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Black Hawk Down Redux?

By Thane Peterson One of the best ways to visualize the covert military action now most likely under way in Afghanistan is to read the 1999 book Black Hawk Down by Philadelphia Inquirer correspondent Mark Bowden. It's a gripping, detailed, and bluntly critical account of the firefight that occurred on Oct. 3, 1993, between elite U.S. soldiers and rag-tag Third World irregulars in Mogadishu, Somalia, during what was supposed to be a humanitarian mission.

The American public mainly remembers this incident for its horrifying TV images of the corpses of three American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by angry mobs. But that was only a glimpse of one tiny corner of the battle. In all, 18 U.S. soldiers were killed -- mainly members of the top-secret Delta Force. Dozens more were wounded. At least 500 Somalis were also killed and probably thousands wounded.

MISTAKES AND LESSONS. Bowden had expected the U.S. military to attack his book because of its frank descriptions of the mistakes made and civilians killed during the battle. Instead, Pentagon brass embraced it as a searing lesson for avoiding the same mistakes in future military actions. Black Hawk Down is now mandatory reading at the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., and has been praised by the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps.

The book's most important lessons involve civilians, however. For better or worse, the campaign against Osama bin Laden and other terrorists is likely going to lead the U.S. and its allies into a long campaign of covert military actions. This is a shadowy area, and the Bush Administration seems intent on limiting the flow of news, so that little is known about the fighting. Witness the President's outbursts at members of Congress for divulging information to the press that was supposedly classified.

TRAGIC PARALLELS. Bowden's book will explain the sensitivity: It gives a clear idea of the terrible things that will be happening behind the scenes. Indeed, if bin Laden turns out to be hiding in a city -- rather than in caves in a remote area -- the book provides a case study of the extreme perils involved in rooting him out.

A movie based on the book is due out next March -- directed by Ridley Scott, the director of Hannibal. I suggest reading this terrible story before Hollywood has a chance to trivialize it. If you want multimedia, go to the original stories on the Web site of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which include a blurry video clip made from the helicopters over Mogadishu and various audio clips of the soldiers.

There are plenty of parallels between the firefight in Africa and the military strikes in Afghanistan. Both Somalia and Afghanistan are war-ravaged, dirt-poor, Third World nations in which much of the population is in danger of starvation. In both cases, a military campaign must be waged in concert with humanitarian aid. A main goal is to clear the way for a new, more humane government to emerge. The enemy in both cases is hiding among the civilians, many of whom hate the U.S.

And, though bin Laden isn't mentioned by name in Bowden's book, he has been deeply implicated in both conflicts. The key to the Somalia incident going bad for the U.S. was the ability of fighters tied to Somalian warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid to bring down two hugely sophisticated Blackhawk helicopters in the middle of densely populated Mogadishu.

"PAPER TIGER." That took U.S. commanders completely by surprise and forced them to launch two rescue missions at once, dispatching convoys into the city that were set upon by thousands of armed Somalis. The warlord's troops had been taught how to down helicopters by Islamic militants trained by bin Laden. Indeed, bin Laden was in Africa in October, 1993, and has said in interviews that Mogadishu convinced him and his men that the U.S. military is a "paper tiger."

In fact, in purely military terms, the mission was a success for the U.S. As Bowden writes: "Task Force Ranger dropped into a teeming market in the heart of Mogadishu in the middle of a busy Sunday afternoon to surprise and arrest two lieutenants of [Aidid]. It was a complex, difficult, and dangerous assignment, and despite terrible setbacks and losses, and against overwhelming odds, the mission was accomplished." Despite the heavy casualties, none of the U.S. troops Bowden talked with were critical of their commanders. They were proud that for each U.S. casualty, dozens of the enemy suffered a similar fate.

The shocking thing about Bowden's account is how quickly an almost mathematical calculus came to rule the actions of both sides. The Americans, who had completed a number of similar raids in the past without incident, were horrified at the idea of taking any casualties or wounded. The Somalis were intent on killing a few Americans, no matter what the cost in their own lives. Thousands of fighters and civilians thronged to attack the downed helicopters and their rescue convoys. "Those with guns were intermingled with the unarmed, including women and children. Men, women, children -- even the aged and infirm," Bowden writes.

BLOODY LESSON. Initially, the Americans tried to avoid shooting civilians. Within minutes, however, they realized they would die if they didn't almost indiscriminately fire at anyone who came near. By the end, Bowden's estimate that at least 500 Somalis were killed seems hopelessly understated, given the vast superiority of U.S. firepower. Here's one tiny incident among many:

"[A] woman abruptly turned. Holding [a] baby in one arm, she raised a pistol with her free hand. [U.S. Ranger Eric] Spalding shot her where she stood. He shot four more rounds into her before she fell. He hoped that he didn't hit the baby. They were moving and he couldn't see if he had or not. He thought he probably had. Why would a mother do something like that with a kid on her arm? What was she thinking? Spalding couldn't get over it. Maybe she was just trying to get away, saw the truck, panicked and raised the gun. There wasn't time to fret over it."

The main failing of Bowden's book is that he doesn't really explain why thousands to Somalis were ready to risk dying. Mainly, he chalks it up to fierce tribal loyalty that dictates that, if one member of a tribe is attacked, all must fight back. Some historical context might have been useful here. But in the end, President Clinton decided to abruptly pull out of this chaos of hatred and fighting, and then aborted a similar military mission in Haiti.

CLINTON'S HASTY EXIT. A clear case can be made that bin Laden was emboldened by the Somalia engagement. In a prophetic afterword to his book, written before September 11, Bowden argues that the pullback was a terrible mistake. "The lesson our retreat taught the world's terrorists and despots is that killing a few American soldiers, even at a cost of more than 500 of your own fighters, is enough to spook Uncle Sam. Routing Aidid would have, in the long run, saved American lives."

Bin Laden horribly upped the ante by killing thousands of civilians, rather than a few soldiers. Bowden provides a compelling argument that terrorists must be stopped now, or even more terrible attacks lie ahead. At the same time, the book also underscores the price the antiterrorist campaign may exact on both sides. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online

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