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BLACK HAWK DOWN By Mark Bowden Atlantic Monthly Press, $24.00

What the military missed in Somalia

MARK BOWDEN HAS PRODUCED A SUPERB account of the October 1993 battle of Mogadishu. His graphic description of the fiercest firefight involving U.S. troops since the Vietnam war will resonate well beyond the military history enthusiasts who typically lap up such fare. Indeed, the most grateful beneficiaries of Bowden's labor should be found in the U.S. Army, many segments of which appear to have tried long and hard to forget that the battle ever occurred.

The basic outline of the battle was already well-known when Bowden began his research in 1997. On Oct. 3, 1993, several helicopter-loads of Rangers and "Delta Force" commandos roped into the Somali capital's "Black Sea" neighborhood to seize two senior aides to warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. The United States, in the form of the 450-man Task Force Ranger, was engaged in an undeclared guerrilla war with Aidid's Habr Gidr clan, and this was the task force's seventh such raid. None had turned up Aidid himself, who had gone to ground when the United Nations placed a bounty on his head. But after some early missteps the task force had begun steadily to take down Aidid's organizational structure.

The Oct. 3 mission was proceeding well until Aidid's militia shot down first one, then a second of the task force's Black Hawk helicopters. Instead of heading straight back to their base with their detainees in a ground convoy, the 100-odd Rangers and Delta commandos were forced to hunker down around the first crash site, as Aidid's forces converged on them from across the city. A series of convoys were dispatched to relieve the cut-off troops, only to be driven back by withering fire. By the time U.S. commanders had linked up U.S. infantry forces with Malaysian and Pakistani armored vehicles to form a convoy with enough firepower to get to the stricken special operators and pull them out, 18 U.S. soldiers had been killed or mortally wounded, and the Clinton administration's nation-building strategy in Somalia lay in tatters.

Most of Bowden's book consists of a dramatic blow-by-blow account of the 16-hour drama played out in the labyrinthine alleyways and dusty boulevards near the Bakara Market, the center of Aidid's power base. Drawing on radio transcripts and interviews with dozens of participants, he painstakingly recreates each moment of the battle, lacing the vignettes together with biographical sketches of the fighters and a history of the U.S. peacemaking effort in Somalia. The book is full of examples of extraordinary heroism in the face of almost overwhelming odds.

However, the story is no one-sided affair. Bowden deserves credit for taking the time--and the risks involved--to travel to Mogadishu, where he interviewed many Somalis who fought in or witnessed the battle. Their perspectives enrich an already enthralling narrative. But beyond being a riveting description of what might be called the first battle of the 21st century, the book contains serious, if understated, implications for the U.S. military--and particularly the Army--as it seeks to refashion itself for the post-Cold War era. The most important of these, notes Maj. David Stockwell, who was the U.S. military's spokesman in Mogadishu at the time, is that "There are limits to applying high technology on a low-tech battlefield."

It should be clear from Black Hawk Down that the sort of battlefields preferred by the U.S. military--empty but for friendly and enemy troops--are increasingly a thing of the past. They are being replaced by the shantytowns and urban sprawl of disintegrating societies such as Somalia, Bosnia and Haiti. Mogadishu happened to be the location for this wake-up call, but it could just as easily have been Basra, Brcko or Port-au-Prince. Certain in the knowledge that the United States' commitment to counter all but the most direct threats to its national security can be undermined by inflicting a handful of casualties, America's enemies will seek close, personal and brutal battle with U.S. forces in urban areas that threaten to make a mockery of the Pentagon's obsession with Stealth bombers, Seawolf submarines and "digitized" tanks.

Since the battle, the Army has made belated efforts to give its troops the decision-making skills they will need to cope in environments like Mogadishu, in which the line that traditionally separates fighters from non-combatants becomes blurred to the point of invisibility. But it is questionable whether any amount of training can fully prepare young Americans--the average age of the Rangers in the battle was 19--for situations such as that which faced Specialist Eric Spalding, who was engaged at close range by a woman holding a pistol in one hand and a baby in the other. (He shot the woman, but suspected he hit the infant as well.)

