Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

Having read some of the excellent pieces that Mark Bowden originally wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer  (many of them still on-line), one is prepared for the thrilling and detailed account he gives of the October 3, 1993,  mission in which about 100 U.S. Special Forces soldiers, supported by helicopters, were sent into the middle of Mogadishu, Somalia, to abduct two of the warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid's lieutenants.  The operation was conceived as a way of bringing Aidid--one of the most important of the warring clan leaders who were disrupting delivery of humanitarian supplies--to heel and was supposed to take about an hour.  Instead, when it ended the following day, there were eighteen dead Americans and another seventy-plus injured, plus four downed MH-60 Black Hawks.  Rather than reigning in Aidid, the encounter ended up driving American forces out of Somalia.

When Bowden started doing his research on what has come to be known as The Battle of the Black Sea, or Maliniti Rangers (The Day of the Rangers) in Somali, he discovered that there had not been a thoroughgoing reconstruction of the events of the day and there had been very little government investigation or assessment of the event.  Black Hawk Down then stands as the best account we're ever likely to have of what went on that day.  Bowden's excellent narrative more than compensates for the lack of an official version, in fact, it has subsequently been used as the basis for study in American military schools and for actual military training.  Though one of the necessary elements that the story captures is the confusion of battle, Bowden does a superb job of keeping the reader oriented, so that we can, more or less, figure out what's happening.  Simply as a description of modern warfare it is invaluable.

What I was not prepared for was the really astute analysis of events that he offers, particularly in his Epilogue.   Here he makes a series of vital points, several of which concern the manner in which the mission was carried out, but two of which are broader : first, that the mission succeeded.  Yes, there was a cost, but when you strip away everything else, the fact remains that this relatively small group of U.S. soldiers was able to complete its mission despite meeting unexpectedly massive and determined resistance.  Mind you this was urban warfare, which we well understand to present some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable.  While we did lose eighteen men and four helicopters (two at the scene, two back at the command base), it is nonetheless truly remarkable that approximately 150 men of the Rangers, SEALs, and Delta Forces were essentially able to fight off thousands of hostile enemy for an entire day and a night, before being rescued the next day by a large multi-national force.  From a purely Special Forces viewpoint, the mission was indeed a success.

One of the great services that Bowden's book has provided is just to restore this understanding.  He recounts how the men who fought this battle returned home to face blank stares when they mentioned it.  Most folks had never heard of it and those who had, who remembered only the searing image of American casualties being dragged through the streets by the Somali mob, assumed the mission had been a debacle.  Rather, as Bowden writes :

    No matter how critically history records the policy that led up to this fight, nothing can diminish
    the professionalism and dedication of the Rangers and Special Forces units who fought there that

Considering the missions that they are being called on to fulfill now and for the foreseeable future, it is well for us all to realize that and for them to take pride in their service, even in incidents, like this one, which make the politicians squeamish.

The second really insightful point that Bowden makes is that while we went into Somalia thinking that its people must want peace, this proved not to be the case.  What started as simply a humanitarian effort to get food to the starving (in the closing days of the Bush Administration) soon turned into an effort to impose peace between warring clans.  We believed, in our naiveté, that this was what the people of Somalia wanted.  Instead, as an unnamed State Department official told Bowden :

    Somalia was the experience that taught us that people in these places bear much of the responsibility
    for things being the way they are.  The hatred and the killing continues because they want it to.  Or
    because they don't want peace enough to stop it.

There is an important lesson to be learned from this fact, one that it is not at all clear that we have learned : peace in the middle of a war is much harder to maintain than the peace imposed after the war.  When, repeatedly throughout the 20th Century, we have tried to bring about peace before the armies in the field have been destroyed--WWI, WWII (where the Soviets were left intact), Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia--the legacy is pretty clear : it doesn't work.  On the other hand, when, as in the case of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, we have utterly destroyed our enemies, we have been able to rebuild peaceful allies in their stead.  If we are going to continue to intervene in the wars of others, particularly in civil wars, it seems obvious that we need to choose one side or the other and then completely destroy the opposition.

Make no mistake either, this is a choice that is available to us.  The failure to annihilate our foes has not been a function of our inability to do so but of our unwillingness to do so.  In this regard, Bowden writes about the perceptions of one Delta Force sergeant, Paul Howe  :

    Victory was for those willing to fight and die.  Intellectuals could theorize until they sucked their
    thumbs right off their hands, but in the real world, power still flowed from the barrel of a gun. If
    you wanted the starving masses of Somalia to eat, then you had to out-muscle 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.

