the United States withdraws from Mogadishu shortly after the battle and the two clan leaders the soldiers captured are eventually released. Guilt is common among the soldiers, too. When one of his companions is killed, a surviving soldier is likely to ask himself, "Why him and not me?"
Others—Somalis and Americans both—show little or no remorse. After mowing down whole crowds of Somalis, Dowdy feels justified; he "was in full payback mode."
The soldiers cope in various ways with the anxiety of battle, the death of fellow men, and the necessity of killing people. Training provides most of the tools they use. The D-boys, especially, employ tactics that allow them to survive the worst of conditions, and many Rangers rely on the Deltas, reassured by their skills. Humor also relieves the stress of battle: "Laughter was a balm. It held panic at bay and it seemed to come easily…. If they could still laugh they were all right."
Many, however, cannot help but wait until the fighting is over to deal with the traumas of war. Eversmann describes how during fighting there was not time "to react to the terror or even to recoil at what was grotesque," but later it "sank in." Despite the difficulties, many men put such thoughts aside in order to comfort others; they do not want to be seen "being nervous because that just makes [others] nervous."
The Somalian Conflict
The U.S. troops sent to Somalia in the summer of 1993 were intended in great part to carry out a humanitarian effort, but also to facilitate nation building. Two years before the mission, a bloody rebellion that had started in 1988 brought an end to the twenty-one-year reign of President Mahammad Siad Barre. The civil war claimed more than fifty thousand civilian lives, left the capital Mogadishu in ruins, and created hundreds of thousands of refugees. While Siad Barre's rule had initially fostered economic growth and social benefits for many Somalis, he eventually became an intolerant and authoritarian leader. By the late 1980s, he was ordering indiscriminate bombings and shootings. Anger grew among citizens; rebel and opposition groups fought against Siad Barre's forces, and the leader was eventually defeated. However, the situation worsened when rival clans fought for dominance and political control. Government all but broke down, and essential services, like food distribution, collapsed.
To make matters worse, a long and severe drought—nearly two years in duration—hit the region, followed by ravaging floods. The immediate result was massive food shortages, which forced many Somalis to flee the country just to avoid malnourishment and starvation. While relief efforts were set up, clan rivalries and lack of security for relief and medical campaigns hampered those efforts. Armed groups looted an estimated 80 percent of food and medical supplies intended for the population.
The famine plaguing Somalia was, as Bowden puts it in the Afterword, "a result of cynical, feuding warlords deliberately using starvation as a weapon." The United States, as the world's leading military power, stepped in with the best of intentions: to do something for the Somali people, rather than stand by and watch terrible human tragedies unfold. Initially, many Somalis welcomed the American and UN presence. However, as the forces engaged the Habr Gidr clan and its leader, Aidid, attitudes toward the American military shifted, and Aidid's popularity grew. A series of attacks that left civilians dead prompted a growing anti-American sentiment among the Somalis.
Admiral Howe, the top United Nations representative in Somalia under the first President George Bush, advocated the capture of Aidid. The Somali warlord may have been responsible for the death of twenty-four Pakistani soldiers in June 1993, and Howe believed that Aidid needed to be brought to justice. He also believed that removing him from power would foster peace and end clan fighting in Mogadishu. Whether or not the United States should have gone beyond its humanitarian efforts—that is, taking on Aidid and the Habr Gidr clan militarily—is still debated today.
Battle of the Black Sea
While relatively brief, the battle between Americans and Somalis on October 3, 1999, was the longest and most deadly sustained gunfight the United States had participated in since the Vietnam War. An entire generation of Americans had grown up without experiencing the heavy losses of war, making it very difficult for the American public to stomach the deaths of eighteen soldiers in Mogadishu. General Colin Powell noted that eighteen American soldiers killed in a single day would not have even prompted a press release during the Vietnam War. The climate had obviously changed.
Black Hawk Down (2001) was adapted for film by director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Ken Nolan. It stars Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Eric Bana, and Tom Sizemore and is available on DVD from Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment.
Black Hawk Down was released in an abridged version on audiocassette by Simon & Schuster, and on compact disc by Audioworks in 2002. The narrator is Joe Morton.
The original series of stories, written by Mark Bowden and published by the Philadelphia Inquirer, is available online at inquirer.philly.com/packages/somalia along with links to other related sites.
