My Online Prose Portfolio

"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer

Black Hawk Down

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 problem. 

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 past missions.

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 weeks later.

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.

Back to Book Reviews