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.

"The October 3, 1993 U.S. raid on Somalia, in which 18 soldiers and two Black Hawk helicopters were lost, is often remembered as a tragic fiasco." Wall Street Journal

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"[I]t's not America's darkest hour, but America's brightest hour." —Joe Roth, head of Revolution Films, makers of Black Hawk Down

For years, the Rangers and Delta Force soldiers who fought the Battle of Mogadishu on Oct. 3, 1993, had a serious beef. Until the publication of Mark Bowden's 1999 book, Black Hawk Down, their daylight raid was widely perceived as a failure even in strict military terms. But the Rangers in fact succeeded in snatching and imprisoning the two Somali clan officials they were after. Had you known that? I hadn't. Like everyone else, I mainly remembered seeing the body of a dead American being dragged through the streets.

You can't blame the surviving Rangers for seeing the film of Bowden's book, now in theaters, as an opportunity for vindication. It's also a highly effective film, as vivid a fix as most of us are likely to get on what bravery and professionalism means in the modern U.S. military. Everyone should see it. (See it twice, actually—it takes repeat viewings to comprehend the rush of characters and events.)

But would Americans pay to see a film simply about bravery under fire, without a larger, heroic context? As Slate's Inigo Thomas pointed out weeks ago, soldiers can be brave in the service of disastrous policies. Black Hawk Down's makers appear to have had their doubts about the public appetite for mere heroism, because they have set about providing a larger, uplifting rationale. This has involved an aggressive deployment of PR firepower and a fog of appealing half-truths. Now that the film is succeeding at the box office, it's worth attempting to add back what the Black Hawk flacks have left out.

1. Was going after Aideed smart?

To justify the number of Africans killed in the film, Mr. Roth insisted that the film's central villain, Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, be unmistakably portrayed as a "Hitler-like figure" responsible for thousands of killings.Wall Street Journal

As reviews have noted, the film's audience gets only the minimum ration of information about the Somali "warlord" against whom the Ranger raid was directed. We're told he "ruled in Mogadishu" and "seized … food shipments at ports." The U.S., in 1992, sent Marines as part of a United Nations hunger relief effort. But "Aideed waits until the Marines withdraw, and then declares war on the remaining" U.N. forces, ambushing and killing a score of Pakistani peacekeepers. The Rangers are sent to "remove Aideed and restore order."

All true enough (though the film also has a brutal opening scene, labeled as having occurred on Oct. 2, of Aideed's forces shooting innocent civilians at a Red Cross food distribution center—an incident I can find nowhere in the literature). What the film doesn't tell you is:

  • Aideed was the recognized leader of the Habr Gidr, "a large and powerful clan planted deep in Somalia's past and present political culture," in Bowden's words. The Habr Gidr were the militarily more powerful of two main groups contending for control of Mogadishu. If the U.S. had killed Aideed, citizens of the Habr Gidr areas wouldn't generally have felt liberated, like Afghans freed from the Taliban. They would more likely have been pissed off.
  • The film conflates two distinct phases of U.S. and U.N. involvement in Somalia. In Phase I, the humanitarian phase, the U.N. used enough military force to allow food deliveries, which probably prevented hundreds of thousands of people from starving to death. But then the U.N. decided to go beyond providing food and, in Phase II, undertook some ambitious "nation-building"—"an unprecedented enterprise aimed at nothing less than the restoration of an entire country," as America's then-U.N. ambassador Madeleine Albright modestly described it.
  • Aideed, not without reason, felt U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali was biased against him and his clan. In Boutros-Ghali's previous role as an Egyptian official he had been a supporter of Somali dictator Siad Barre, whom Aideed had overthrown.

"Nation-building" required working out a peace between the various clans, which clearly required some intimidation of Aideed's organization, the SNA, since Aideed and the Habr Gidr believed they'd earned the right to rule. When Aideed and the U.N. staged dueling peace conferences, and Aideed's militia detained some rivals at one of them, the U.N. "concluded he should be politically marginalized," in the words of Robert Oakley, who had successfully led the U.N.'s Phase I before returning home.

Was that a smart move? How do you "marginalize" the leadership of an entire clan? Oakley is diplomatic in his book, but he clearly thinks it was idiotic. If you're trying to bring peace to a country, you have to deal with the existing social structures and military powers. Realism please! In Afghanistan, where the U.S. has many times the intimidating military force it had in Somalia, there are plenty of vicious warlords and tribal leaders we've worked with rather than trying to "marginalize." Keep in mind that the decision to "marginalize" Aideed happened well before those Pakistani peacekeepers were killed.

