Table of Contents | Archives | FAQ | e-Mail Us

Tales from a
Forgotten War
Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down

by Doug Childers

The rationale behind the American military mission in Somalia in the early 1990s seemed arguably sound at the time: to address Somalia's famine crisis, the United Nations needed to reign in the various Somali clan leaders who were seizing relief supplies and generally stymieing international humanitarian efforts. But capturing every clan leader would be a massive undertaking, so at the suggestion of Jonathan Howe, the retired U.S. admiral who was leading the UN mission in Mogadishu, the Clinton administration agreed to send U.S. Army Rangers and a group of operators from the super-elite Delta Force to track down the most powerful clan leader, Mohamed Farrah Aidid, along with his top lieutenants and arrest them. The UN delegation reasoned that once American military muscle had been applied to the strongest clan, the other clan leaders would fall obediently in line.

On paper, at least, it seemed like a simple assignment. As Mark Bowden writes in Black Hawk Down, his minutely detailed examination of the Mogadishu mission's worst twenty-four hours, the Rangers "were the cream, the most highly motivated young soldiers of their generation, selected to fit the army's ideal," and the D-boys (as the Rangers called the Delta Force operators) were one notch better than the Rangers. Besides, the massive MH-60 Black Hawk helicopters used in the lightning-fast, prisoner-grabbing strikes seemed indomitable when stacked up against the armed Somalis on foot.

Black Hawk Down
Mark Bowden
341 pp.
$13.95 order now logo

But after a few frightening raids, the Somalis began to see the Black Hawks as an indicator of how they might beat the Americans:


To kill Rangers, you had to make them stand and fight. The answer was to bring down a helicopter. Part of the Americans' false superiority, their unwillingness to die [demonstrated by the speed and brevity of their attacks], meant they would do anything to protect each other, things that were courageous but also sometimes foolhardy. Aidid and his lieutenants knew that if they could bring down a chopper, the Rangers would move to protect its crew. They would establish a perimeter and wait for help. They would probably not be overrun, but they could be made to bleed and die.


Of course, the Somalis didn't have the kind of weaponry that could easily bring down a Black Hawk, but with a few modifications to their arsenal of RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and instructions from a group of Sudanese fundamentalist soldiers, they developed a risky but effective plan--and waited. Their chance came on October 3, 1993, when the Americans staged a daring mid-day raid on an Aidid building near a busy marketplace.

It wasn't an auspicious plan for the Americans. The Rangers and D-boys preferred to attack at night, when their specialized skills and tools put them at a distinct advantage. And the Somalis' midday use of a mild amphetamine called khat made them especially, in Bowden's words, "wired, jumpy, and raring to go." (By late night, on the other hand, the khat chewers would have crashed and been considerably more vulnerable.) But American intelligence about the clan leaders' movements was patchy at best, and the military was under increasing pressure to grab Aidid (or at least someone high up in his clan's hierarchy). So when it seemed fairly certain that not one but two of Aidid's senior advisors were in the building in the Black Sea neighborhood, the code word was sent across the radio waves, and the Black Hawks lifted into the air.

With the predictability of hindsight, things went wrong for the American force almost immediately. First, one of the Black Hawks had to drop its men a block from their target, complicating their quick advance. Then one of the Rangers lost his grip on the rope descending from a Black Hawk and fell, thereby further slowing down at least some of the men and tying up vehicles with his evacuation. Then one of the Black Hawks was hit and brought down by an RPG. Men were re-routed to aid the downed soldiers and secure the crash site. Then another Black Hawk was hit with an RPG, and it too went down. Now the Americans had two crash sites, and their decisive advantage--speed--was gone. As Bowden writes,


There wasn't enough time for anyone to consider all the ramifications of that [second] crash, but the sick sinking feeling that came over the officers watching on screen went way beyond the immediate fate of the men on board.

They had lost the initiative. The only way to regain it now would be to bolster strength at the crash site, but that would take time and movement, which meant casualties. There were already causalities on the downed bird. There was no time to reflect on causes or consequences. If Elvis's chopper had gone down in flames, the general could just pull everybody out with the prisoners as planned and mount a second mission to retrieve the bodies and make sure the chopper was completely destroyed--there were sensitive items on the bird that the army didn't want just anybody to have.

But seeing men climb out of the wreckage, and watching as the unscripted battle now joined around it, the ground shifted beneath [General] Garrison's feet.


As the Somalis had predicted, the Americans committed themselves to rescuing their comrades, but unforeseen complications in their communications made it difficult for the rescuers even to find the crash sites. The ground convoy of Humvees originally intended to evacuate the men immediately after the lightning strike was soon overloaded with American wounded, and the drivers trying to find the crash sites were forced to advance at a snail's pace through the narrow streets, exposing themselves to Somali snipers from windows and rooftops. Every intersection became a potential ambush site, and the Somalis' plan to make the Americans "bleed and die" was coming horribly to fruition.


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 black despair. They were America's elite fighters and they were going to die here, outnumbered by this determined rabble. Their future was setting with this sun on this day and in the place.


Ninety-nine Americans were left on the ground in Mogadishu overnight, scrambling to stay alive. By the time it was over, it would be the longest firefight American soldiers had engaged in since the Vietnam War. Remarkably, given the conditions, only eighteen American soldiers died and another seventy-three were wounded. By comparison, at least five hundred Somalis died, and another thousand or more were wounded. The casualty numbers alone would suggest that the Americans won the battle.

But that's not how the White House or Congress saw it. Although the Rangers and the Delta Force operators were desperate to go back into Mogadishu, the Clinton administration ended the effort to capture Aidid immediately after the failed raid became widely known, and Les Aspin, the Secretary of Defense, resigned two months later. But as Bowden writes, Clinton's decision to end the mission "accomplished what he intended: it slammed the door on the episode. In Washington a whiff of failure is enough to induce widespread amnesia." A year and a half later, the UN pulled out of Somalia as well. (For their part, the Somalis still celebrate October 3rd as a national holiday.)

Black Hawk Down makes for harrowing reading, but Bowden's ability to piece his narrative together from so many perspectives--he even traveled to Somalia to interview Somali survivors--gives his account a definitive quality that mesmerizes in its kaleidoscopic complexity.

With its unprecedented, exhaustive documentation and its cautionary conclusions, this is the best military reportage to come out in a long time.

Editor's Note: Click here to read Mark Bowden's September 2001 interview with WAG.
Click here to read his May 2000 interview with
Click here to read a review of Killing Pablo.
 Click here to find any book!


Bottom bar


 Table of Contents

Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 2000
riverrun enterprises, inc.