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Blackhawk Down (Book review)

Mike Bobbitt

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Directing Staff
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Blackhawk Down
Book Review

I was about eighteen when I met my first Ranger. My unit had gone down to Fort Lewis Washington to conduct training with the US Army. It was something that we looked forward to with mixed feelings. On the one hand we would have ample time to visit the rather large PX there and blow our meagre pay cheques at the end of the exercise. There was also the opportunity to hit Duty Free on the way home.

On the downside we‘d be training with American soldiers. This was the end of the 1970‘s and the US Army was still going through it‘s post Vietnam War phase. The draft had ended and to be honest the quality then of the all volunteer army, especially in the combat arms trades was pretty dismal. Moral was poor and leadership was non-existent. There were also problems with drugs and a lot of racial tension.

We didn‘t look forward to working with what we thought were inferior troops. With the inherent cockiness of any eighteen year old new infantrymen, we knew we were the best around. That we‘d have to test ourselves against a bunch of "dumbass yanks" was a bit insulting.

Ironically now some twenty odd years later, the situation has reversed itself. The US Army was able to exorcise it‘s demons from that era. Their performance in the Gulf War and in recent operations shows how far they‘ve come.

In sharp contrast the "elite" military that I belonged to then is no more. Years of Government neglect and public indifference, obsolete equipment, scandals and poor leadership (if any) have so degraded the Canadian Army that it is almost incapable of carrying out the ever increasing number of tasks that the same Government that denies them the funds they need, insists on "volunteering" them for.

This little trip though would be different. It appeared we‘d not be working with our regular dance partners in the 9th Infantry Division. No this time we‘d be the guests of the 2nd Battalion, 75th Infantry Regiment, the Rangers.

One look told us these guys were good. Hey they were probably as good as we were. Actually as we soon discovered they were better, a whole lot better. Subsequent training opportunities with the 2/75th over the next couple of years showed me why.

My early visits with this unit was in my mind while I was reading this book. Now to be honest I‘d finally decided to read it, because the movie was due to open soon, and I wanted to read the book first. I vaguely remember the events in Mogadishu in October 1993. I‘m sure, like everyone else I caught the humiliation of watching the bodies of the American servicemen dragged through the streets by jeering crowds. To be honest though, like most Canadians, I was more caught up in our own little scandal and humiliation caused by our deployment of troops to that desolate East African Country.

Black Hawk Down covers the events of October 3-5, 1993, and those leading up to and immediately after, the "Day of the Ranger" as the event became known as. Author and journalist Mark Bowden has provided perhaps the most detailed, most comprehensive, and most accurate account of that rather confusing incident. Evidence of this is the number of lectures and seminars, including quite a few military ones, where he has been brought in as an "expert" on the events in question.

Somalia in the early 1990‘s was a country in turmoil. Civil war, anarchy, and wide spread famine had existed for years since the fall of the last semi legitimate Government. More than a dozen major "clans" each well armed and led were vying for control of the country. Compromise and power sharing were concepts unknown to them. Eventually the United Nations were forced to step in with a multi national force led by the United States to attempt to restore order and at least ensure the delivery of food supplies and other humanitarian aid.

It was noble gesture and like so many others doomed to failure. The US and many of the other First World nations soon withdrew their troops (some like Canada in disgrace). Many of these were replaced by UN forces from developing countries. Some of these forces were for the most part unable or unwilling to enforce their mandate. That is presuming that mandate from the UN headquarters was clear in the first place.

By 1993 the country was in chaos. One of the major players in the intracine clan warfare was the warlord General Mohammed Farah Adid. Adid and his faction were responsible for most of the theft of UN humanitarian aid. He was seen by the Clinton Administration as the major obstacle to any chance of peace and stability being restored to the region. Clinton had inherited the Somalia fiasco from the previous administration.

