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  • James Houser

October 3, 1993 - Black Hawk Down in Mogadishu

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

October 3, 1993. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The United States has deployed forces to Somalia to restore order to a fractured African country. Somehow, an effort to distribute food and restore peace has ended up with two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters downed in the center of Mogadishu. Despite the undeniable heroism of the U.S. Army Rangers, the road to “Black Hawk Down” was paved with good intentions.

I’m going to begin today talking about Karl von Clausewitz. Might seem a bit of a leap, but this is how I’m choosing to frame today’s post. Even if it’s a bit odd to hop from modern warfare to 19th-century Prussian military theorist, it’s what I’m going to do.

See, Karl von Clausewitz’s “On War” is much like the Bible or Machiavelli’s “The Prince”: a lot of the people who talk loudest about the literature have never actually read it. Clausewitz was a Prussian staff officer in the wars against Napoleon who sought to impose a grand unified theory on war. This is not a new approach – and many people have tried – but to this day, Clausewitz is the person who probably came the closest at grasping a unified, coherent philosophy of warfare. Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” is of course an ancient classic, but Clausewitz may well have been the man who established a SCIENCE of war.

One of Clausewitz’s most famous quotes is like the rest of his work, simple on the surface but full of philosophical depth: “War is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means,” generally simplified as “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Essentially, all wars serve political ends and have a political reason. You cannot separate a war from politics, since political motives both drive the war and determine the success of the war. Furthermore, Clausewitz states that “The political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose.” That is, military force has to match the political object.

This is heavy stuff, obviously, and I’ve already lost many of you on Facebook. But this drives at a very real point I am trying to make, and that is that militaries exist to DO something. They exist to carry out the political objectives of their leaders within the frame of violent confrontation. But what happens when that political objective is not clear? What happens when the water is muddy, when even the leaders themselves don’t know what the ultimate endgame is, when there’s no context to a military action? What happens, in Clausewitzian terms, when there is no political object for the military force to match to?

So we come to Somalia.

United States intervention in Somalia lasted from August 1992 to March 1994. It began with benign intentions: distribute food to a starving populace stricken by anarchy and deprivation and restore peace to a war-torn state. It resulted in a bloody defeat at the Battle of Mogadishu and subsequent withdrawal. Somalia is a large, resource-poor country the size of Texas with a coastline longer than California’s. Its location on the Horn of Africa had long made it a critical point for the world’s two superpowers during the Cold War, and both US and USSR-supplied weapons had made their way into Somalia’s arsenals. From 1966 to 1991, the country had been run by dictator Siad Barre, and he had been quite happy to solicit both the capitalists and the communists to prop up his regime.

When the Cold War ended, though, the tap of military support suddenly dried up. Siad Barre had spent his decades in power focused not on building infrastructure or helping his people (hell, even Castro and Saddam had worked on their nation’s well being at least a little bit) but instead on retaining power. When he eventually fell to clan-based militias in 1991, the country fell into something like chaos. Around 19 different Somali clans had cooperated to overthrow their dictator, then turned on one another. The fragile food, medical and economic structures of Somalia promptly collapsed, and Somalia broke up into warring factions guarding their own turf. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled, and those that remained faced starvation. Somalia had become a textbook failed state: a boundary on the map that contained no sovereign power.

The remarkable thing about this is how people treat it like an anomaly. The idea of a previously united entity splitting into warring factions is literally the story of most of humanity since the Bronze Age, even for powerful units like China, India or the Roman Empire. In the light of human history, Somalia’s collapse into warring states after the fall of its leader is not just predictable but a typical state of being. In the 20th Century, however, this was not a tolerable state of affairs.

The U.N. Security Council requested assistance for Somalia, and the United States was on the job. Since its recent victory in the Cold War, the United States had been the world’s de facto leading nation, and there was no task that American power and influence couldn’t handle. On August 15, 1992, the US Air Force began flying supplies into the Somali capital of Mogadishu in what was known as “Operation Provide Relief,” only the latest in a series of depressingly literal “Operation” terms. The problem soon became apparent: carting out food would not be enough, since the local warlords controlled the population and the distribution of said food.

The media played a part in getting the Bush Administration to escalate. The New York Times pleaded to “End Somalia’s Anguish,” while heartrending clips of starving Somalian children appeared on TV. As the sole remaining superpower, the guarantor of world order, the world looked to the USA to solve the problem of Somalia. Against his better judgment, Bush ordered American troops to land in the country on December 5, 1992. American Marines came ashore at Mogadishu on December 9, swarmed by journalists with TV cameras and spotlights. This was not a military operation but a media spectacle. Bush promised to have the troops out by the end of his term – January 20 – but this was never a realistic schedule.

