Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Day of the Rangers - Black Hawk Down 20 years on

In my continuing quest to prepare for my role as commander of the U.S. contingent in a humanitarian operation, I have read Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden. It provides an in depth account of the U.S. (not U.N.) operation to capture two main partners of General Aidid, leader of the Habr Gidr, the clan dominating Somalia at the time. 

My second hand copy
Although the targets were captured, the crash of two Black Hawk helicopters totally changed the dynamic of the battle and forced the troops on the ground into an improvised rescue operation. The troops were surrounded near one of the crash sites, but had to be relieved by a scratch U.N. force. The crew of the second chopper was captured or killed and paraded through the city by outraged Somalis, for all the world to see. This led to the departure of U.S. forces from Somalia soon after.

Last weekend I also watched the movie and there's a couple of disconcerting differences, the main being that the movie strips out most of the uncomfortable parts of the book. That is the very strong criticism on the leadership (although Bowden often uses the Delta Force participants to voice it) and the Somali side of the experience. And I think these two points are the most significant in the book, and they explain a lot about what went wrong.

By October 1993 the Somalis had figured out a way to go after the choppers

Ridley Scott does an awesome job of portraying the tactical side of the battle. I can't tell how realistic it is, but it generally conforms with the book, except the small force of Deltas attacking the Somali heavy weapons from behind. But Bowden provides several accounts of Somalis that show that a large part of the people fighting the Americans were not militiamen but civilians angry at being invaded by the Americans.

And that leads to the question the movie doesn't ask: wasn't this a stupid plan in the first place? Jumping in the midst of the town would always result in considerable collateral damage and civilian deaths. Scott neatly hides that fact that the Americans were shooting civilian from the word go (Bakara market was not just a hang out for arms salesmen, as the movie suggests, and they emptied it with M-60s).

In the movie the streets seem empty of civilians, in reality they were hiding everywhere and the millions of shots fired by the Americans must have made numerous innocent victims among the 500 dead and 1,000 wounded. That may be portrayed as a military necessity, but it was obviously the Americans weren't concerned about anything but themselves. 
This lack of sensitivity is understandable to a degree. To see so many people in a position of helplessness and degrading themselves in order to survive, sometimes to the point of lying, stealing and murder (see what I wrote about that when discussing Linda Polman's book) will not improve your opinion of them. The dirt, poverty and stench are noted often and in a negative way.

Also the Somali society was fundamentally different on ideas about honour, fairness, hospitality and allegiance. Even the strong concept of individual agency that every American is spoonfed from birth contrasts with the stoic fatalism inherent in lesser developed societies. The fact that Somalis often didn't grab at the chances provided to them by humanitarian aid and their refusal to lay aside their factional differences in the light of the crisis will have made them look ungrateful.

I'm pretty sure racism wasn't a major part of this attitude, although there were a few remarks in the book where I suspected it. I wonder if the nickname 'Skinnies' was a reference to Heinlein's Starship Troopers.

The lack of sensitivity, coupled with their obvious dislike of the local population  had already irked the Somalis, for example when U.S. choppers flew low over town, damaging houses and stampeding animals. They had also killed and captured a large part of the civilian leadership in a pretty brutal assault some weeks before. ‘The Day of the Rangers’ pushed many Somalis, friends of Aidid or not, into active hostility towards the U.S. troops.

The Somalis made innovative use of cheaply available communications
to narrow the intelligence gap
The Americans had also badly underestimated their opponents’ capabilities and willingness to take them on. The availability and smart deployment of RPGs caught them by surprise. The swift reaction and the amount of people mobilised by their attack as well. 

Most dangerously, they misjudged the reaction of the Somalis to their invasion per se. Even if no Black Hawk had been downed, the number of casualties on both sides would have been considerable. Half of the Americans on the initial convoy became casualties, and they could have easily accounted for several hundred Somali casualties. The damage, although less extensive, would still have angered a lot of people. Together, it would probably have changed the political dynamics of the conflict as much as the battle did in the end.

Scott conveniently portrays the local militia leader (appropriately dressed in black) as a 'bad guy' at the start of the movie by having him rob people of humanitarian aid, and then kills him off later as a sort of minor revenge victory which apparently needed to be scored to wash down the humiliation of the American force. It is not in the book.

...refusing to look the part of bad guy

At the end of the movie it seems all okay because Aidid is murdered in 1996 (by Somali competitors, not a U.S. operation). Although Aidid certainly was no saint, on the other hand he was not the ultimate bad guy the Americans turned him into (not the first and last time they did that). He was the leader of the most powerful clan in Somalia and de facto head of state, but also a former general in the regular army and he had defeated the dictator Siad Barre a few years before. Again, the movie reduces Bowden's multilayered story to two dimensions. 

As Bowden points out, the fact that the situation in Somalia didn´t change after Aidid´s death says enough about the misjudgement of the U.S. to pick that particular fight, and of their misjudgement of conflict in failed states in general: “In the end, the Battle of the Black Sea is another lesson in the limits of what force can accomplish.”

Because although military there is some claim to a U.S. victory, morally this was a huge defeat. Yes, a small force of Americans had held off a huge mass of irregulars, but with overwhelming firepower. Also, the force had effectively been incapacitated. It couldn’t move without leaving behind a considerable number of wounded and it couldn’t defend both crash sites.

And in my reading of the book, the people in charge of the operation were paralysed by the unforeseen events and overwhelming information. They were unable to improvise and make tough decisions. The movie makes the creed of ‘leave no man behind’ a virtue, but tactically it hamstrung the Americans. It prevented them from taking up a better defensive position and the recovery of a dead pilot cost them precious hours of darkness.

The only known photograph taken on the ground during the Battle of Mogadishu, on 3 October 1993
(US DoD via Court Chick, linked from

In the book, Bowden shows the Somali sensed that the Americans were unwilling to die and to risk their lives which gave them a moral ascendancy. Despite the overwhelming firepower of the Rangers, I felt at times that an old fashioned bayonet charge would have been more effective (but the Rangers had left those at the base).

Sure, it is easy for me to criticise these points from my armchair, but these elements have come back during many humanitarian operations:

1. elite western troops with an inflated sense of their power, which translated into underestimation of their opponents and disdain for the civilian population. Derogatory nicknames, prostitution rings, firelighters with jam handed to children, it´s all happened.

2. irregular opponents who adopt to asymmetrical warfare and counter Western technological superiority by using terrain, subterfuge, or hiding among the population. It´s not always within the Geneva Convention, but civil war is a different beast than conventional conflict and U.N. troops should be take their opponents seriously.

3. In a tight corner the elite troops are unwilling to take casualties to do what is necessary to fulfill their primary mission: protect civilians. Belgians in Rwanda, Dutch in Srebrenica. Or they just blast away the opposition by massive firepower, regardless of the collateral damage, as in Mogadishu. This also harms the primary mission. Both forms of fuck up also undermine the trust of people in the ability and the will of the international community to protect them. What´s not to say that this provided a hotbed for anti-Western sentiments that the radical islamist have fed on since?

I´ll tell you next week if I did any better!

The page of the Crisis in Binni megagame (there's still room if you want to play)

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