Courtesy Jonathan T. Reynolds

Southeastern Regional Seminar in African Studies (SERSAS)

Spring 2002 SERSAS Conference
22 - 23 March 2002
Georgia State University

The United States Intervention in Somalia:
A Review Essay of Black Hawk Down

Steve Blankenship
Department of History
Georgia State University
Atlanta, Georgia

Copyright 2001 by SERSAS and Steve Blankenship
All Rights Reserved

The imperial western gaze rarely settles on Somalia. Located on the eastern edge of the Horn of Africa, astride the borderlands between Ethiopia and Arabia, Somalia is nearly invisible from the United States panoptical position at the center of world affairs. Somalia intrudes on the collective consciousness of the West always in the context of some European or American paradigm "colonialism, Cold War, famine, Hollywood, President Bush's war on terror" and never as nation that exist independent of its subjectivity. Parting glances are not exchanged between Somalia and the First World since only the later may look. Somalia stays stranded in the peripheral vision of the West as another indistinguishable African country whose alien culture and incomprehensible politics make it less a nation to be reckoned with than a spectacle to be consumed, then forgotten.

Somalia's strategic position adjacent to the sea-lanes to India at the narrow Gulf of Aden made it an attractive colonial possession for Great Britain. Its subsequent carving-up and occupation by English, French, Italian, and Ethiopian colonizers reflected the chaos attendant to the tumultuous international politics of the twentieth century. The modern Somali state is, of course, a creation of its European and Ethiopian colonizers; centralization was imposed and not indigenous. Yet Somali sovereignty remains a shifting concept for the West, illusive, ambiguous, and outside the pattern established by the West to make its policies of hegemony and intervention comprehensible. Europeans encouraged traditional Somali practices of funneling politics through the nation's ancient clans: a fortuitous compromise born of Somali intransigence and European practicality that bestowed agency to both the colonizer and colonized.

Somalia dropped from international sight after its independence in 1960. In 1977, Major General Mohamed Siad Barre refocused the West's attention on Somalia momentarily by allying his country with the Soviet Union (and then the United States) in a bid to regain territories earlier lost to Ethiopia. The complexities of Cold War politics left Somalia without the national self-aggrandizement sought by General Barre as the Russians and Americans played their version of the Great Game in Africa with Somalia and other African states used as pawns.

Somalia sunk from sight again after this embarrassing Cold War imbroglio. When it reemerged in the West's consciousness, it was through the pitiful pictures of starvation and mass death on CNN and in the photographs of National Geographic in the fall of 1993. The ouster of Barre in 1991 unleashed civil war among Somalia's clans. This conflagration was accompanied by the looting and utter destruction of the country's only agricultural area southwest of Mogadishu between the Juba and Shebelle Rivers. The subsequent attempt by the United Nations and various relief agencies to supply Somalia with food climaxed with the Battle of the Black Sea, or as the Somalis call it, the Day of the Ranger. Mark Bowden's book, Black Hawk Down, reconstructed the firefight that erupted in Mogadishu as United States special forces attempted to decapitate the command of Somalia clan leader ("warlord" in the American press) Mohamed Farrah Aidid in October 1993. The success of Bowden's book is likely to be now accentuated as director Ridley Scott's new film of the same name has reintroduced this American foreign policy debacle to a vast movie-going audience. The interest in Scott's film is demonstrated by its box-office success. The hype generated by Black Hawk Down, both the printed and cinematic versions, has been increased by the buzz that the Bush administration may be contemplating military action against Somalia in its increasingly ubiquitous war on terror.

Ridley Scott's film, in particular, exemplifies long established patterns of American conventions, cinematic and otherwise: Black Hawk Down lies at this end of a long lineage of films extending back to John Ford's 1930s classic Stagecoach whereby narratives are constructed around the themes of American altruism and the justification of United States aggression against incomprehensible enemies. Three Somalis speak in Scott's film: one is a spy who mumbles in fear of his life; another is a gun broker; the last, an officer in Aidid's clan. The latter two do not engage in dialogue so much as to pontificate: both are western representatives of a suspected African type; both utter platitudes as if statues were speaking; each is regarded by his American counterpart with a mixture of incredulity and incomprehension "the two qualities that comprise the American attitude in Mogadishu and go far in explaining the disaster that awaited their finest fighting men there."

On 3 October 1993 the United States' intervention in Somalia came to a shattering climax that was, for a few harrowing twilight hours, eerily reminiscent of General George Custer's Seventh Cavalry foray into the affairs of the Sioux Nation at the Little Bighorn River in the last century. Custer's command was wiped out. Indeed, it is the allure of annihilation that makes Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down: A Study of Modern War compelling. The author accentuates the anxiety of encirclement with chapter titles "Overrun" and "Alamo." Bowden's account chronicles in detail the unanticipated firefight encountered by United States special forces (Rangers and Delta) in the heart of Mogadishu while attempting to kidnap "tier one" associates of Somali General Mohamed Farrah Aidid during the final phases of Operation Restore Hope, (p. 8).