American failures have been a result of the refusal to use those guns.  This refusal may be appropriate, but it does lead to failure and ultimately costs American lives, because the refusal generally only comes after we're already involved.  We head off to these foreign lands and get embroiled in their unfamiliar quarrels, often because of the pictures we see on CNN or the BBC, and at the behest of the Kumbaya-singers, but, once there, find that we lack the brutality and determination that would be required to solve the problems we find there.

We would all, of course, prefer that such conflicts would yield to peaceful resolution, that warring parties would set down their arms and stop fighting.  But it is unrealistic to expect them to do so.  And peace, though a laudable goal, can not be the primary aim of warfare; victory must be.  Where, as in Somalia and Bosnia, we are unable or unwilling to choose between equally repellent contestants, we should just stay out altogether.

In Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden manages to tell a genuinely thrilling story and at the same time illustrate fundamental points about what America's unparalleled fighting forces can and can not do.   The book, like all the best books about the reality of warfare, is timeless, but its lessons are particularly timely today, as we send such men off to fight in other foreign lands, for it is not at all clear that we are willing to continue this fight until the enemy, rightly understood, is destroyed.  If all it will take is one incident like this for us to get cold feet, then it is better not to go at all.  Men like those who fought and won the Battle of the Black Sea are more than willing to go to war when their country calls on them, but they want an opportunity to win the war, not just one battle.  As Bowden says of the men he interviewed :

    I was struck by how little bitterness there is among the men who underwent this ordeal.  What anger
    exists relates more to the decision to call off the mission the day after the battle than anything that
    happened during it.