The number of soldiers killed and wounded, the downing of two Black Hawk helicopters, and the parading of American corpses through Somali streets dramatically affected public support for military actions, as well as future U.S. military policy. American leaders were much more reluctant to send troops into battle without assurances of victory, or at least minimal losses. The difficulties of urban combat, as demonstrated by the events in Somalia, also led to more reliance on air and sea power. This, of course, was not new; ever since Vietnam, the American military has often cleared the way for its ground troops with technological power and weaponry. The losses in the Battle of the Black Sea, however, brought home the dangers of urban warfare, which has increasingly become the way modern battles are fought.
After pulling out of Somalia, cautionary foreign policy became the norm for the United States. Reluctance to participate in the affairs of other countries, particularly those plagued by violence, grew sharply after Mogadishu.
Black Hawk Down is widely acclaimed as a must-read text both for those tied to the military and for the civilian public. Critics with military backgrounds often recommend the book to members of the Armed Forces. Jon Campbell's review of the book in Air & Space Power Journal, says that "everyone in the Air Force should … read Black Hawk Down." Gregory G. Hildebrandt's review in Armed Forces & Society says the book "should be of interest to anyone who wants to understand modern urban warfare, and how society shapes the evaluation of its effects." The book should be "required reading for military officers," Dave Moniz agrees in "A Peacekeeping Mission Gone Wrong." John Carver Edwards and Eric Bryant suggest in "Book Reviews: Social Sciences" including Black Hawk Down in "specialized military collections."
The force of these recommendations comes from Bowden's narrative style, which is recognized as lucid and gripping. In "Black Hawk's Multimedia Attack," Frank Rose describes it as "extreme non-fiction," an allusion to the frenetic pace of the storytelling, which many soldiers who have been in combat contend realistically matches their experiences. Tod Lindberg, in "Men At War," adds that the account is "as riveting a description of battle as you are ever likely to come across." More significantly, Bowden is praised for not pushing an agenda. Lindberg writes that what "elevates Black Hawk Down above even the century's best miniatures of war is that Bowden has no discernible agenda … he lets the events and characters speak for themselves." His unflinching portrayals—both of the good and bad of war—along with his inclusion of Somali perspectives attest to this. "A Million Enemies," a review of Black Hawk Down in the New York Times by William Finnegan, cites the Somali passages as some of the best in the book.
The flaws of Bowden's book are generally regarded as minor. The number of characters depicted—literally dozens—makes following the narrative sometimes difficult. Also, the historical context of U.S. involvement in Somalia is given little treatment. Edwards and Bryant in "Book Reviews: Social Sciences" suggest that "background should have been presented up front, and illustrations and maps would have been helpful."
Ean D. Naylor
In the following excerpt, Naylor proposes lessons to be learned from the military mission in Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993, in particular the U.S. military's reliance on intelligence and high-tech weaponry in modern urban warfare.
It should be clear from Black Hawk Down that the sort of battlefields preferred by the U.S. military—empty but for friendly enemy troops—are increasingly a thing of the past. They are being replaced by the shantytowns and urban sprawl of disintegrating societies such as Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti. Mogadishu happened to be the location for this wake-up call, but it could just as easily have been Basra, Brcko or Port-au-Prince. Certain in the knowledge that the United States' commitment to counter all but the most direct threats to its national security can be undermined by inflicting a handful of casualties, America's enemies will seek close, personal and brutal battle with U.S. forces in urban areas that threaten to make a mockery of the Pentagon's obsession with Stealth bombers, Seawolf submarines and "digitized" tanks.
Since the battle, the Army has made belated efforts to give its troops the decision-making skills they will need to cope in environments like Mogadishu, in which the line that traditionally separates fighters from non-combatants becomes blurred to the point of invisibility. But it is questionable whether any amount of training can fully prepare young Americans—the average age of the Rangers in the battle was 19—for situations such as that which faced Specialist Eric Spalding, who was engaged at close range by a woman holding a pistol in one hand and a baby in the other. (He shot the woman, but suspected he hit the infant as well.)
During the 1990s, the Army has embarked on a multi-billion dollar effort to "digitize" the battlefield, using a "tactical Internet" of handheld and vehicle-mounted laptop computers and position navigation systems to give soldiers and commanders a better sense of their surroundings. But, as Bowden makes clear, video relayed by helicopters and a Navy spy plane gave U.S. commanders at Task Force Ranger headquarters a perfect, real time view of the battle unfolding in Mogadishu. Yet despite this advantage, unprecedented in military history, they proved unable to direct one of the convoys a matter of a few blocks to the first crash site. The saga of "the lost convoy," which meandered through ambush after ambush, taking heavy casualties, before returning to the base, should give pause to those who believe that perfect "situational awareness" will sweep away the fog of war.