On the book's back jacket one blurb has former U.S. ambassador to Somalia, Robert Oakley, describing its contents as "a riveting up-close account of the most intensive, hand-to-hand combat by U.S. soldiers since Vietnam.." In the "Epilogue", Bowden says that he was struck by the intensity of the fight, and by the notion of ninety-nine American soldiers surrounded and trapped in an ancient African city fighting for their lives," (p. 332). United States Rangers reduced Mogadishu to an indiscriminate killing zone where, by dusk of the battle's day, anything that moved became a target for American riflemen. Task Force Ranger "the mission's code name" suffered casualties exceeding fifty per cent; a shocking statistic by Pentagon parameters, especially in a snatch and grab operation designed for surprise, speed, and sudden exit.

The Rangers referred to the fight as the "Battle of the Black Sea", an alliterative and appropriate appellation for those soldiers increasingly squeezed by thousands of armed and angry Africans who arrived to avenge the deaths and destruction inflicted upon them by space- age soldiers descending from hated helicopters, whirling machines strong enough to suck the tin roofs off of houses, and rip off the colorful robes worn by Somali women. Unsurprisingly, the Somalis call the battle "The Day of the Rangers," (p. 331). While the Pentagon took unacceptable casualties that day, the Somalis sustained fatalities approaching one thousand. History will probably record this bloodletting as the Battle of Mogadishu. The book's subtitle, A Study of Modern War, refers not only to the space-age sophistication of U.S. special- forces, but also to the fact that the entire battle was recorded and videotaped by circling aircraft. The conspicuous contrast between a space-age armada hemmed in and nearly overwhelmed by an itinerant army armed with the cast-offs of Cold War conflict is demonstrated by the elaborate communications set up between United States ground and air forces with that of Somali soldiers and their walkie-talkies and short-wave radios' remnants, in this context, of a time long past.

Bowden's book examines the botched attempt to decapitate the leadership of Aidid's army in the heart of the Hibr clan near the Bakara Market in downtown Mogadishu. Task Force Ranger was implemented by airpower supplied by U.S. helicopter Black Hawks. The mission stressed speed. Delta would descend from the helicopters to the target building, take control of the grounds, capture Aidid's associates, and march everyone outside to a waiting convoy for a quick trip back to the United States command post near the international airport. The Rangers would rope down from the Black Hawks to establish blocking positions around Delta's target to prevent anyone entering or exiting the perimeter. The plan was well executed until first one, then two, Black Hawks were shot down by Somalis armed with rocket-propelled grenades. In an attempt to reach the crashed copters and rescue their crews, the Delta and Ranger forces were surrounded and held under siege by thousands of irate Somalis armed with an array of Cold War weapons. The extraction of Task Force Ranger would cost one hundred American casualties, including 18 dead.

The Battle of Mogadishu was merely the last frame of a year-long episode known as Operation Restore Hope. The first frame of this drama were pictures widely published in the summer of 1992 of Somali skeletons weighed down by paltry flesh, of women's breasts as flat as punctured tires, of children whose most prominent features were bulging eyes (covered with flies) inside of shrinking faces, and extended bellies belying the hunger that emaciated their rickety frames. These pathetic representations were the first frames of a humanitarian tale that ended with more pictures of a dead U.S. helicopter pilot being drug through the narrow lanes of Mogadishu following, what some U.S. soldiers would later call, the Battle of the Black Sea. And while the opening and closing images of Operation Restore Hope remain vivid for CNN viewers, the causes of the conflict have been apparently discarded on history's cutting room floor. Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down restores some of the missing frames of this narrative and points to other agents, heretofore largely invisible, that make more clear the reasons why the United States intervened in Somalia under the guises of neutrality and relief only to kill a thousand Somalis in one day before abandoning its mission and averting its gaze.

The purpose of this essay is to seek out the clues the author inadvertently sprinkles throughout Black Hawk Down to discover why a mission originally designed to feed the hungry ended up killing the satiated. Bowden's book is confined by the genre of military history, and while it executes its mission well, it is laden with off-hand asides that, upon exploration, foreshadow how the red-hot sun set upon a fiery Mogadishu on the 3 October 1993 during the "Day of the Ranger."

