Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War
The Battle of the Black Sea, as the events of October 3-4, 1993, came to be known, began as a simple Special Forces abduction of one of the factional leaders in Somalia's lingering civil war, and ended in a desperate bloody chase over and through Mogadishu which left 18 Americans and at least 500 Somalis dead. Between the time the assault force (an airborne and motorized medley of elite Delta Force operators supported by US Army Rangers) broke into the house of their quarry, Mohammed Farah Aidid, and the time it was pulled out in tatters by an international rescue team, something went terribly wrong with the plan. Mr. Bowden does a commendable job of showing just what went wrong, and how.
BLACK HAWK DOWN came about nearly four years after the battle, but the author did his homework carefully. His list of interviewees is impressive, as is the extent of his research. The result is a glimpse into the apocalyptic hell of desperate battle, of men (closer to boys, many of them) killing each other just to stay alive. Mr. Bowden describes the fighting through the eyes of several of the battle's veterans, including Somalis whom he had to bribe his weight in khat (the indigenous drug of choice) to interview, and what comes through is a searing illustration of vicious urban warfare.
A prominent feature of Mr. Bowden's account of the battle is the glaring rifts between the rear-line command, the supporting Ranger group, and the Delta troops on the tip of the spear. Delta (the Army equivalent of the Navy's SEALs) was outside the loop of regular Army procedure, defying all regulation, from haircuts to respect for senior officers, and getting away with it. Rules of conduct and engagement were ignored --- in Mr. Bowden's words, "They simply transcended rank." In the Mogadishu barracks they showed open disdain for the Rangers, whom they viewed as dangerously arrogant and disorganized. By contrast, the Rangers (themselves the elite of Army infantrymen) stood in open-mouthed awe of the shadowy D-boys. When both the Rangers and Delta troops found themselves pinned down in hostile territory, the differences in the battlefield thinking and behavior between the units came through all too clearly, undermining the unit integrity of the trapped force.
In hindsight it becomes all too easy to point fingers and make excuses as well as scapegoats for operations gone wrong. Actually, given the logistical complexities of the planning and execution of the mission (not to mention the unexpected ferocity of the Somali response), it seems hard to imagine things not going wrong. And, in fact, there was a net of safety precautions built into the mission, from airborne snipers to rope-rappelling medics. The Rangers themselves were to be Delta's backup both in the air and on the ground, while the D-boys pulled off the Aidid abduction. The combination of covert troops outside the chain of command with overt troops inside it, even the best of their kind, seems conflicted and unwieldy, which is just what it became in the field. The ensuing carnage, however, could not have been foreseen, as many of the Somalis killed were caught between the American army and Aidid's, and like the downed Ranger/Delta team, simply tried to fight their way to freedom.
In a frank and evenhanded epilogue, the author discusses the pros and cons of the mission and its objectives, and shifts the book's emphasis from the battle to a discussion of US foreign policy. The commitment of US forces to back UN famine-relief workers has been occasionally described as President Bush's departing shot to his successor Bill Clinton, and Operation Restore Hope was merely one in a series of international conflicts which displayed each president's criteria for military involvement, as well as vastly changing roles for the military in the wake of the Cold War. BLACK HAWK DOWN is, if nothing else, a savage reminder that real lives hang in the balance of such changeovers in administrative policy, particularly when heads of state have decided that might makes right.
Reviewed by Adam Dunn on August 7, 2001
Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War
- Publication Date: August 7, 2001
- Genres: Nonfiction
- Paperback: 496 pages
- Publisher: Signet
- ISBN-10: 0451203933
- ISBN-13: 9780451203939