Memories of a massacre.

Arts and arguments in the news.
Nov. 29 2001 3:34 PM

What Happened to Somalia

"Somalia to the press means disaster," said Joe Roth, head of the studio that has produced the forthcoming movie Black Hawk Down, in yesterday's Wall Street Journal. "Our job is to see past that. … [It's] not America's darkest hour, but America's brightest hour."

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America's brightest hour? Mark Bowden's book Black Hawk Down, which serves as the basis for the upcoming movie, is an account of a shocking, daylong street battle between heavily armed U.S. troops pinned down in the Somalian capital Mogadishu by guerrillas belonging to the Somalian warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid (and allegedly supported and trained by al-Qaida) in October 1993. Eighteen American troops (Rangers and Delta Force soldiers) and 500 Somalis (most of whom weren't guerrillas but people caught in the crossfire) were killed. One thousand others were injured by shrapnel and bullets. As a result, a U.N. mission to bring peace to Somalia collapsed, American troops withdrew, and President Clinton described the episode as one of the darkest of his presidency.

One aspect of Bowden's research that gives his book such a frightful immediacy is his use of recorded radio communiqués between American soldiers during the gunfight. The recordings illustrate that as American troops fought for their lives there were many acts of considerable bravery. As Bowden writes in an afterword: "What comes through most strongly is their determination, their willingness to put themselves at risk—indeed to die—in service of their country and out of loyalty to their fellows. Beyond the politics of the situation, beyond the critical debate over strategy and tactics, the story of what happened in Mogadishu resonates with the nobility of the military."

Yet the bravery of the Rangers and the Delta Force troops doesn't fully explain the battle of Mogadishu any more than the bravery of the British dragoons under the command of the Earl of Cardigan (or, for that matter, Tennyson's famous poem) explains " The Charge of the Light Brigade." The troops were often brave in the face of what rapidly proved to be a fiasco. For Joe Roth to say that the battle of Mogadishu can therefore be seen as a bright moment is to diminish these individual acts of bravery. That it was a dark moment doesn't mean that soldiers were unable to act bravely. Moreover, and contrary to what Bowden says, you can't entirely move beyond the politics of the situation or the critical debate over strategy and tactics. Nor can you ignore the fact that a lot of people who had nothing to do with the fighting were killed—often split in two by .50 caliber bullets. As much as what happened in Mogadishu "resonates with the nobility of the military," it also stinks of death and destruction.

Inigo Thomas lives in London. He writes for theLondon Review of Books.