The U.S. special-forces stood atop the hierarchical pyramid of military machismo. Yet, despite their rigorous training and physical exertions, their unconventional cuisine ("snake eaters"), their competence at killing combined with unbounded confidence in themselves, none "knew enough to write a high school paper about Somalia, (p.10). They knew that Mogadishu was "rat heaven" and that there "hadn't been a regular trash pick-up in recorded history," (p. 60). They were not surprised to find telephones that did not work. Delta discovered that piles of debris were juxtaposed with "outcroppings of cactus" (p. 40), paved roads were rare, and if the average Somali left his "house open and undefended it would be looted," (p. 82). Somali drivers would park their cars with their gas caps wedged against a tree to prevent siphoning. Somali garbage was burned in the street; animal dung was burned for fuel. Smoke rose from smouldering tires. Task Force Ranger squinted inside their helicopters as Mogadishu (the "Mog" in Delta jargon) was unnaturally bright: its foreground of white sand reflecting its background of bright sun, illuminating the mosques, "the only tall structures still standing," (p. 7). Mogadishu looked to Delta like the "post-apocalyptic world" and the "capital of things-gone-completely to hell," (pp. 10, 7).

These things the Rangers could see. Less obvious was Somalia's history. Delta did not know of the African adventurer Ibn Battuta who visited Mogadishu in the fourteenth century and found many merchants there. Nor did Delta know of the Arab and Persian traders who mingled in Mogadishu's streets throughout its history; or that Mogadishu was the only Somali city to turn back the Portuguese explorers during the European age of discovery.1 Delta only understood that Mogadishu was "a hardship post" where "streets were unsigned and driving was a free-for- all"; that western accommodations were absent and hotel gift shops were as scarce as health spas.2 And, by late on the afternoon of 3 October, Delta comprehended that Mogadishu's citizens had declared it kill-an-American Day. (p. 106)

Did Delta understand how Somalia's geography had once made it a pivot point for African and Asian traders? Or that Somali eyes were cast east toward the Red Sea and the Arabian peninsula, and not west into the interior of Africa? Could Task Force Ranger have placed in perspective the geographical fate of Somalia occupying the backwash and weaker streams of the Ethiopian highlands whose northern rivulets formed the mighty Nile while its southern drippings comprised the thin Shebelle and Juba rivers?3

However highly motivated, Delta did not understand why Somalia was called the "Land of Give- Me-Something" by the neighboring Arabs; that Somalis had incorporated numerous Arabic words into their language, and that many Somalis believed their bloodlines flowed from east of the Red Sea. Did Delta know that Somalia had been partitioned by the British, French, Italians, and Ethiopians in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? Did Delta comprehend that Somali society was egalitarian and startlingly democratic? Delta was ignorant of the importance that genealogy plays within Somalia and how it assigns to each a place in society. Would Delta have known that injustice is avenged upon the perpetrator's clan and not on the individual? If all these things Delta did not know, the soldiers must have sensed soon after their arrival in Mogadishu that Somali society appeared the antithesis of the familiar.4

In order to simplify a situation too complex and, perhaps, to create understandable and opposing identities, Delta collectively called the Somalis "Skinnies" or "Sammies," (p. 9). The first moniker presumably refers to the svelte Somali physique derived from a desert diet; and the second may stem from the phonetic similarity between Somali and Sammy, or from the old American stereotype of "little black Sambo." The author ignores the alienation created by these two derisive and essentially racist appellations. Both terms reduced Somali citizens to western caricatures. Both epithets created the necessary cultural chasm for the killing to follow.

Stereotypes did not, however, account for the peculiar Somali predilection to hasten towards gunfire instead of away from it. "Whenever there was a disturbance in Mog, people would throng to the spot," (p. 18). Though the Americans believed the Somalis were alien in nearly aspect, they were also suspicious that the "Skinnies" believed themselves superior to their rich, infidel invaders.5 The Americans observed that the Somalis were marked by "extreme independence and individualism", accompanied by an "extraordinary sense of superiority" given to a "firm conviction that he is the sole master of his actions and subject to no authority save that of God."6 A nineteenth century European adventurer wrote, "Somalis lie, cheat, and are quick to anger. They are proud, vain, and think highly of themselves. At the same time, they will act courageously, faithfully, and are capable of enduring great hardships as well as intolerable pain."7

All of this would become clear enough on 3 October. Yet the American tendency to see the Somalis as shiftless ostensibly explained their hosts' inability (or disinclination) to maintain anything "roads, equipment, offices, projects, or essentially themselves."8 With nothing but urban ruin in front of them, how could these American specialists understand that Somalis were animated by unbridled opportunism (the flip side of which was nonproductive activity or laziness) and the attendant fatalistic attitude-cum-crutch that 'Allah will provide'...these were precisely the two things that caused Somalia to not work for most westerners 'the very two things that made daily life possible for many Somalis.9