2. What about retaliating for the attack on Pakistani peacekeepers?

"One of the Habr Gidr clan's response to the U.N. efforts was to ambush 24 Pakstani soldiers under the world body's flag and literally to eviscerate them."— Press packet for Black Hawk Down

Again this is true, as far as it goes, and it's impossible to justify the brutal attack on the Pakistanis. Still, there are complications:

  • The U.N. had decided to shut down Aideed's radio station, which broadcast anti-UN propaganda. Yet it was allowing the station of Aideed's main rival, Ali Mahdi, to remain open, allegedly on the theory that Ali Mahdi's station was unofficial. Aideed's faction saw this as biased—part of the ongoing U.N. tilt against it—and "had worked itself into seeing any interference with the radio station as a casus belli." (Oakley)
  • The Pakistanis had in fact entered the radio station, looking for weapons. They were leaving, but crowds gathered thinking the station was under attack.
  • A later independent investigative commission called the Pakistani inspection "highly provocative and unwise," according to Oakley's book.

The U.N. and its new top official, Adm. Jonathan Howe, immediately launched the now-famous manhunt for Aideed, which was also a campaign against Aideed's SNA faction. Howe's position had a clear logic to it—the principle of "Don't Disembowel U.N. Peacekeepers" being a fairly important one to establish for future missions. But the U.N. lacked the means to carry out its pronouncements. 

Worse, there was the well-documented tendency of such vengeance missions to get out of control—one reason the Aideed manhunt was opposed by many in the Pentagon, including Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar, the commander responsible for Somalia. Hoar concluded there was only a one-in-four chance of catching Aideed—which the U.N., in fact, never did. (The Rangers formal mission, in the Oct. 3 raid shown in the movie, may have been simply to capture two of Aideed's aides. But they were clearly hoping to snare the man himself.)

What the U.N. could do is kill a lot of Habr Gidr clansman.  On July 12, months before the Ranger raid, in an incident unremarked in all the Black Hawk Down hype, U.S. and U.N. forces attacked a Habr Gidr clan meeting. The meeting included clan elders, intellectuals, poets. It was held at the house of Aideed's self-styled "defense" minister, but included Habr Gidr members who planned to argue against Aideed's anti-U.N. stance. Indeed, the meeting had been called to consider a Howe "peace initiative," according to Bowden. Instead, as reported by the Washington Post's Keith Richburg:

[I]t was a slaughter. A half-dozen Cobras pumped sixteen TOW missiles and two thousand rounds of cannon fire into the house with deadly accuracy. First they blew away the stairwell to prevent anyone from escaping. … A video taken just after the attack showed the mangled bodies literally blown apart in the attack—the religious leaders, the elders, even the women in their colorful wrap dresses who were always on hand to serve the tea.

Somali crowds, enraged by the attack, immediately turned on four Western journalists who had gone to cover it, killing them.

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.

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.

Update/Correction: An alert kausfiles reader points out it was unfair of me to insinuate that Bowden's criticism of Clinton's pull-out was a recent opinion prompted by post-9/11 hindsight or the need to promote the movie. It turns out that Bowden made a similar, if less personal, criticism in the afterword of later editions of his book—an afterword dated November, 1999, years before both 9/11 and the film's PR campaign. There, Bowden decides that "it would have been better not to try" to go after Aideed. But, he adds:

That said, once we had committed ourselves to the effort, I believe the United States should have seen the mission through even after the battle on October 3—especially after the battle. … This story would have had a much more satisfying ending if he had been delivered up in chains. ... The lesson our retreat taught the world's terrorists and despots is that killing a few American soldiers, even at a cost of more than five hundred of your own fighters, is enough to spook Uncle Sam.

Apparently, Bowden believes a) it was foolish to try to arrest Aideed; b) arresting Aideed wouldn't have produced "lasting peace" in Somalia, would have "just given the Habr Gidr leader a more fervently motivated following, and would have elevated a two-bit Somali warlord to the status of an anti-imperialist hero in many parts of the world;" but c) once the 18 Americans died we should have kept on trying to arrest Aideed in order to establish the principle that killing Americans is a bad idea.

This is a reasonable position, though it's not mine. As Bowden half-acknowledges, the Rangers' very "success" at killing their foes undermines the need for additional punishment. Bowden's book concludes that while we lost 18 men, "the Somali death toll was catastrophic." Shouldn't that—if publicized—have been enough for deterrence?