But after a few frightening raids, the Somalis
began to see the Black Hawks as an indicator of how they might
beat the Americans:
To kill Rangers, you had to make them stand
and fight. The answer was to bring down a helicopter. Part of
the Americans' false superiority, their unwillingness to die
[demonstrated by the speed and brevity of their attacks], meant
they would do anything to protect each other, things that were
courageous but also sometimes foolhardy. Aidid and his lieutenants
knew that if they could bring down a chopper, the Rangers would
move to protect its crew. They would establish a perimeter and
wait for help. They would probably not be overrun, but they could
be made to bleed and die.
Of course, the Somalis didn't have the kind
of weaponry that could easily bring down a Black Hawk, but with
a few modifications to their arsenal of RPGs (rocket-propelled
grenades) and instructions from a group of Sudanese fundamentalist
soldiers, they developed a risky but effective plan--and waited.
Their chance came on October 3, 1993, when the Americans staged
a daring mid-day raid on an Aidid building near a busy marketplace.
It wasn't an auspicious plan for the Americans.
The Rangers and D-boys preferred to attack at night, when their
specialized skills and tools put them at a distinct advantage.
And the Somalis' midday use of a mild amphetamine called khat
made them especially, in Bowden's words, "wired, jumpy,
and raring to go." (By late night, on the other hand, the
khat chewers would have crashed and been considerably
more vulnerable.) But American intelligence about the clan leaders'
movements was patchy at best, and the military was under increasing
pressure to grab Aidid (or at least someone high up in his clan's
hierarchy). So when it seemed fairly certain that not one but
two of Aidid's senior advisors were in the building in
the Black Sea neighborhood, the code word was sent across the
radio waves, and the Black Hawks lifted into the air.
With the predictability of hindsight, things
went wrong for the American force almost immediately. First,
one of the Black Hawks had to drop its men a block from their
target, complicating their quick advance. Then one of the Rangers
lost his grip on the rope descending from a Black Hawk and fell,
thereby further slowing down at least some of the men and tying
up vehicles with his evacuation. Then one of the Black Hawks
was hit and brought down by an RPG. Men were re-routed to aid
the downed soldiers and secure the crash site. Then another
Black Hawk was hit with an RPG, and it too went down. Now the
Americans had two crash sites, and their decisive advantage--speed--was
gone. As Bowden writes,
There wasn't enough time for anyone to consider
all the ramifications of that [second] crash, but the sick sinking
feeling that came over the officers watching on screen went way
beyond the immediate fate of the men on board.
They had lost the initiative. The only way
to regain it now would be to bolster strength at the crash site,
but that would take time and movement, which meant casualties.
There were already causalities on the downed bird. There was
no time to reflect on causes or consequences. If Elvis's chopper
had gone down in flames, the general could just pull everybody
out with the prisoners as planned and mount a second mission
to retrieve the bodies and make sure the chopper was completely
destroyed--there were sensitive items on the bird that the army
didn't want just anybody to have.
But seeing men climb out of the wreckage,
and watching as the unscripted battle now joined around it, the
ground shifted beneath [General] Garrison's feet.
As the Somalis had predicted, the Americans
committed themselves to rescuing their comrades, but unforeseen
complications in their communications made it difficult for the
rescuers even to find the crash sites. The ground convoy
of Humvees originally intended to evacuate the men immediately
after the lightning strike was soon overloaded with American
wounded, and the drivers trying to find the crash sites were
forced to advance at a snail's pace through the narrow streets,
exposing themselves to Somali snipers from windows and rooftops.
Every intersection became a potential ambush site, and the Somalis'
plan to make the Americans "bleed and die" was coming
horribly to fruition.
The city was shredding them block by block.
No place was safe. The air was alive with hurtling chunks of
hot metal. They heard the awful slap of bullets into flesh and
heard the screams and saw the insides of men's bodies spill out
and watched the gray blank pallor rise in the faces of their
friends, and the best of the men fought black despair. They were
America's elite fighters and they were going to die here, outnumbered
by this determined rabble. Their future was setting with this
sun on this day and in the place.
Ninety-nine Americans were left on the ground
in Mogadishu overnight, scrambling to stay alive. By the time
it was over, it would be the longest firefight American soldiers
had engaged in since the Vietnam War. Remarkably, given the conditions,
only eighteen American soldiers died and another seventy-three
were wounded. By comparison, at least five hundred Somalis died,
and another thousand or more were wounded. The casualty numbers
alone would suggest that the Americans won the battle.
But that's not how the White House or Congress
saw it. Although the Rangers and the Delta Force operators were
desperate to go back into Mogadishu, the Clinton administration
ended the effort to capture Aidid immediately after the failed
raid became widely known, and Les Aspin, the Secretary of Defense,
resigned two months later. But as Bowden writes, Clinton's decision
to end the mission "accomplished what he intended: it slammed
the door on the episode. In Washington a whiff of failure is
enough to induce widespread amnesia." A year and a half
later, the UN pulled out of Somalia as well. (For their part,
the Somalis still celebrate October 3rd as a national holiday.)
Black Hawk Down
makes for harrowing reading, but Bowden's ability to piece his
narrative together from so many perspectives--he even traveled
to Somalia to interview Somali survivors--gives his account a
definitive quality that mesmerizes in its kaleidoscopic complexity.
With its unprecedented, exhaustive documentation
and its cautionary conclusions, this is the best military reportage
to come out in a long time.
Click here to read Mark Bowden's September
2001 interview with WAG.
Click here to read his May 2000 interview
Click here to read a
review of Killing Pablo.