When Somalis paused to take tea they drank it while facing the street, knowing than an opportunity may present itself. Their waiting thus amounts to tending a sort of trapline, and it is this act of "lying in wait" that the Americans misunderstood as lethargy.10 Did Delta understand that in a land where nothing is certain except genealogical lineage the smart thing to do was to wait for a connection, a cause, a chance.11

The absence of discipline was manifest in the decrepitude of the crumbling infrastructure. How were U.S. soldiers to know that the traditional Somali "pastoral nomadism does not produce government buildings or permanent edifices."12 The Rangers could not have known the different shapes Somali discipline takes, and may have been surprised to learn that certain Somalis devoted to Islam chose death over food not properly prepared.13

Did Delta discern the Arab's "capacity for devotion and discipline, and latent powers of organization" beneath the Somali's African veneer?14 How could Delta--the cutting edge of America's futuristic war machine--understand the antagonism between the pastoralists, who dominated a country the size of Texas, and the farmers who were driven to the narrow wedge between the Shebelle and Juba rivers? How could Delta know that "nomadic herders take a dismissive view of sedentary agriculture, believing that farmers do not possess the noble fighting character of pastoralists."15

This internal Somali dichotomy went beyond Delta's training. Those westerners who were disgusted by the theft of food from under their eyes did not know that "looting is a practice common to time honored pastoral camel raiders."16 In a land scarce of water and grass it should not have been a revelation to Delta that the "nomadic Somali are a warlike people, driven by the poverty of their resources..." to take what they need where they find it.17 Yet, Somali behavior continually surprised Delta who understood their mission but not the context within which it had to take place.

Only in relation to the unremitting struggle for survival in a hostile environment, where men are engaged in a seemingly unending cycle of alliance and counter alliance, is it possible to interpret both the past and present reaction of the Somali to local and external events.18

Thus in a society dominated by the ethos of the nomad it was the isolated farmer and urban bureaucrat who formed minorities regarded with disdain by the pastoralists. Citified Somalis believed the nomads "an embarrassment and a nuisance" whose peripatetic existence made it difficult "to build a master state." Nomads could be neither counted, controlled, nor taxed.19 In their interminable search for sustenance the pastoralists and the urban dweller's interests diverged. The fierce individualism of the nomads could quickly coalesce into unified rage when their prerogatives were threatened. The "collective responsibility" of the pastoralists "in feud and war" would be illustrated on 3 October. Task Force Ranger learned first hand on that day the primary source of the so-called "failed state" lay with those innumerable nomads whose alienation to the centralizing principles of government demonstrated that the state, in their view, moved about on the camel's back.20

However hidden the subtleties of the pastoralists' peregrinations may have appeared to western soldiers in Mogadishu, one thing was clear to the author of Black Hawk Down: "If you wanted the starving masses in Somalia to eat, then you had to outmuscle men like Aidid, for whom starvation worked." This conundrum opens the gulf between altruism and policy; between single-minded simplicity and African complexity. Bowden follows the conventional western wisdom that food was inherently neutral" an ostensibly simple conception that did not conform to African ambiguities. For the author, and his American subjects, western policy in Somalia was altruistic and only those (like Aidid) motivated by evil would hinder its mission through the theft, smuggling, or hoarding of food intended for the famished. Neither Bowden, nor any other voices in his book, recognized how politicized food became in a Mogadishu fractured by clans, each suspicious of outside aid that elevated the status of one Somali faction over others.

American ignorance on the issue of food as benevolent gift or political weapon comes through clearly in this book that crackles with dialogue. American special-forces speak on nearly every page; men's thoughts are italicized, and radio transcripts, recorded during the battle, are deftly spliced into this book filled with voices. The author has generalized the prevailing sentiments of the Rangers, encapsulated their thoughts, and distributed them throughout the text to maintain the narrative and provide tone and context. Bowden's focus, of course, is not on food, but Aidid whose depiction as the "bad guy" simplified matters for the Americans and made their choice of options easier to understand "for themselves, their government, and their countrymen. Yet by asking the question, "didn't we go to Somalia to feed starving people?" the author hints of the larger issues submerged beneath the crash and bang of battle. Why were Somalis starving? Why did starvation work for Aidid? And why was his removal required? These questions creep into areas unexplored in Black Hawk Down. Their answers lay outside the scope of America's military mission in the intricate and peculiar economy of relief run by non-governmental organizations.

