Birth of a Combat Classic: A Deadly Gauntlet in Somalia

Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War , by Mark Bowden. Atlantic Monthly Press, 386 pages, $24.

Over the course of a single afternoon in 1986, I had the unpleasant opportunity to watch while 14 people were condemned to death, one after another, on the island of Grenada. The guilty had, in the midst of a coup d’état, murdered the island’s prime minister and scores of innocent civilians, an act that had precipitated a U.S. invasion three years earlier.

It is a dreadful business, watching 14 human beings be sentenced to hang. In the packed courtroom, our rising and then sitting, as ordered by the bailiff, in recognition of the gravity of the pronouncements, at first had a woebegone effect on us, permeating the atmosphere with the chemistry of horror and mourning. After the first three cases, however, identities and faces of the accused began to blur in my faltering concentration. Then the sentencing became a weary melancholic duty, an intensifying drain on the spirit, until the standing and the stooping became nothing so much as–by the 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th judgments–grotesque and numbing calisthenics, graveyard aerobics.

I summon forth the memory as an object lesson in the supreme difficulty faced by the war correspondent or military historian: Confronted by wholesale death and dying, observers of bloodshed, even symbolic bloodshed, as in the courtroom, begin to zone out, get stuck on a psychic plateau, and quickly lose track of individuals in the assembly-line presentation of death. Of course, readers are equally susceptible to this dynamic. Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down , about the U.S. military debacle in Somalia, is not immune to this problem–no true record of warfare can be–and no one should expect to read this book without experiencing a certain amount of emotional dehydration and confusion. But it is a measure of Mr. Bowden’s enormous skill as a writer that even as the casualties pile up, and the soldiers become increasingly indistinguishable from one another in the chaos and heated magnitude of the battle, the narrative itself, its vividness and fury, is never less than compelling.

Mr. Bowden’s accomplishment is all the more remarkable because he never set foot in Mogadishu until almost four years after the fierce street battle that pitted U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force operators (“D-boys”) against Somalia warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s militia and thousands of outraged walk-ons. Mr. Bowden, a journalist with no military background, began writing the book as a series for the Philadelphia Inquirer , where be has been on the staff for 18 years. “I wanted to combine the authority of a historical narrative,” he asserts in the book’s epilogue, “with the emotion of the memoir, and write a story that read like fiction but was true.” On both counts, his efforts are beyond reproach. He is as obsessive about accuracy as a watchmaker, and the rhetorical strategies he employs make Black Hawk Down a descendant of books like The Killer Angels , a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the battle of Gettysburg, and We Were Soldiers Once … and Young , a best-selling eyewitness account of the Vietnam-era battle of Ia Drang; like those two, Black Hawk Down ranks among the best books ever written about infantry combat.

Besides scouring classified videotapes and radio transcripts of the firefight that became known as the Battle of the Black Sea, Mr. Bowden appears to have interviewed, and reinterviewed, everybody and their grandmothers for his account–the soldiers on the ground, the pilots in the air, the commanders at their HQs, the politicians behind the scenes, the Somalis themselves–and they spoke with extraordinary candor about a mission that is generally perceived as a failure. Two Rangers under fire discuss the merits of taking a moment to masturbate–”getting a Combat Jack.” Blame flies, as it always does, between the conventional and unconventional forces, between “noncoms” and officers, between officers and command. Anybody who has spent a day with contemporary America’s warriors will recognize immediately the authenticity of Black Hawk Down . It’s an intimate, minute-by-minute chronicle of suffering, futility and courage, infused with the Gen-X-speak of the 20-something soldiers, who talk about their profession as an extreme sport, way cool until the killing starts.

Surely everyone remembers the grisly, unprecedented, unacceptable images broadcast on the networks–the naked, mutilated bodies of American G.I.’s dragged by victorious mobs through the dust-blown streets of a third world dump, images “among the most horrible and disturbing in our history, made all the worse,” writes Mr. Bowden, “by the good intentions that prompted our intervention.” Wait a second , Americans said, shocked to the core. Wasn’t the Somalia mission supposed to be humanitarian ?

Indeed.

“If you wanted the starving masses in Somali to eat,” writes Mr. Bowden, “then you had to outmuscle men like this Aidid, for whom starvation worked . You could send in your bleeding-heart do-gooders, you could hold hands and pray and sing hootenanny songs and invoke the great gods CNN and BBC, but the only way to finally open the roads to the big-eyed babies was to show up with more guns. And in this real world, nobody had more or better guns than America; if the goodhearted ideals of humankind were to prevail, then they needed men who could make it happen.”

In a nutshell then: When the 20-year-long dictatorship of Mohamed Siad Barre collapsed in 1991, Somalia dissolved into a famine-ridden disaster zone rife with clan warfare. In came a multinational U.N. mission to feed people and restore order, only Aidid and his revolutionary forces hated the Secretary General of the United Nations, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and were convinced Mr. Boutros-Ghali angled for their defeat, as he did when he had served as an Egyptian diplomat. One hostile act led to another and Mr. Aidid’s clan ambushed a U.N. contingent, murdering 24 Pakistani soldiers. The United Nations laid siege to Mr. Aidid’s clan, sending American helicopters to attack a clan assembly with a barrage of TOW missiles, killing many of the moderates, elders and intellectuals allied to Mr. Aidid. A special American task force comprised of U.S. Army Rangers and D-boys arrived in Somalia to hunt down and capture the warlord and his inner circle.

Late in the afternoon of Oct. 3, 1993, 140 elite troops from this task force roped down out of Black Hawk helicopters into the city’s central neighborhood–the Black Sea–to abduct two of Mr. Aidid’s lieutenants and return to base within an hour. Mission accomplished, but not before a horrendous day- and night-long firefight ensued, two of the heretofore invulnerable Black Hawks were blasted out of the air with rocket-propelled grenades, 18 American soldiers lay dead, more than 70 grievously injured, and 1,500 Somalis killed or wounded.

The pinned-down survivors were saved by a column of American and U.N. infantry the following morning, yet even their rescue wasn’t pretty: “They all kept running, running and shooting through the brightening dawn, through the crackle of gunfire, the spray of loose mortar off a wall where a round hit, the sudden gust of hot wind from a blast that sometimes knocked them down and sucked the air out of their lungs; the sound of the helicopters rumbling overhead, and the crisp rasp of their guns like the tearing of heavy cloth. They ran … 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 there and now left them to run through the same deadly gauntlet to get out. How could this happen? “

Since that watershed day, the Pentagon and politicians have had to navigate around the profound reluctance of a post-heroic America to deploy troops and its zero tolerance for soldiers killed in action. It’s not just Vietnam anymore, but Beirut, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and now perhaps Kosovo that demand of a frustrated military, “How do we win?”

The answer is, we can’t, we can only not lose .

The soldiers who fought this most one-sided battle in American history, “returned to a country that didn’t care or remember. Their fight was neither triumph nor defeat,” writes Mr. Bowden, “it just didn’t matter.” The only monument you’ll ever see raised in their honor is this book.