‘Black Hawk Down,’ Two Decades Later

by Jonathan Foreman
How an extraordinary feat of arms was turned into a political catastrophe.

October 3rd and 4th marked the 20th anniversary of the “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia, also known as the First Battle of Mogadishu. The BBC ran a video report about it on Thursday entitled “US Black Hawk Down military disaster revisited.” It is worth watching as an encapsulation of a complacent standard media narrative about the battle that has not changed in two decades. (Disappointingly, the lazy analysis here is by Frank Gardner, the BBC’s normally impressive security correspondent.)

Contrary to the BBC’s assertion in the report, the Black Hawk Down battle was not a “humiliation” for the U.S. military. On the contrary, it was arguably an astonishing feat of arms, analogous to the 1879 battle of Rorke’s Drift depicted in the film Zulu, or the 400 B.C. retreat to the sea by Xenophon’s 10,000 beleaguered Greeks depicted in his Anabasis.

It took tremendous skill and genuine heroism for a small, vastly outnumbered group of U.S. soldiers to hold off thousands of fighters and in some cases fight their way out of a teeming, hostile city along the “Mogadishu Mile” without leaving any wounded behind. If anyone was defeated, it was those thousands of well-armed Somali militiamen, who knew the terrain far better than the Americans.

Of course, the original mission to capture two key lieutenants of the warlord “general” Mohamed Farah Aidid was a failure. It was badly planned and fundamentally foolish in conception, and 18 American servicemen were killed as a result. But if you look at how U.S. forces dealt with their situation after the original plan had come apart and their men were trapped on hostile ground, it’s hard not to be impressed.

So the U.S. military was bruised, but far from humiliated. Nor was America itself humiliated — at least, not initially. National humiliation came about later, thanks to Washington’s political reaction to the incident, and to the fact that the 18 killed in action and the gruesome video footage of two American corpses being abused were sufficient to make America withdraw its forces from Somalia, even though the United States had not achieved its humanitarian or security objectives in the country.

It was that decision, not the (admittedly skillful and courageous) downing of two Black Hawk helicopters by Somali fighters, that so impressed Osama bin Laden (who cited it often as evidence of the fundamental weakness and cowardice of America and her military) and emboldened the likes of Slobodan Milosevic when he continued his ethnic cleansing in defiance of U.S. threats.

Because the American political and military elite at the time deemed it acceptable to cut and run immediately after this single bloody setback, American foreign policy was reshaped around a reflexive terror of any entanglement that might risk more than a handful of casualties. Hence the failure of the Clinton administration to try to stop the Rwandan genocide even though there were U.S. combat troops in neighboring countries who could have done so. There is a strong argument that hundreds of thousands of people needlessly died as a result of that panicked overreaction.

Since I watched the BBC report at my desk in Kabul, this anniversary has a particularly strong resonance for me. There is currently huge pressure in Washington to cut and run from Afghanistan as soon and as fully as possible, regardless of where things actually stand here, and regardless of how that might render pointless the vast amounts of treasure and blood spent over 12 years, and regardless of the potential impact on American power and prestige.

This is not to say that there shouldn’t be an endgame, or that Afghan forces must fend for themselves (it would help if the coalition had spent the last few years building a small air force suitable for close air support), or that a winding down of our presence is a mistake. It is to say that American policy makers need to keep in mind the possibly disastrous impact of a perceived surrender and defeat if they care about America’s future influence and prosperity.

— Jonathan Foreman is a writer, researcher, and editor based in London and New Delhi.