Famine was the catalyst for western intervention in Somalia.21 Its origins "were (and still are) misunderstood by the international community and by the world media."22

The famine was a combination of drought and a seven-month military occupation of the area by three divisions of Siad Barre's army...his soldiers plundered grain stores in this agricultural area...[and] left villages upon villages of destitute farming communities. It took three months for the impact of growing mass starvation to hit the world's television screens.23

The civil war that precipitated this devastation did not end with Siad Barre's departure in January 1991. Clan warfare continued, not only for political power, but also to secure scarce food and water in the country's only agricultural region southwest of Mogadishu.24 Relief agencies fled to nearby Kenya, followed by the departure of the international diplomatic community. The former US ambassador to Somalia, Frank Crigler, said the United States "turned out the lights, closed the door, and forgot about the place."25 One western relief worker noted that people were dying from disease, not starvation and that "more food than necessary was coming into the country," and that it was "the reckless use of food that causes famine." Its importation depressed prices and provided a "disincentive for farmers to grow food crops."26

In this way began the conundrum of a food economy too complex in its convolutions to be fully comprehended by Bowden's Rangers in Mogadishu, or in western governments generally. (This confusion existed on both sides. "Somalis joked bitterly that the United States had come to feed them just to fatten them up for slaughter," p. 76). Food as currency became a simple surrogate for specie whose ephemeral existence was epitomized by the proverb, "money is spring's leaves."27 The absence of food drove its prices up; in its plentitude it remained a precious commodity because of hoarding; its pilferage required relief agencies and the UN "to purchase Somali guards to deter Somali thieves." Stolen food lead to another unorthodox economy, one built on the weapons procured with food exchanges.28

As food disappeared, arms proliferated. United States special forces were shocked to find themselves in the midst of a fight that "had turned into something akin to a popular uprising. It seemed like everybody in the city wanted suddenly to help kill Americans," (p. 230). Amidst the cacophony were "Aidid militiamen with megaphones shouting..." "'come out and defend your homes,'" (p. 31). Why so many Somalis, so angry, and so well armed? The young Rangers trapped in Mogadishu would require more than one sanguine afternoon to understand the obligations inherent in the Somali clans whose connections ran back like rivulets to a lake of lineage as large as the land itself.

The system lacks a concept of individual culpability. When a man commits a homicide...the guilt does not remain with him soles as an individual murderer...the crime is attributed to all the murderer's reason of their blood connection with the perpetrator. Members of the aggrieved group then seek revenge...on any member of his lineage they...chance upon.29

Unbeknownst to the Rangers, the Somalis had lumped them and Delta together into one enemy clan called Gal, "a militia that was perceived as rich and powerful but dumb."30 The Americans were also ignorant of the Somali proverb that encouraged their gathering, their rage, their vengefulness: "A man who does not take vengeance is a barbarous man."31

Bowden's Rangers may have ruefully remembered the old American political adage about "a chicken in every pot", and transposed it to "a weapon in every hand" to better explain their dire predicament. The food/gun economy32 only partially explained the surplus of firepower littered across Mogadishu. In the 1970s and 1980s Somalia found itself an unwitting participant in the international Cold War where every arid was scrutinized by the ever suspicious superpowers. The vicissitudes of global competition led the Soviet Union and the United States to become engaged in the Horn of Africa where they demonstrated a comedic perfidy precipitated by local conditions; switching back and forth between Somalia and Ethiopia: priming the hardware pump, then turning it off. The superpower's capricious flirtation with Somalia left little in their wake except weapons.33

When superpower interests in Somali slipped, the attentiveness of the international aid agencies sky-rocketed. Bowden's subjects in Mogadishu saw not just thousands but tens of thousands of people, throngs who would mob the feeding stations, waiting for handouts. These were not people who looked like they were starving," (p. 51). One journalist wrote: "I saw military warehouses packed to the ceilings with refugee food and convoys of military trucks heading toward the Ethiopian border, also packed with food."34 Why Ethiopia? The surplus of Soviet rifles and copter killing RPGs held by that ancient kingdom were easily traded for the trucks laden with bountiful relief shipments. The aid industry transformed benevolence into profits.35 Only the entrepreneurial spirit of the west could establish an industry whose clients were without money, and were, in fact, famished. One participant in the relief economy said:

Perhaps I would not be quite this cynical had the heads of two different NGO's (non- governmental organizations) not admitted to me that the only reasons their organizations were still in Somalia (despite impossible levels of corruption) in 1989 was because they expected there to be a major disaster or crisis in the near future; they needed to keep one foot in the door.36

Certainly neither Aidid, nor his chief rival, Ali Mahdi, were eager to publicize their nation's plight. Aidid was especially wary of outside intervention for reasons that confounded the United Nations and the United States. Never had the west seen the smiling face of altruism kicked so repeatedly in the teeth. Bowden writes, "Somali employees of the United Nations were terrorized and executed," (p. 93). Aidid, of course, welcomed the importation of food as it helped him succor his militia and expand his political power at the expense of others. He did not, however, enjoy the prospect of outsiders taking sides within Somalia. It was this suspicion that unleashed Aidid's wrath. He questioned any foreign intrusion that did not get his prior approval. He thwarted multinational efforts to land relief at the port of Mogadishu.37

Aidid believed the port facilities and adjoining airport lied within his domain. He shelled ships coming to call. He was exasperated that UN forces allowed one of his rivals to take the city of Kismaya down the coast from Mogadishu. Aidid believed the United Nation's peacekeepers were little more than "an occupation force" that tilted toward Ali Mahdi.38 Aidid was certain that "the United Nations had invaded Somalia, had sought by innumerable actions to diminish his stature and power, and in June had declared war on him"39 by prompting the Pakistani forces under the United Nations aegis to raid his radio station.