Bush was adamant that the American forces would not involve themselves in local Somali politics, but declaring an act apolitical does not make it so. As Clausewitz would say, sending troops into Somalia was an inherently political act for a political reason. Bush (and very soon Clinton) wanted to reinforce the Somali peacekeeping mission and demonstrate American commitment to the liberal world order. But at the same time, the commitment of troops was open-ended and without a definitive endgame. Finally, the enemy always got a vote. No one thought to ask what the Somalis would think of American intervention, especially the warlords. They were waging war for their own political objectives too, in their own Clausewitzian fashion – and American intervention ran counter to those objectives.

The main American opponent in Somalia would be Mohammed Farrah Aidid, the commander of the Somali National Army (SNA), which drew most of its support from the refugee-swollen population of Mogadishu. Aidid was not on board with any UN-imposed peace plan, and was especially hostile to the UN intervention. He promoted confrontational military resistance to the UN intervention forces, and on June 5, 1993, ambushed a contingent of Pakistani peacekeepers. The SNA killed 24 and mutilated their bodies. Aidid was declaring war on the peacekeepers, intentions be damned.

President Bill Clinton had inherited the Somalia situation, and when he took office things seemed to be well in hand. But problems were already cropping up. Typical of American interventions after World War II, the military aims had failed to match the political means. An increasing American commitment – 25,000 men – failed to match the situation on the ground. Raw military power could not offset a misunderstanding of the political situation. Without a clear political objective in the Clausewitz style, the military forces contributed to Somalia found themselves swimming in a river of darkness. You’re swimming hard and fast…but to where?

With a lack of any real objective, American forces decided to concentrate on Aidid, hoping that with his capture and defeat the situation in Somalia would magically resolve itself. This marks another fundamental failing of American interventions since the Cold War: the tendency to personalize any military intervention. The nemesis of the moment could be Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or whoever; removing the keystone was supposed to solve the problem, but it rarely did. In fact, the hunt for Aidid would cause far more problems than it solved.

As American forces tumbled through Mogadishu throughout 1993 trying to find their target, they built up more hostility and resistance. As civilian and military casualties mounted, more and more coalition forces withdrew from the Somali mission. Aidid continually pushed civilians into the line of fire, a cruel tactic that nevertheless eroded Somali sympathy for UN forces. Soon, Aidid was specifically targeting the Americans, noting that “if you could kill Americans, it would start problems in America.” Indeed, Aidid actually had a military strategy for his political objective: to force the Americans out. Not only did the Americans not really have a strategy, they weren’t even sure what their objective was in the long term.

So when President Clinton organized a force for the Aidid manhunt, the USA was now very far from the mission of “distribute food and relief to Somalia.” Now the United States was somehow involved in an urban counterinsurgency without ever really developing a coherent strategy or plan for the campaign. Task Force Ranger was commanded by Major General William F. Garrison with around 440 men pulled from the 75th Ranger Regiment, Delta Force and the 160th SOAR (the Special Forces Aviation unit). The administration gambled that a surge of American military power could turn around the situation in Somalia. But how? What was the endgame? No one asked, no one knew.

The United States underestimated their adversaries, and in contrast to the Americans the Somalis knew what they wanted. American commanders viewed the Somalis as “intellectually primitive, culturally shallow, and militarily craven.” Harsh words, and not without justification. But Aidid and his SNA had lived and fought in the streets of Mogadishu for years, and when Operation Gothic Serpent eventually unfolded they would have a decided advantage in the upcoming battle – no matter how brave, well-equipped, or technologically advanced the Rangers were. It was an unfair fight, to be sure, but no one with a brain ever fights a fair fight when they have any other option.

Gothic Serpent got underway on August 28, as members of Task Force Ranger settled into their quarters in Mogadishu International Airport. Soon they were conducting raids into Mogadishu in their attempt to chip away at SNA leadership and eventually snag Aidil – all of which came up empty-handed. Special Operations Command called all the missions “tactical successes,” but this description is deceptively narrow. American forces reached their objective, killed bad guys, captured random mooks, and returned safely – but this did not bring them closer to their goal, and did nothing to rationalize that goal in the face of increasing enemy skill and resistance.

The Americans were overconfident. The Rangers “behaved with a swagger that was irksome at best and reckless at worst,” but American accomplishments were thin. Americans inflicted far more Somali casualties – military and civilian – than they suffered, but this was not success. Aidid remained at large, and on September 25 an SNA fighter used an RPG-7 to down a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, killing three crewmen. This was a bad omen, but the worst was yet to come.

The fateful raid occurred on October 3, 1993. Task Force Ranger got word of two of Aidid’s lieutenants who were apparently meeting at a location in Mogadishu. General Garrison ordered a two-pronged strike by both land and air. Two MH-6 “Little Bird” helicopters would land a Delta Force strike team atop the target building, supported by four UH-60 “Black Hawk” helicopters that would land a force of US Army Rangers to secure a perimeter around the building. At the same time, a column of nine Humvees would drive through the city to evacuate the whole team. The entire operation was expected to take no more than 30 minutes.

