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?
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.
You've been a journalist for almost
twenty years. Could you have written a book of
such narrative complexity without such a lengthy
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
While you follow the American side
of the action closely, you also traveled to Somalia
to interview Somali survivors. How were received
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.
Was the October 3, 1993 firefight
realistically avoidable? And if so, at what point
could it have been avoided, either politically,
strategically or militarily?
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.
So in your opinion, it was a mistake
to bring the Rangers and Delta Force into the
Somali crisis to begin with?
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?
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.
What should we learn from the Somalian
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.
Have you seen evidence that this lesson
has been learned?
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.