Black Hawk Down does not linger on the June 1993 confrontation between Pakistani peacekeepers and Aidid's militia. US military intelligence might have given closer attention to this episode since it was the precursor to the 3 October battle. The trouble began when Pakistani troops tried to inspect a suspected cache of weapons adjacent to Aidid's radio station. The station's broadcasts suggested "the United Nations and the Americans had come to colonize Somalia and wanted to burn the Koran." (p. 75) Rumors circulated that "Radio Mogadishu" would be shut down. When the Pakistanis did, indeed, emerge from Aidid's station they were greeted by a hostile crowd. Soon, they were encircled by Somali women and children while, behind them, militiamen approached with sticks and knives, and others began sniping from the surrounding rooftops. Bodies were desecrated in the ensuing slaughter. A second ambush occurred near the Pakistani's post where Aidid's gunmen "spread out on both sides of the road" and raked a Pakistani column for two and a half hours, using heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and rocket launchers."40 The remaining Pakistanis were rescued by international troops, including Italians and Americans. The United Nations put a bounty on Aidid's head the following day, and by this action sacrificed the pretext of neutrality with which the west had intervened in Somalia.41

President Bush announced the United States' intervention in Somalia in December 1992. In that statement he said "we do not plan to dictate political outcomes."42 A week later, following the murder of many Somali elders by a rival clan, the president insisted, "we are not an occupying power. We have no power of arrest."43 Bowden expresses Somali sentiments by highlighting the contradiction between a mission that had been transformed from a humanitarian one, with eyes averted from local politics, to one of aggressive partisanship:

It was one thing for the world to intervene to feed the starving...But this business of sending US Rangers swooping down into the city killing and kidnapping their leaders, this was too much. (p. 74)

The presence of 30,000 outsiders, armed and organized, within Somalia would seem in itself sufficient to undermine the west's protestations of neutrality. The intervening forces did not comprehend that in a Somalia sliced up into segments, each one jealously held by hostile factions, that discussions or negotiations with local leaders, like Aidid, tended to elevate one clan over another. While this seemed innocuous enough to the west, it assumed great importance within the fractured politics of the host country. The west believed its relief aid to be untainted charity; yet, "what was delivered did indeed line certain pockets, accord select individuals power, create new inequities, and breed all sorts of suspicions."44

The importance of this point was not recognized by the west before or after the debacle at the Bakara Market. Congressional criticism of the mission included the observation that "cardinal rules were violated...We chose sides, and we decided who the enemies were. Its baggage from the Cold War."45/A> Cold War lessons may have influenced the west's preferences, though they did not have any bearing on Aidid's anxiety about an occupying power within his realm. The congressional criticism cited above accentuates the commonplace assumption made in the west that negated the agency that the Africans continually exercised. Clearly the United States took aim at Aidid only after his attack on the Pakistanis and his subsequent assaults on Americans. The aim of one aid participant's criticism was equally in error. "Military surprise is no virtue in humanitarian emergencies, where neutrality is essential."46 Again, this criticism took for granted an underlying assumption on a nonexistent consensus about the nature of neutrality in a land where sovereignty was shared and food politicized. President Clinton, too, was unable to draw the correct conclusions about the inevitable intersection of intervention and interests with partisanship and neutrality. Clinton's point man in Somalia emphasized to Aidid that the president's "decision to depersonalize Somali policy...meant no more US manhunts, [but] Aidid should not think he could openly engage in political activity."47 We may imagine the big Somali smile splitting Aidid's face as this misguided paternalism sunk in. Clinton's idea of depersonalization included unenforceable prohibitions on Aidid's participation in the politics of the country the west was rapidly vacating.

Black Hawk Down is unencumbered by these esoteric arguments about the nature of neutrality, intervention and relief aid. Bowden's book carries a burden of its own: how to depict a confusing and seemingly interminable firefight without losing the reader in the ancient lanes of Mogadishu. It is difficult to convey a battle without fronts; a struggle amorphous without clearly delineated lines, the mental image of which resembles Rorschach's shifting shapes. The author accomplices this by the judicious use of four well produced maps that the reader will constantly refer to. Targets, routes, crash-sites, troop movements, and prominent characters are easily followed and understood within the larger context of the Battle of Mogadishu.

