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Black Hawk Down
Mark Bowden
341 pp.

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The Wag Chats with
Mark Bowden

Mark Bowden, the author of Black Hawk Down, discusses the mistakes made in the 1993 Mogadishu firefight and tells us what the U.S. should learn from them.

WAG: You weren't in Mogadishu during the events you describe (neither was any other American journalist, for that matter), but your text makes the battle come vividly alive through a stunning number of perspectives provided by people who were actually there. How many interviews did you conduct, roughly, and how long did it take you to piece the narrative together from so many voices?

Bowden: I listed most of the interviews at the end of the book. I haven't counted them. A lot. Some of those I interviewed asked not to be named. I worked on writing the book for more than a year. The newspaper series was written in about six months, and I spent another eight or nine months expanding that work into the book.

WAG: You've been a journalist for almost twenty years. Could you have written a book of such narrative complexity without such a lengthy experience?

Bowden: No. Throughout my writing career, I have always made it a point to work on something that fully challenges me, even when that meant looking for freelance work when my newspaper editors weren't particularly interested in my projects. In the early years, I found in-depth Sunday newspaper stories a stretch. Eventually I was writing magazine articles, then stories that could only run as a series of magazine articles. I wrote my first book (Doctor Dealer) in 1987. There are people who seem born with the knack. I'm a slow learner.

WAG: While you follow the American side of the action closely, you also traveled to Somalia to interview Somali survivors. How were received there?

Bowden: Leaders of the Habr Gidr clan, which controlled the neighborhood of Mogadishu where I stayed and worked, were polite but unfriendly. They refused to cooperate with me and asked that I leave. Individual Somalis, however, were very helpful and eager to tell me what I came to hear...their side of the story.

WAG: Was the October 3, 1993 firefight realistically avoidable? And if so, at what point could it have been avoided, either politically, strategically or militarily?

Bowden: I address this question more fully in the new afterword to the paperback edition, but, in brief, I think it was a mistake for the United States to go after Aidid, even though the temptation and logic behind doing so was strong. At the point where Aidid's militia started turning on UN forces, I think it would have been wise to see that the intervention had accomplished all that it could hope to accomplish without getting embroiled in a local civil war with no significance to the larger world. Had Congress or the American people been asked to decide if sorting things out politically in Mogadishu was worth American lives, the answer would have certainly been no.

WAG: So in your opinion, it was a mistake to bring the Rangers and Delta Force into the Somali crisis to begin with?

Bowden: Yes.

WAG: Do you think the Howe plan—to use elite U.S. forces to seize the Somali warlord, Mohamed Farrah Aidid—would have successfully ended the Somali clan conflicts if the October 3 firefight hadn't happened?

Bowden: No. Seizing Aidid would not have erased the Habr Gidr as a force. To the contrary, it might have simply inflamed them all the more, and made the situation more dangerous. Just by targeting Aidid, we made him a bigger hero in Somalia than he had ever been on his own.

WAG: What should we learn from the Somalian mission?

Bowden: That there is a limit to what force can accomplish. That despite the power and technological superiority of our forces, American soldiers still get killed when we send them on military missions. That the world is terribly complex, and by trying to make things better, we sometimes make things worse. That before we put American troops at risk we ought to weigh the reasons, motives and potential costs beforehand, not wait until some of them get killed and then freak out.

WAG: Have you seen evidence that this lesson has been learned?

Bowden: Yes. I think the extreme hesitance of the Clinton administration to intervene militarily anywhere for the last seven years stems directly from Mogadishu. The reluctance to commit ground troops during the campaign against Slobodan Milosevich was just the most recent example. The pendulum has swung about as far as it can go in the other direction. I'm glad we didn't have to fight on the ground in Kosovo, but I don't think the U.S. will long wield a credible military force if we remain so determined to keep every last one of them out of harm's way.

—Interview conducted by Doug Childers

Posted May 1, 2000


Mark Bowden has been a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer for nineteen years and has won several national awards for his writing, including the Overseas Press Club's Hal Boyle Award for Best Foreign Reporting for his series on the Battle of Mogadishu. He has also written for Men's Journal, Sports Illustrated, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and other magazines. Black Hawk Down is his third book.



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