During the 1990s, the Army has embarked on a multi-billion dollar effort to "digitize" the battlefield, using a "tactical Internet" of hand-held and vehicle-mounted laptop computers and position navigation systems to give soldiers and commanders a better sense of their surroundings. But, as Bowden makes clear, video relayed by helicopters and a Navy spy plane gave U.S. commanders at Task Force Ranger headquarters a perfect, real time view of the battle unfolding in Mogadishu. Yet despite this advantage, unprecedented in military history, they proved unable to direct one of the convoys a matter of a few blocks to the first crash site. The saga of "the lost convoy," which meandered through ambush after ambush, taking heavy casualties, before returning to the base, should give pause to those who believe that perfect "situational awareness" will sweep away the fog of war.

Nowhere was the U.S. military's overreliance on high technology more exposed during the Mogadishu fight than in the area of intelligence. Despite having access to every national intelligence asset, Task Force Ranger detected neither the Aidid militia's ability to swiftly mass fighters on an objective, nor the threat that the militia's hoarded supplies of rocket-propelled grenades posed to the helicopters that were Task Force Ranger's center of gravity. Aidid, on the other hand, had intelligence agents working as local hires at the U.S. bases, and some U.S. personnel believed, was receiving tip-offs about impending Task Force Ranger missions from Italian troops under United Nations command.

What the task force needed was better contacts in Aidid's militia, but the United States' capability to gather human intelligence in relatively closed societies is weak. (One of the book's few flaws is its failure to examine what role, if any, was played by the secret Army military intelligence unit sometimes referred to as "The Army of Virginia" This unit, based at Fort Belvoir, Va., and Fort Meade, Md., often works closely with Delta, but its participation in Mogadishu would have been circumscribed by the Clinton administration's determination to limit the size of the task force.)

This intelligence failure was compounded by the hubris displayed by the elite U.S. troops. Such was the overconfidence of the special operations forces that many took off that sunny afternoon without their night vision devices, bayonets, or even full canteens, so certain were they that the mission would go smoothly and they would be back within an hour. Bowden reveals that even the combat search and rescue team that landed at the first of the two crash sites had originally been cut from the task force roster prior to leaving the States, because the chances of the Somalis shooting down a helicopter were considered so slim. "Nobody had anticipated a serious fight from these characters," he writes.

Bowden is perhaps too easy on those at every echelon of command, from President Clinton down to the lieutenant colonels running the battle. Rarely does he pin any blame on anyone. Yet someone, somewhere, was responsible for agreeing to the fractured chain of command in which the two senior U.S. military officers in Mogadishu were two major generals in command of separate U.S. military organizations, neither of whom had command over the other.

Violations of the principle of unity of command also occurred within Task Force Ranger itself. Bowden points out that the Delta commandos and the Rangers each had their own chains of command, their own separate radio links and their own ways of doing things. When things turned nasty on the ground, the friction between Delta and the Rangers meant that for a time, the captain commanding the Ranger troops refused to talk to the Delta captain on the radio. Bowden acknowledges that the absence of a clear chain of command on the ground was "a significant oversight," but leaves unsaid whose mistake this was. In fact, it is an indictment of task force commander Major General William Garrison, who should have ensured that a more senior officer was on the ground to take charge.

The Army's reaction to the battle of Mogadishu exemplifies much of what is amiss with the service at the turn of the century. In survey after survey, soldiers and officers alike agree that the service has developed a "zero-defect" culture in which caution and careerism have replaced boldness and audacity. Task Force Ranger achieved a Pyrrhic victory in Mogadishu, and the Army has been trying to sweep the event under the carpet ever since. Several officers who fought in the battle have seen their careers sidelined, and report feeling that the service has failed to recognize their sacrifice, or even to learn the correct lessons from it. That is a serious accusation in a service that prides itself on its "lessons learned" process. But it appears to be true.

The Center for Army Lessons Learned produced no report on the battle, and those accounts that have been written within the military are highly classified. As Bowden points out, "It seems the military is best at keeping secrets from itself" If his book can open a few eyes peering out from Kevlar helmets, it will have rendered an invaluable service.

SEAN D. NAYLOR is is a senior writer for Army Times, and co-author of Clash of Chariots: The Great Tank Battles. He covered U.S. military operations in Somalia in 1992, 1993 and 1994.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Naylor, Sean D.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 1999
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