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How shit went down in Mogadishu.

Black Hawk Down

Simon & Schuster, 1999, 320 pages

Ninety-nine elite American soldiers are trapped in the middle of a hostile city. As night falls, they are surrounded by thousands of enemy gunmen. Their wounded are bleeding to death. Their ammunition and supplies are dwindling. This is the story of how they got there - and how they fought their way out. This is the story of war.

Black Hawk Down drops you into a crowded marketplace in the heart of Mogadishu, Somalia with the U.S. Special Forces and puts you in the middle of the most intense firelight American soldiers have fought since the Vietnam war.

Late in the afternoon of Sunday, October 3, 1993, the soldiers of Task Form Ranger were sent on a mission to capture two top lieutenants of a renegade warlord and return to base. It was supposed to take them about an hour. Instead, they were pinned down through a long and terrible night, locked in a desperate struggle to kill or be killed.

When the unit was finally rescued the following morning, 18 American soldiers were dead and dozens more badly injured. The Somali toll was far worse; more than five hundred felled and over a thousand wounded. Award-winning literary journalist Mark Bowden's dramatic narrative captures this harrowing ordeal through the eyes of the young men who fought that day. He draws on his extensive interviews of participants from both sides - as well as classified combat video and radio transcripts - to bring their stories to life.

Authoritative, gripping, and insightful, Black Hawk Down is a riveting look at the terror and exhilaration of combat destined to become a classic of war reporting.

This book is probably one of the best war memoirs written by someone who wasn't a soldier and wasn't there. It reads like a novel but is an account of the actual battle of Mogadishu, which took place in 1993. It all started when the international community began sending food aid to starving Somalians. As we know now, this was a mostly wasted effort — warlords seized all the food and used starvation as a weapon. In response, the US, with UN backing, sent in the Marines. This worked until the moment the Marines withdrew, and then warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid went back to confiscating all food aid. The US got tired of this shit and sent in Rangers, Delta Force soldiers, and regular Army units, and began trying to take out Aidid.

Meanwhile, the UN had troops in Mogadishu too, but they mostly sat in their enclaves and did nothing unless forced or cajoled to act.

Mark Bowden is a journalist who took an interest in the disastrous 1993 mission to capture or (more likely) kill the warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid. A well-practiced mission executed by the elite Army Rangers and the even more elite Delta Force (the "D-boys" as the Rangers called them), they went into the heart of Mogadishu expecting to do a snatch-n-grab. Instead, one of the Black Hawk helicopters was brought down by a rocket-propelled grenade, and in the chaos that followed, the Rangers and D-boys were trapped in Mogadishu surrounded by thousands of angry locals, the "combatants" and "non-combatants" essentially indistinguishable, and forced to hold them off with superior firepower overnight, until they were finally rescued in the morning by the 10th Mountain Division and the UN detachment.

In a grotesque way, the battle that is so grippingly described in this book resembled a video game — a handful of highly trained, deadly fighters with some of the most potent weaponry and armor available fighting off an endless horde of attackers who are easily gunned down by the hundreds, but keep coming. In the end, the death toll was 18 Americans, and over a thousand Somalis.

Bowden, who interviewed the survivors, including the super-secretive Delta Force troops (who, once he was able to find them, were surprisingly willing to tell him details of what happened), also went to Somalia and interviewed as many Somalis as he could find who were there, getting both sides of the story. From this, he constructed a narrative that, as he tells it, has the realism of a documentary but the drama of a novel. And his narrative is dramatic and harrowing and puts you there, in the air and then on the ground, as the Army unit takes casualties, guns down women and children (who are shooting at them or acting as spotters for snipers), while donkeys and doves casually stroll unscathed through the firefight. He covers the entire action in detail from the planning to the aftermath. And he goes into the politics that led to the mission in the first place, and casts his own verdict about whether or not blame was apportioned fairly afterward. (He takes particular issue with what he calls unfair and inaccurate criticisms by David Hackworth, a retired Army colonel and military writer and journalist whom I used to read regularly.)

This was an excellent read, and really captures the feel, the camaraderie, and the no-BS sheer terror experienced even by hardened vets when exposed to combat, especially when a mission goes sideways. It does not whitewash the horrors and intractability of Somalia, how the US went in with good intentions before the entire international venture turned into a bitter clusterfuck. The Rangers were initially well-received by the populace, seen as protectors and distributors of food, but the combination of arrogance, with helicopters buzzing the city day and night, and their inability to actually take out the warlords and restore order, soon caused them to be seen as murderers and terrorists. An all too familiar story.

Black Hawk Down (2001)

Black Hawk Down (2001)

The 2001 film by Ridley Scott is an excellent execution of Bowden's book. It feels like an action movie — it is an action movie — but the details are, for the most part, true to life. As far as I could tell, Scott took few liberties with the narrative as far as what actually happened. Some of the battle scenes were Hollywooded up a bit, but the names and events and casualties are essentially as described in the book. While it's understandable why Somalis and Pakistanis, among others, have criticized the film for centering on the heroism and sacrifice of American soldiers (the battle scenes at times uncomfortably resemble Lord of the Rings, in which the heroes mow down endless waves of orcs), I think a political reading of the film is really outside the scope of what it was trying to portray. The soldiers were there to execute a mission — the politicians who put them there, and ultimately, the bastards who used starvation to terrorize their own people, are to blame for the tragedy that ensued.

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