At 15:42 on October 3, 1993, the Little Birds hit their target and landed the Delta assault team. As they infiltrated the building doing their cool-guy stuff, the Rangers prepared to rope onto the four corners around the target building. One group of Rangers accidentally landed a block away from their target and found themselves under heavy enemy fire; the others made it down safely except for Private Todd Blackburn, who fell from the rope and suffered fatal injuries. Despite heavy fire, though, the Humvee column arrived at the target building and it seemed like things were going to plan.

At 16:20, Black Hawk “Super 61” was shot down by an RPG-7, killing both pilots and wounding other crew members. Two Delta Snipers on board Super 61 were able to hold off the site as a swell of angry Somali militiamen descended on the crash. Despite incredibly heavy enemy fire, a team was able to land and recover the crew of Super 61 even though their helicopter Super 68 was nearly crippled (though Super 68 did manage to limp back to base.) The rescue team was able to drag the injured crewmen into a local hideaway and await relief. The Humvee convoy still at the target building was confused; the crashing of the first Black Hawk had thrown the whole mission into a frenzy, and no one knew what the actual goal was anymore. It was a microcosm of the whole Somali deployment. Soon, though, the force originally designated for the hotel was on its way to rescue the victims of Super 61’s crash.

At around 16:40, though, a second Black Hawk was shot down, and this one – Super 64 - was the famous one. Piloted by Warrant Officer Michael Durant, its crash site in an open courtyard was farther away than the crash site of Super 61. The rescue force on the ground made it to the first crash site and were effectively trapped for the night as the SNA forces descended on them, unable to make it to the second site. Super 62 dropped off two Delta snipers – Master Sergeant Gary Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randy Shughart – to defend the site of Super 64.

It was one of the epic last stands of history, faithfully reconstructed in Ridley Scott’s epic film: Gordon and Shughart’s last stand against the flooding waves of Somali attackers. But the second Black Hawk crew would not be rescued. The rescue team was still pinned down at the first crash site, and would be for the night; no one was available to rescue the survivors of Super 64. Super 62, which had dropped off the snipers, tried to keep up suppressive fire but was itself soon struck by an RPG and had to withdraw. Gordon was soon killed, and Shughart passed off his sniper rifle to the injured pilot Durant. They continued to hold off the Somalis until Shughart was also killed. Only Durant survived, and he was now a prisoner of the SNA. For their heroism, Gordon and Shughart would both be awarded the first posthumous Medals of Honor since the Vietnam War.

The American fighters were almost overwhelmed before an extraction force of 10th Mountain Division, Malaysian and Pakistani forces arrived at the first crash site at 0200 on October 4. There had been no contingency planning before the operation, which is why it took so long for these forces to arrive. The time lost due to lack of planning and preparation cost lives. By the time the action was over on October 4, 19 Americans were dead, 73 wounded, and Chief Durant was proudly displayed by the SNA in propaganda videos. Gordon and Shughart’s bodies were dragged through the street by the SNA, along with the dead Black Hawk crewmen. Anywhere from 315 to over 2,000 Somalis perished in the Battle of Mogadishu.

Through threats and negotiation, the bodies of the American dead – and the still-alive Chief Durant – were recovered. But the American people had had enough. Though American apologists tried to spin the mission as a success, this generates the question: a success on what grounds? How did the Battle of Mogadishu make victory more likely? What goal did the sacrifice of brave men like Gordon and Shughart (inarguably heroes) accomplish? What objective did the raid achieve? What WAS the objective?

The reaction back home followed the predictable script: when the war turned against America, America turned against the war. Time magazine belatedly asked “What in the World Are We Doing?” Washington searched for scapegoats, and Senator John McCain was furious that American troops were “killed in a conflict with no clear connection to national security interests.” In the end, Clinton made the decision to withdraw troops from Somalia, and US forces were gone by March 31, 1994. Clinton opened himself up to critics and demagogues, who all argued that this showed great cowardice and weakness.

I don’t know if Bush – or Clinton – ever read Clausewitz. But they violated his core tenet. “War is the pursuit of politics by other means.” What politics were pursued in Somalia? What was our goal, our objective, the thing that made this all worthwhile? No one can really say, even to this day. American leaders failed to understand the political environment, their goals, or what would be needed to attain them. What “success” meant was never defined. While the Battle of Mogadishu was an epic of individual American bravery, courage, and skill, it was a disastrous miscarriage of American strategy. And it cost American lives. What EXACTLY were we doing in Somalia?

What exactly are we doing in Afghanistan? Syria? Iraq? Nigeria? I can go on. Do you know? And if you don't...that should say something. Clausewitz would have a lot to say.

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