The situation quickly dissolved from a peace keeping and humanitarian mission to that of an intervention in a civil conflict. Adid‘s militia attacked and massacred 24 Pakistani UN soldiers early in 1993. From that point on parts of Mogadishu were literally no go zones for UN Forces and the international aid groups they were supposed to be protecting. Some of the UN contingents such as the Italians even adopted a "live and let live" attitude to the roving clan militias, refusing to co-operate with actions against them in return for no reprisals and attacks on their personnel.

To this end Task Force Ranger consisting of elements of US Special Forces, Delta Force, 3rd Battalion 75th Rangers, the 160th Special Operations Wing of the US Air Force and other assorted units were dispatched to Somalia under the command of Major General William F. Garrison. Their mandate get Adid.

This unit was based at Mogadishu Airport and was self contained. They were not under the command of nor integrated with the remainder of the UN troops in Mogadishu. Those troops included elements of the US Army‘s 10th Mountain Division.

Pressure was soon mounting on Garrison from Washington to accomplish his mission. Weeks went by without any tangible success. It should be noted that it was these self same Washington and Pentagon "chair borne" warriors that insisted that the mission be "low profile" and place severe restrictions on equipment available and rules of engagement.

Over half a dozen missions were set up and scrubbed in the weeks leading up to the events of October 2-3, 1993. Frustration continued to build both among the elite soldiers at Mogadishu airport, and their political masters back in Washington. Both wanted a quick resolution of the problem. This situation is quickly but accurately and succinctly summed up by Bowden in the early parts of the book.

One attempt was made to attack a supposed meeting of Adid and members of his "cabinet." In July an attack by US Helicopter gun ships left over 200 Somali dead including women, children and other non combatants. Unfortunately Adid was not among them.

On October 2nd Garrison‘s intelligence sources revealed that two of Adid‘s top aides would be conducting a meeting in Mogadishu in the Bakara Market neighbourhood. The capture of these two individuals would deal a major blow to the Warlord‘s operations it was thought. A raid to snatch them was authorised.

On October 3, 1993 the raid was launched. It was simple but audacious plan. Adid‘s aides would be meeting at a target building in the Bakara Market near the Olympic Hotel. A crack unit of Army Delta Force would assault the target building in helicopters and capture all within. Simultaneously four groups of Rangers would also be dropped by Black Hawk troop carrying helicopters to form a perimeter around the target. They would ensure no one got in or out.

Finally a convoy of twelve trucks and Humvees would then dash the three miles to the market from the airport and load up the entire force and their prisoners and drive back out. The whole mission would be controlled by Garrison directly from his command post at the airport via a command and control helicopter over the target. The whole thing would take no more than thirty minutes.

It was a complex operation. Several separate units were involved and all had to be co-ordinated. Timing was everything. These were however elite troops and the drills had been rehearsed until everything was down pat. It should work like a well tuned Swiss watch. Like a watch when it worked it worked well. When it didn‘t it fell apart completely.

Initially the raid went off well. Surprise was almost total and both Adid aides were captured. There were minor glitches, but these were to be expected. Resistance was heavier than probably anticipated. This neighbourhood was the centre of Adid‘s power base in the city. Within minutes of the Rangers fast roping into the streets they came under fire. Almost the entire population was armed it seemed and hostile.

One of the Rangers was also injured. He accidentally slipped roping down from the helicopter and needed immediate evacuation. As soon as the vehicle convoy, which had also come under sporadic fire in it‘s drive in, arrived three vehicles were immediately sent back with the casualty.

Fire from the Somali militia continued to increase. Still things were going well. In a few minutes the prisoners would be loaded. Then the Rangers would collapse their perimeter and mount up. Then the whole force would dash away. Then it all went wrong.

There were eight Black Hawk helicopters hovering over the city. The command and control one, a special SAR (search and rescue) bird, two that had dropped in the Delta Force, and the four that had dropped the Rangers in. There were also eight AH6 "Little Bird" small gun ships also carrying Delta troops and to provide aerial support if needed. It would soon be needed

Just before it was time for the entire raiding force to withdraw, one of the hovering Black Hawks was hit. Super Six One was clipped by an RPG 7, an anti tank grenade, fired by Somali militia on the ground. It crashed several blocks North East of the target building.