Such anger is justified and understandable.  Let us give them no reason to feel the same way at the end of their next mission.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Mark Bowden Links:
    -Penn State College of Communications : Mark Bowden
    -Black Hawk Down : An American War Story (Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -BOOK SITE : Black Hawk Down (Penguin Putnam)
    -Killing Pablo Web Site
    -Killing Pablo (Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -EXCERPT : First Chapter: 'Black Hawk Down'
    -EXCERPT : from Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern  War By Mark Bowden
    -EXCERPT : CHAPTER ONE of  Killing Pablo : The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw
    -ESSAY: Sometimes Heroism Is a Moving Target (MARK BOWDEN, June 8, 2003, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Will Baghdad Fight to the End? (MARK BOWDEN, 3/27/03, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: Tales of the Tyrant: What does Saddam Hussein see in himself that no one else in the world seems to see? The answer is perhaps best revealed by the intimate details of the Iraqi leader's daily life (Mark Bowden, May 2002, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : He leaves no message but murder : Osama bin Laden is headed for history's dustbin. Still, his rampage holds a warning for the future. (Mark Bowden, December 16, 2001, Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -ESSAY : Righteous Fury (Mark Bowden, , November 4, 2001, Philadelphia Inquirer)
    -ESSAY : African Atrocities and "The Rest of the World"  (Mark Bowden, June 2000, Policy Review)
    -ESSAY : Bore no more : Suddenly, Gore seems  to be pulling off the impossible: Running both for and against the presidency. (Mark Bowden, Aug. 23, 2000 , Salon)
    -ESSAY : Gore's stiff competition : Republicans have zeroed  in on the one thing the Democrats cannot defend: Clinton's slick willy. (Mark Bowden, 08/09/00, salon)
    -REVIEW : of War in a Time of Peace: Bush, Clinton, and the Generals by David Halberstam  (Mark Bowden, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of David Haward Bain. Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad (Mark Bowden, Policy Review)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : Mark Bowden  Journalist Mark Bowden's new book is called Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the Worlds Greatest Outlaw  (Atlantic Monthly Press). It's an investigation into the U.S. government's role in bringing down the Colombian billionaire cocaine godfather and terrorist Pablo Escobar. Bowden will talk about Escobar, the world of international drug trafficking and U.S./Colombia relations. (Fresh Air, NPR)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : Killing Pablo (The Connection)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : Killing Pablo (As it Happens, 21/6/01, CBC)
    -INTERVIEW : with Mark Bowden (Doug Childers, May 2000, The Wag)
    -INTERVIEW : Mark Bowden, the author of Killing Pablo, discusses the difficulties of writing a book with an extended time line and tells us what his last two books say about America in the contemporary world. (Woody Arbunkle, September 2001, The Wag)
    -INTERVIEW : The Military Book Club's complete interview with Mark Bowden, the author of the best-selling Black Hawk Down (Phil White, MBC Staff Writer, 3/99_
    -INTERVIEW  : Mark   Bowden  (November 12, 1999, Bookreporter)
    -INTERVIEW : The BookEnds Interview: Mark Bowden
    -INTERVIEW : I lost my heart in... Cartegena (Mark Bowden, June 16, 2001, The Guardian)
    -INTERVIEW : with Mark Bowden (Book Ends)
    -CHAT TRANSCRIPT : presents Mark Bowden  Author of "Black Hawk Down" (April 19, 1999)
    -PROFILE: 'Black Hawk' author found untold story (Heidi Benson, 2/09/03, SF Chronicle)
    -PRESS RELEASE : Society Says Judge Should Reverse Reporters' Fines  (Ray Marcano, Society of Professional Journalists)
    -PROFILE : Mark Bowden's Watchful Eye : For his next project, the author of Black Hawk Down turns his sights on another dangerous subject. (Terry Conway , Book Magazine)
    -PROFILE : A look behind the war on drugs : Reporter pursues Escobar story in 'Killing Pablo' (Adam Dunn, May 31, 2001, CNN) Directory : Mark Bowden
    -REVIEW : of Black Hawk Down (WILLIAM FINNEGAN, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Black Hawk Down (Mark Schone, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Black Hawk Down (S.T. Meravi, Jerusalem Post)
    -REVIEW : of Black Hawk Down (Jeff Baker, The Oregonian)
    -REVIEW : of Black Hawk Down (David Moniz, CS Monitor)
    -REVIEW : of Black Hawk Down (Doug Childers, The Wag)
    -REVIEW : of Black Hawk Down (Adam Dunn, Bookreporter)
    -REVIEW : of Black Hawk Down (David W. Rintels, Human Rights Watch)
    -REVIEW : of Black Hawk Down (James F. Povey)
    -REVIEW : of  Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden (Tod Lindberg, Policy Review)
    -REVIEW : of Killing Pablo ( LINDA ROBINSON, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Killing Pablo (Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of Killing Pablo, by Mark Bowden (Martha Leibrum, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden (David Abel, Boston Globe)
    -REVIEW : of Mark Bowden's Killing Pablo (John Freeman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
    -REVIEW : of Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden (Will Self, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW : of Killing Pablo (The Economist)
    -REVIEW : of Killing Pablo (Douglas Cruickshank, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Killing Pablo ( Laura Miller, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Killing Pablo (Robert McCrum, The Observer)
    -REVIEW : of Killing Pablo (ROBIN KIRK, News Observer)
    -REVIEW : of Killing Pablo (JOHN GROOMS, Creative Loafing)
    -REVIEW : of Killing Pablo (GLENN GARVIN, The Miami Herald)
    -REVIEW : of Killing Pablo (John Freeman, St. Louis The Post-Dispatch)
    -REVIEW : of Killing Pablo (BARRY JOHNSON , Austin Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Killing Pablo (Charlie Onion, The Wag)
    -REVIEW : of Killing Pablo (ALAN PRINCE, Book Page)
    -REVIEW : of Killing Pablo (JOHN ZIEBELL, Las Vegas Mercury)
    -AWARD : Salon Book Award : Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War By Mark Bowden
    -BOOK LIST : Far-out The author of "Black Hawk Down" picks five great books about the U.S. space program. (Mark Bowden, 06/26/00, Salon)

Book-related and General Links:

    -FRONTLINE : Ambush in Mogadishu (PBS)
    -Somalia Page : African studies department of the University of Pennsylvania.
    -Somali Home Online
    -Countries : Somalia / Somaliland (Africa : South of the Sahara) : Somalia
    -ESSAY: Urban fight: Military takes lessons from Mogadishu, Chechnya, Jenin (Seth Gitell, February 2003, Jewish World Review)
    -ESSAY : The Long and Hidden History of the U.S in Somalia (Stephen Zunes, AlterNet, January 17, 2002)
    -ESSAY : Back to the Bad Old Days : As weary U.S. troops depart, they leave behind a country in no better shape than when they arrived  (ANDREW PURVIS/ASHA FARTO , March 1994, TIME)
    -ESSAY : Ayn Rand Comes to Somalia (Peter Maass, May 2001, The Atlantic)

    -Nomad Net : on Humanitarian Intervention
    -MEMORIAL : CPL James Smith -- Ranger -- Lest We Forget
    -ESSAY : U.S. Military Trains Foreign Troops (Dana Priest, Washington Post, July 12, 1998)
    -ESSAY : AMERICAN MILITARY INTERVENTION: A USER'S GUIDE (John Hillen, Policy Analyst The Heritage Foundation, May 2, 1996)