Black Hawk Down
by Mark Bowden
How much good can you do with the point of a gun?
This is the question that, at its heart, “Black Hawk Down” asks–and answers. The answer? Only so much.
“Black Hawk Down” covers, with moment-by-moment thoroughness, the 1993 battle of Mogadishu, when a small group of US Rangers and Delta Force soldiers found themselves caught up in a city-wide battle during what was meant to be a simple operation to arrest a couple of warlords. The US was supposedly on a humanitarian mission in Somalia–a humanitarian mission they were carrying out with the aforementioned Rangers and Delta Force troops, and one that was terrorizing and alienating the people of Mogadishu, who, when two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down, took the opportunity to rise up and strike back at the American soldiers who were supposedly there to help them. The result was a multi-hour battle in which 18 US soldiers were killed and dozens wounded, as well as one of the Black Hawk pilots being taken prisoner and held for days. The Somali casualty count was horrifically worse: at least 500 Somalis killed, many of them women and children (although a number of those women and children had taken up arms against the Americans), and 1000 wounded.
The story is an impressive piece of journalism, as Bowden interviewed all the participants and listened to their radio recordings, as well as visiting Mogadishu and getting the Somali side as well. The result is an incredibly detailed, minute-by-minute story of the multi-hour, multi-part battle, in which several rescue missions were sent in after the original force, only to get bogged down in heavy fighting as well. It can be hard to keep up with the multiple operations, told from multiple points of view, but that only adds to the “fog of war” experience that the soldiers had, as rescue convoys got lost in the winding city streets and troops on foot got trapped under enemy fire only a few yards from each other.
Bowden has a taut prose style, and the action moves swiftly, even though the book is long and dense. Some of the sections are fairly graphic, especially the descriptions of the injuries that the soldiers sustain, so this is not a book for the overly squeamish, in case the subject matter didn’t make that obvious already. Indeed, although before I read the book I had only the vaguest outline of what happened, I remember the pictures of dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets, something that has always made the word “Mogadishu” synonymous in my mind with brutality. Although “Black Hawk Down” tells the story largely from the American perspective, it also includes the perspectives of a number of Somalis who get caught up in the violence as well, and explains why they were so angry with what they saw as the American occupation.
American forces were supposed to get rid of warlords who were, in fact, starving their own people, and put Somalia on the path to democracy. But it turned out the people didn’t actually want democracy, at least not democracy forced on them at gunpoint. The Americans had overwhelmingly superior technology and firepower, not to mention extensive training, and by some measures they “won” the battle, in that they achieved the original aim of the mission and inflicted many more casualties than they took. But the end result was that they had to pull out, and Somalia remained a war-torn, corrupt country. It turns out that all the military might in the world cannot create democracy and a peaceful, stable society without soft power, diplomacy, and a genuine desire on the part of the people to create such a society. Unfortunately, that lesson was not learned in Somalia (or earlier), and the same mistakes were repeated all over again in Afghanistan and Iraq.