This changed things drastically. It was impossible to get another Black Hawk into the crash site to recover the injured crew, the area was too built up. It was decided the Rangers would move to the crash site and secure it. The vehicle convoy would then proceed to there and pick everyone up.

Some elements of the Rangers were able to move the several blocks to the crash site and secure it. There they held on against an ever increasing presence of heavily armed and hostile Somalis. The vehicles, however never showed.

Then things got worse, a second Black Hawk was shot down by another RPG. This one crashed to the south of the original. This time there were no troops able to move to the crash site and secure it. They were all trying to reach the first crash amidst stiffening Somali resistance.

Two Delta troopers, Master Sergeant Gary Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randy Shughart volunteered to rope down to the crash site and try and aid the crew. Both were killed trying to defend the sole survivor of the crash CWO Mike Durant, the pilot. Durant was later taken prisoner. Gordon and Shughart were both awarded the Medal of Honor, posthumously for their actions.

The vehicle convoy twice attempted to reach the crash site, and failed. It became lost in the maze of streets and was under continual attack from Somali militia at every corner and from every building. Finally, the number of wounded and dead in the convoy outnumbered those capable of still fighting. Reluctantly the battered vehicles withdrew to the airport to regroup.

Night now descended on Mogadishu. In the city were just over 100 US soldiers either at the first crash sight or still struggling to get there. Many of them were wounded. Ammunition was running low. Many were thirsty as canteens hadn‘t been brought. they were not considered necessary for a thirty minute mission. Also left behind were their night vision equipment. Not needed on a daylight raid, it was essential to maintain a tactical advantage in the night‘s battle.

It seemed as if the entire city was trying to kill them. It would be past dawn before a hastily organised relief column of Pakistani and Malaysian UN troops, and elements of both the 10th Mountain Division and the original vehicle column would be able to fight their way into the market area, rescue the beleaguered Rangers and Delta troopers, and then fight their way out again.

During that time the American Army fought the longest continuous fire fight since the Vietnam War. It was a costly fight. Nineteen American servicemen were killed. Scores more were wounded. Red Cross estimates placed the number of Somali dead at over a thousand. Adid‘s supporters placed it at around 350.

Bowden‘s book accurately and vividly covers the entire tale. Originally started as a series of newspaper articles and later expanded into a book. He spent time interviewing hundreds of participants and observers of the battle on both sides, Somali and American.

Their tale of heroism is presented in a fast paced and thrilling format. One that once you turn the first page is almost impossible to put down. Bowden quickly introduces us to several key characters and then we follow them through the events of the long day and night.

Quickly we move back and forth between characters. From the command post to a small detachment of Rangers pinned down on a street corner. From a Somali teenager bearing witness to all that is happening and just trying to stay alive, to Durant‘s ordeal from the crash to his capture and imprisonment.

There are some who have criticised Bowden‘s writing style. He is a journalist not a novelist, and this may have affected how the book turned out. I find this criticism groundless. The book reads well and this is probably due to his training. It is well researched and fairly unbiased. More importantly he is a master at the journalist trick of using his first words in each section to "hook" you into reading the whole thing.

Bowden is not, nor ever been a member of the armed forces. A point he notes somewhat apologetically. Again this is not a factor here. He has done his research well and both the professional soldiers interviewed and those that helped him edit the finished copy are more than sufficient to overcome this "shortcoming."Bowden covers a lot of ground here aside from his rather vivid description of the fire fight itself.

The debate on whether or not this mission was given the tools to succeed or not is here. The mutual animosity between the Clinton Administration and the military is well documented, and this is just another example of it. Witness the fallout, and the search for the inevitable scapegoat, in this case Major General Garrison.

There is some argument over whether the needed equipment to ensure the success was available. I like Bowden agree with some who claim that a AC-130 Gun Ship was not needed, nor would have made a difference. It is an area weapon and had it been employed then Somali casualties would have been more severe but to what end. The AH-6 mini gun ships were as demonstrated more than capable of providing the scope of close air support needed.

