By Mark Bowden
A Signet Book, 486 pp, 1999
This is one intense book.
That's the best way I know to describe
it. Bowden pulls no punches, shows no qualms, and spares the reader
nothing. All the gory, gritty, messy details of war are right here, in
one book. It reads like a novel, like a Tom Clancy novel, in fact, but
it's all true.
Bowden relates the battle that took
place in Mogadishu, Somalia's capital city, between one hundred or so
American Army Rangers and Delta Force soldiers, and thousands of enraged
Somalis (or Sammies or Skinnies as our soldiers called them). The
mission was simple: Secure the target building, arrest some of the
Somali warlord Mohammed Aidid's top men, then ride out in a convoy of
trucks and Humvees. The Delta operatives would enter and secure the
building, then detain the suspects, while the Rangers secured the four
corners on the target building's block, holding off any Somalis who
tried to intervene. It was only supposed to take an hour or so, and the
soldiers did not bring water or night vision goggles.
They had performed six previous
missions in the city, and all had gone off as planned, no problems, no casualties.
The Sammies they encountered showed little spirit for a fight, spraying
a few harmless rounds and then retreating. There was no reason to
believe this mission would be any different.
The Black Hawk helicopters flew into
place, and the Rangers and Delta operators rappelled down to position.
The Deltas immediately entered the building and secured it without a
Outside was different. The four
separate teams, or Chalks, faced unusually heavy fire from the Sammies.
Out in the open with little cover, the Rangers started taking
casualties, and some realized that this was very, very different from
The armed convoy of nine Humvees and
three trucks left the base shortly after the Black Hawks. After taking a
wrong turn, and heavy fire, they arrived at the target building and
loaded up the prisoners. Three vehicles picked up a seriously wounded
Ranger and left to rush back to base. The remaining vehicles came under
a blizzard of bullets.
Then the Sammies shot down a Black
Hawk, and that's when the mission went sour.
Several Rangers and Delta operators
were chosen to get to the crash site on foot and rescue the crew and
secure the site. The remaining soldiers hopped in the vehicles to head
back to base.
Events spiraled out of control. The
soldiers had a very difficult time getting to the crash site, because of
blistering fire from enraged Somalis. The three vehicles carrying the
wounded Ranger lost a man getting back to the base, and the main convoy
also suffered casualties before returning. Then another Black Hawk was
shot down. A second convoy was sent to the first crash site but never
made it. Another convoy never made it to the second crash site. Mike
Durant, a pilot on the second chopper, was taken captive.
The soldiers sent to the first crash
site finally made it, but couldn't escape. They ended up spending the
night, scattered about in buildings, before being rescued by a massive
convoy of American and Malaysian troops. Durant was released nearly two
So what went wrong? Whose fault was
it? General Garrison, the commander on the scene? Defense Secretary Les
Aspin, who resigned two months later? President Clinton?
Bowden assigns no blame, but does
present a comprehensive and evenhanded account of the blame game that
took place afterward.
My own take on the whole episode is
this. In military terms, the mission was a success. Yes, we lost 18 men
and suffered almost 80 wounded, but those brave troops killed about 500
enemy soldiers and wounded around one thousand. They performed
heroically in an impossible situation. We achieved the objective and
arrested the targets. We won this battle.
The problem is, because of the 18
dead, it was perceived as a failure and a disaster. I think that's
because it was our first real battle since Vietnam in which several
American soldiers lost their lives. But there's more. Many Americans
wondered what we were doing in Somalia anyway. Didn't we go there to
feed starving people? How did we get involved with a warlord? Why did we
want to eliminate him? There was an overwhelming feeling that these men
had died for nothing.
To me, the real tragedy was the
pullout. The troops were ready to go back out to find Durant and other
still missing soldiers, and wreak some revenge. But the politicians lost
their nerve, and Clinton caved. Aidid, the warlord we pledged to kill,
was given everything he wanted, thus rewarding him for his sins. And we
sent a message to the world that we were a paper tiger, full of tough
talk and bluster, but afraid to face a real fight. It conveyed weakness.
But reasonable people can disagree.
Whatever your opinion, don't let it get in the way of enjoying Bowden's
book. It's a dramatic, and even inspiring story of bravery and honor,
and it should make every American proud that we have such soldiers
serving and protecting our country.