Bowden acquired the radio transcripts recorded in the Black Sea. These italicized insertions lend an immediacy to the horror that would be otherwise hidden. Black Hawk Down has within its pages an audible hum and crackle as orders are issued and the instinct of professionalism is kept just above the precipice of panic.

Bowden introduces Somali voices to support the soundtrack of the violent showdown during the "Day of the Ranger." The Ranger's creed of not allowing any comrades, dead or alive, to remain behind, produced interesting, if paradoxical, comments from Somalia's soldiers. First, they asserted that without the Black Hawks hovering above, the Americans would have been annihilated. Aidid's militia believed the Ranger's weakness was their unwillingness to die; yet this is coupled with the shrewd tactical awareness that the Rangers and Delta would do anything to protect each other, however foolhardy these acts may be.

Aidid and his lieutenants knew that if they could bring down a chopper, the Rangers would move to protect its crew. They would establish a perimeter and wait for help. (p. 110)

This was precisely what happened. The circumstances of being surrounded at the crashed copter site, and seemingly at the Somali's mercy, raise debatable questions about a militia attack that did not occur; an assault that might have delivered Task Force Ranger to a fate shared by Custer's Seventh Cavalry. The Somali commander decided not to rush the Ranger's position because of the immense firepower the pinned down units still possessed. He resolved the only way to obliterate Delta would be by a massive mortar barrage. Preparations for this coup de grace were underway when Somalis citizens, whose kin were mixed in with the surrounded soldiers, pleaded that the bombardment not take place as it would kill their relations along with the Rangers. This was sufficient to have the operation canceled. When presented with this scenario the US officers agreed that such an attack was plausible, though they discounted its doomsday quality. They argued that US gun-ships would have quickly silenced the Somali mortars after a round or two had been fired.48 This rejoinder does not account, first, for the casualties that might have been inflicted by the first wave of Somali mortars; nor does it acknowledge the targets that U.S. gun-ships, silhouetted and relatively stationary, would have presented to Somali sharpshooters armed with RPGs and automatic weapons. Easy assumptions by the United States military command led to this debacle; it is not unreasonable to believe that retaliatory gunship fire might have been also suppressed by Somali ground fire.

The audience for Black Hawk Down will likely include subscribers to Soldier of Fortune magazine as well as African specialists and Pentagon strategists. Hollywood producers will find in this story thrills for a summer blockbuster. American readers will recognize the heroism of the boys abroad, while their edification about Somalia will be little enlarged as Bowden's bibliography is surprisingly short. There are nine books listed and all of these concentrate on the battle. The context of the conflict will remain unknown to the interested reader with the exception of Hirsh and Oakley's Somalia and Operation Restore Hope. Somalis who read English already know the story; all others have presumably learned of it from their poetic countrymen in epic narratives already repeated. Perhaps the viewers of CNN who recall the gaunt faces of Somali citizens of 1992, and the desecrated body of an American helicopter pilot, will find in Bowden's effort the missing frames of a modern film, of an incident too terrible to remember. The author understands the dread that lurks in the details.


1 Roland Oliver and Cervase Mathew, eds., History of East Africa (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963) , 117; also Helen Chapin Metz, Somalia: A Country Study (Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1992), 8-9.

2 Anna Simmons, Networks of Dissolution: Somalia Undone (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1995), 11-12.

3 Terrance Lyons and Ahmed I. Samatar, Somalia: State Collapse, Multilateral Intervention, and Strategies for Political Reconstruction (Washington, D.C.: The Brooking Institution, 1995), 10; also I. M. Lewis, The History of Modern Somaliland: From Nation to State (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1965), 3; also Oliver, ibid., 206; and J. Bowyer Bell, The Horn of Africa: Strategic Magnet in the Seventies (New York: Crane, Russak and Company, 1973), 3.

4 Simmons, p. 17; Lyons, p. 8, 11; Oliver, p. 65; Lewis, Somaliland, p. 5, 8, 10; also I. M. Lewis, A Pastoral Democracy (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), 1.

5 John L. Hirsch and Robert B. Oakley, Somalia and Operation Restore Hope (Washington, D.C.: US Institute of Peace Press, 1995), 13.

6 Ibid., 4.

7 Simmons, 16.

8 Ibid., 15.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., 112.

11 Ibid., 118.

12 Ibid., 203.

13 J. W. Gregory, The Great Rift Valley (London: John Murray, 1896), 358.

14 Ibid., 359.

15 Andrew S. Natsios, "Humanitarian Relief Intervention in Somalia: The Economics of Chaos," in Learning from Somalia, eds., Walter Clarke and Jeffrey Herbst, (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997), 79.

16 John Drysdale, "Foreign Military Intervention in Somalia," in Learning from Somalia, eds., Walter Clarke and Jeffrey Herbst, (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997), 128.