Nowhere was the U.S. military's overreliance on high technology more exposed during the Mogadishu fight than in the area of intelligence. Despite having access to every national intelligence asset, Task Force Ranger detected neither the Aidid militia's ability to swiftly mass fighters on an objective, nor the threat that the militia's hoarded supplies of rocket-propelled grenades posed to the helicopters that were Task Force Ranger's center of gravity. Aidid, on the other hand, had intelligence agents working as local hires at the U.S. bases, and some U.S. personnel believed, was receiving tip-offs about impending Task Force Ranger missions from Italian troops under United Nations command.
What the task force needed was better contacts in Aidid's militia, but the United States' capability to gather human intelligence in relatively closed societies is weak. (One of the book's few flaws is its failure to examine what role, if any, was played by the secret Army military intelligence unit sometimes referred to as "The Army of Virginia." This unit, based at Fort Belvoir, Va., and Fort Meade, Md., often works closely with Delta, but its participation in Mogadishu would have been circumscribed by the Clinton administration's determination to limit the size of the task force.)
This intelligence failure was compounded by the hubris displayed by the elite U.S. troops. Such was the overconfidence of the special operations forces that many took off that sunny afternoon without their night vision devices, bayonets, or even full canteens, so certain were they that the mission would go smoothly and they would be back within an hour. Bowden reveals that even the combat search and rescue team that landed at the first of the two crash sites had originally been cut from the task force roster prior to leaving the States, because the chances of the Somalis shooting down a helicopter were considered so slim. "Nobody had anticipated a serious fight from these characters," he writes.
Bowden is perhaps too easy on those at every echelon of command, from President Clinton down to the lieutenant colonels running the battle. Rarely does he pin any blame on anyone. Yet someone, somewhere, was responsible for agreeing to the fractured chain of command in which the two senior U.S. military officers in Mogadishu were two major generals in command of separate U.S. military organizations, neither of whom had command over the other.
Violations of the principle of unity of command also occurred within Task Force Ranger itself. Bowden points out that the Delta commandos and the Rangers each had their own chains of command, their own separate radio links and their own ways of doing things. When things turned nasty on the ground, the friction between Delta and the Rangers meant that for a time, the captain commanding the Ranger troops refused to talk to the Delta captain on the radio. Bowden acknowledges that the absence of a clear chain of command on the ground was "a significant oversight," but leaves unsaid whose mistake this was. In fact, it is an indictment of task force commander Major General William Garrison, who should have ensured that a more senior officer was on the ground to take charge.
The Army's reaction to the battle of Mogadishu exemplifies much of what is amiss with the service at the turn of the century. In survey after survey, soldiers and officers alike agree that the service has developed a "zero-defect" culture in which caution and careerism have replaced boldness and audacity. Task Force Ranger achieved a Pyrrhic victory in Mogadishu, and the Army has been trying to sweep the event under the carpet ever since. Several officers who fought in the battle have seen their careers sidelined, and report feeling that the service has failed to recognize their sacrifice, or even to learn the correct lessons from it. That is a serious accusation in a service that prides itself on its "lessons learned" process. But it appears to be true.
The Center for Army Lessons Learned produced no report on the battle, and those accounts that have been written within the military are highly classified. As Bowden points out, "It seems the military is best at keeping secrets from itself." If his book can open a few eyes peering out from Kevlar helmets, it will have rendered an invaluable service.
Source: Ean D. Naylor, "Lessons Not Learned: What the Military Missed in Somalia: Black Hawk Down," in Washington Monthly, Vol. 31, No. 4, April 1999, p. 36.
Bowden, Mark, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, Penguin Books, 2000.
Campbell, Jon, Review of Black Hawk Down, in Air & Space Power Journal, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall 2002, p. 118.
Edwards, John Carver and Eric Bryant, "Book Reviews: Social Sciences," in Library Journal, Vol. 124, No. 1, January 1, 1999, p. 128.
Finnegan, William, "A Million Enemies," in the New York Times, March 14, 1999, Sec. 7, p. 6.
Hildebrandt, Gregory G., Review of Black Hawk Down, in Armed Forces & Society, Vol. 27, No. 1, Fall 2000, p. 160.
Lindberg, Tod, "Men At War," in Policy Review, No. 95, June/July 1999, p. 82.
Moniz, Dave, "A Peacekeeping Mission Gone Wrong," in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 91, No. 72, March 11, 1999, p. 20.
Rose, Frank, "Black Hawk's Multimedia Attack," in Fortune, Vol. 139, No. 7, April 12, 1999, p. 36.