What Black Hawk Down leaves out

Political commentary and more.
Jan. 21 2002 6:21 AM

What Black Hawk Down Leaves Out

That Somalia raid really was more a debacle than a victory.

(Continued from Page 2)

The July 12 massacre caused the entire Habr Gidr clan—and some other clans—to rally behind Aideed (which helps explain why, when the Black Hawk goes down, the whole city seems to surround and attack the crew). The massacre turned Richburg—who despised Aideed as "evil" and had egged on the U.N.—against the whole Somalia operation. Another bloody battle in September, in which women and children were killed, apparently disturbed President Clinton, who launched a muddled peace initiative designed to somehow include Aideed in negotiations. But the get-Aideed orders to the Rangers were never revoked—resulting in the Oct. 3 raid.

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3. Did Clinton cave in after the raid and sell out the Rangers?

"There's no doubt that the perception people have of this episode is that it was a total fiasco. But this was a successfully completed mission. … The failure was Clinton's decision to pull out the day after this happened. The truth is he lacked the kind of moral personal force that it took to persuade Congress and the American people that even though this is not popular, we have to do it."—Bowden, in an interview with Elizabeth Snead, reporting for the Washington Post

A few days after the Rangers' deaths and the humiliating CNN coverage, Clinton did completely reverse course. He announced it had been a mistake to "personalize the conflict." He sent in more firepower, but only to cover a U.S. withdrawal. Nation-building was over. The key anti-Aideed Clinton official was removed from his post, and Oakley was sent back in to negotiate. Within weeks, Oakley was flying Aideed to a peace conference on a U.S. plane.

Was this reversal obviously wrong? To make the counterargument against Mark Bowden's recent anti-Clinton declarations, I'd like to introduce … Mark Bowden, who in his book writes:

We will never know if Admiral Jonathan Howe was right to believe a lasting peace might have been achieved in Somalia if Aidid had been captured or his clan dismantled as a military force. It seems unlikely. … The Habr Gidr is a large and powerful clan  … To think that 450 superb American soldiers could uproot it violently, thereby clearing the way for, as General Powell puts it, "an outbreak of Jeffersonian democracy," seems far-fetched. In the end, the Battle of the Black Sea is another lesson in the limits of what force can accomplish. [Emphasis added]

The Rangers who criticize Clinton say he shouldn't have been spooked by a mere 18 American casualties. ("We kicked their butt, but that was at a tactical level," one Army commander told the Wall Street Journal. "At the strategic and political level, when you have some casualties, it looks like there was a problem.") That seems right—though it's the opposite of the standard conservative criticism of humanitarian "nation-building," which holds that such interventions are only justified if they meet what Charles Krauthammer calls the "paramount criterion: costlessness."

The problem is that there were more than 18 Americans dead. There were also hundreds and hundreds of Somali dead. The raid's defenders see that as one of its achievements—in military terms, the casualty "exchange ratio" was very favorable to the U.S.. We kicked their butt! "If they did the exact same mission today and captured two of bin Laden's top guys with the same numbers, that would be considered a triumph," Bowden says, accurately. But we're trying kill to al Qaida members. We weren't in Somalia to kill Habr Gidr members. We were there to help, remember? The mission was to capture Aideed without killing hundreds of people, and as the film of Black Hawk Down makes graphically clear, this was not accomplished. With such a favorable "exchange ratio," Phase II of the Somali mission was rapidly approaching destroy-the-village-in-order-to-save-it territory.

That's not to say the overall Somali intervention was a failure: Phase I's success in warding off mass starvation vastly outweighs the failure of nation-building in Phase II. What's more, we now know there are potential costs to the world of "failed states" like Somalia, since failed states are where terrorists like to hide. Clinton's retreat, however justified, also seems to have been interpreted by the al Qaida terrorists as a sign of U.S. weakness. Maybe these considerations are what prompted Bowden to reverse his judgment of the Rangers' Somali operation. Also, he had a movie to promote.

But that gets to the final distortion of Black Hawk Down's PR campaign. It's not just in Americans' memories that the Battle of Mogadishu is remembered as a tragic fiasco. The movie depicts it as a tragic fiasco. The film makes only the weakest attempt to portray the battle as any sort of victory. It ends with shots of caskets and the sense that nothing much at all has been accomplished after hours of brutal chaos and destruction. (There is no celebration, for example, at the capture of the two Aideed aides.) If the goal of the film's makers, as opposed to its spinners, was to tell the world about America's "brightest hour," then they failed in their mission too.

P.S.: American soldiers may soon be back in Somalia, if they're not there already, in pursuit of al Qaida. Couldn't this have legitimately been used to promote the film? Sure. The only trouble is that our most likely ally in the anti-terror fight will be Hussein Aideed, leader of the Habr Gidr clan and son of the "Hitler-like" villain in Black Hawk Down. No wonder the film's promoters chose not to play up the post-9/11 "return to Somalia" angle.

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