17 Lewis, Somaliland, 11.

18 Ibid., 17.

19 Village Voice, 19 January 1993,, 2, 6.

20 Lewis, Pastoral, 301; Lyons, 1, 7, 11; Hirsch, 9: also Lee V. Cassanelli, "Somali Land Resource Issues in Historical Perspective," in Learning from Somalia, eds., Walter Clarke and Jeffrey Herbst (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997), 74; also Giampaolo Calchi Novati, "Italy in the Triangle of the Horn: Too Many Corners for a Half Power," The Journal of Modern African Studies 3 (September 1994), 380; also Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Unvanquished: A U.S.-U.N. Saga (New York: Random House, 1999), 53, 96.

21 Hirsch, xviii; Lyons, 33; Boutros-Ghali, 55; also Peter J. Schraeder, "U.S. Intervention in the Horn of Africa Amidst the End of the Cold War," Africa Today, 2 (1993), 16; also Mohemed Sahnoun, Somalia: The Missed Opportunities (Washington, D.C.: US Institute of Peace Press, 1994), 15; also James L. Woods, "U.S. Government Decisionmaking Processes During Humanitarian Operations in Somalia," in Learning from Somalia, eds., Clarke and Herbst; and Ramesh Thakur, "From Peacekeeping to Peace Enforcement: The UN Operation in Somalia," The Journal of Modern African Studies 3 (September 1994), 402.

22 Drysdale, 124.

23 Ibid. Cassanelli, 69; Walter Clarke and Jeffrey Herbst, "Somalia and the Future of Humanitarian Intervention," in Learning from Somalia, eds., Clarke and Herbst, 247.

24 Cassanelli, 67; Natsios, 85; Hirsch, 23.

25 Hirsch, 18; Clarke, 6; Woods, 151; Lyons, 28; Sahnoun, 8-9.

26 Village Voice, 5, 9.

27 Simmons, 125.

28 Boutros-Ghali, 57-58; Woods, 154; Sahnoun, 53; Natsios, 85; Cassanelli, 73; also Andrew S. Natsios, "Food Through Force: Humanitarian Intervention and US Policy," The Washington Quarterly 1 (Winter 1994), 135.

29 Metz, 93.

30 Gerard Prunier, "The Experience of European Armies in Operation Restore Hope," in Learning from Somalia, eds., Clarke and Herbst, 142.

31 Hussein M. Adam and Charles L. Gesheklter, eds., Proceedings of the First International Congress of Somali Studies (Atlanta: Scholar's Press, 1992), 360.

32 Natsios, Relief, 84; also Alice Bettis Hashim, The Fallen State: Dissonance, Dictatorship and Death in Somalia (New York: University Press of America, 1997), 104.

33 Hashim, 98; Lyons, 26; Bell, 23-24; Cassanelli, 71, Sahnoun, xi, xiii; Village Voice, 5-6; also Jama Mohamed Ghalib, The Costs of Dictatorship: The Somali Experience (New York: Lilian Barber Press, 1995), xi.

34 Village Voice, 2.

35 Hirsch, 18, 36; Simmons, 18; Village Voice, 2, 9; Natsios, "Force", 129; Ghalib, vii; Thakur, 402-03; also Kevin M. Kennedy, "The Relationship Between the Military and Humanitarian Organizations in Operation Restore Hope," in Learning from Somalia, eds., Clarke and Herbst, 101, 107.

36 Simmons, 205.

37 Drysdale, 125, 130; Sahnoun, 39; Novati, 381; also Charles Gurdon, ed., The Horn of Africa (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994), 58; and John R. Bolton, "Wrong Turn in Somalia," Foreign Affairs 1 (Jan-Feb 1994), 58.

38 Kennedy, 102; Prunier, 142; Thakur, 399.

39 Woods, 169; Clarke, 5.

40 Hirsch, 117-18; Boutros-Ghali, 94; New York Times, 8 June 1993, A12.

41 Bolton, 63-64; Thakur, 403; Natsios, "Force", 137; Drysdale, 132; Simmons, 205; Clarke, 11.

42 Lyons, 34.

43 Ibid., 41.

44 Clarke, 242, 246-47, 249; Simmons, 207.

45 Newsday at

46 Natsios, "Force", 138.

47 Hirsch, 131.

48 The Washington Post, 30-31 January 1994, A1, A10, A27.


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Bolton, John R. "Wrong Turn in Somalia." Foreign Affairs 1 (Jan-Feb 1994): 56-66.

Clark, Jeffrey. "Debacle in Somalia." Foreign Affairs 1 (1993): 109-123.

Crocker, Chester A. "The Lessons of Somalia." Foreign Affairs 3 (May-June 1995): 2-8.

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