As to whether the presence of American armour would have made a difference, this is again debatable. Sure American Tanks would have made the relief column(s) more powerful. However whether the tanks were American or Pakistani is a moot point as they were not ready to go until several hours had passed.

The major flaw I noted in the mission, and only slightly hinted at by Bowden, was the apparent absence of contingency plans. When first one and then a second helicopter was shot down, the whole mission collapsed and inertia set in. Professional soldiers know that every aspect of a mission is planned out, including what happens if something goes wrong. No strike that especially in case something goes wrong.

I find it incredible, and almost criminal, that no immediate force was ready to roll out the minute the plan began to fall apart. Rather than waiting while a multi national force was cobbled together and eventually moved into the area, one should have been on five minutes notice to move. What would it have taken to have the elements of the 10th Mountain and other UN troops ready in their bases "just in case" they might be needed.

At the very least the plan should have existed on paper, so it could be more easily implemented. That it was some sort of improvisation is both almost criminal and so out of character for these troops. They‘re professional elite soldiers, I know I‘ve worked with them and similar types. They deserved better, they should have had better.

Bowden does go into some detail into the other major flaw, the command and control situation. The raid consisted of around 100 troops, but there were by my count four separate commanders. Both the Rangers and Delta forces had their own commanders on the ground. In addition there was an overall commander in a helicopter overhead. Finally Garrison, miles away in his command post was in overall control via radio and video images being transmitted to him.

Now there is apparently nothing wrong at first with this set-up. Complex military missions often call for a delegation of command. An overall commander with several subordinates reporting directly to him. The four groups of Rangers each reporting to their Company Commander is a good example of this.

However it is evident by the information in the book that this was not the case. The commanders were not working together. Contradictions and confusion were evident in many cases. It is also clear no one really appeared to be in charge, because all thought they were.

An argument could be made for the input of the overall commander in the helicopter on the scene to be there. However it does draw images of Vietnam and layers of Generals and Colonels and Majors each in their own helicopter hovering over a unit and arguing over the radio waves with each other. Garrison so far removed from the situation though should have been out of the picture, the minute he gave the go order.

What existed was a classic case of "too many Chiefs, not enough Indians." To make matters worse it appeared that the two premier ground commanders, the Delta unit leader and the Ranger Company Commander did not get along. The later was obviously resentful of the Delta troops and was to say the least "uncooperative."That inspires confidence in me

I‘ll tell you, watching my leaders b!tch, whine, and argue in the middle of a fire fight is gotta be good for my fighting spitit, how a bout you. He was also it appears too inflexible and hesitant. Not good qualities when the plan goes out the window, and as seen there‘s no back up plan.

Bowden also notes the aftermath of the operation, and the public perception. As noted Clinton washed his hands of the affair aside from a couple of photo ops with some wounded Rangers and while the cover ups and blame shifting games were played throughout Sodom on the Potomac, the US mission was quietly and quickly withdrawn. That was scene by some as a sign of failure.

The media of course jumped on the story with their typical bias. They were slow on the mark as the same weekend of the raid, all attention was focused on Moscow and the attempted coup against Yeltsin (see footnote). Later they chimed in with shots of crowds of Somalis dragging the bodies of the dead air crews through the street of Mogadishu.

To the public this had the affect of making the mission appear a failure. Like the coverage of the Tet Offensive in 1968 it appeared the American military had been defeated. That of course was not the case. Despite the problems the mission did succeed in it‘s objective. Two of Adid‘s top advisors were taken out of commission as planned.

Not only that a force of 100 or so American soldiers engaged an enemy force that outnumbered them by a factor of ten perhaps twenty to one if not more. A force that surrounded them for several hours. Despite this they were able to fight them off and extract themselves relatively intact. That‘s not a failure in my book. Mind it didn‘t surprise me. These troops were cut from the same cloth as those I met so long ago.