Black Hawk Down Essay Topics
This month has seen some of the grimmest news in years out of Somalia, a country that has become shorthand for despair. Since a famine began sweeping the war-torn country in July, tens of thousands of Somalis have died of starvation, and many more have sought refuge elsewhere. On Aug. 8, the U.S. government announced that it was pledging another $105 million to alleviating hunger in the Horn of Africa, bringing total U.S. support during the famine crisis to more than $500 million.
But one thing no one in the United States is talking about is repeating the country’s actions 20 years ago, when the overthrow of Mohamed Siad Barre’s 21-year military rule and the ensuing civil war prompted a similarly dire famine crisis in southern Somalia. U.S. troops were dispatched to smooth the way for aid delivery, and the effort to alleviate the famine is mostly remembered in the United States today for how it ended: a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter shot down with a rocket-propelled grenade over Mogadishu and the body of a U.S. Army soldier* aboard dragged through the city’s streets.
As an advisor to the initial U.S. mission in Somalia, I remember the affair differently. "Black Hawk Down" may have been a disaster, but the U.S.-led relief effort that preceded this event was not; Operation Restore Hope, as it was called, saved tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives.
Many observers have drawn the wrong lesson from Somalia: that all interventions in anarchic places, no matter how well-intentioned, are riskier than they are worth. Today, faced with a new catastrophe in the Horn of Africa, we need to draw the better lesson. Another military intervention is not the answer, but by treating the famine as a political problem with potential solutions rather than a hopeless lost cause, the United States can help stop a tragic situation from becoming even more so.
Somalia had been deteriorating since the mid-1980s, but matters came to a head in January 1991, when a broad alliance of clan-based insurgents under the umbrella of the Somali National Alliance closed in on Mogadishu, finally forcing Siad Barre to flee the capital on Jan. 27. As the government collapsed, fighting broke out among clan factions — led by rival generals Mohamed Farrah Aidid and Ali Mahdi Mohamed — for local and regional control. Siad Barre’s forces tried to fight their way back to the capital, and the battles that ensued forced virtually the entire civilian population to flee the "triangle of death" between Kismayo, Bardera, and Baidoa. The scorched-earth policy of the combatants destroyed the livelihoods of nomadic herders and sedentary farmers alike. More than half a million Somalis sought refuge in neighboring Kenya, and an equal number scattered farther from their homes. Many barely survived in camps on the outskirts of Mogadishu, where fighting broke out between the two warring factions for control of the port and airport.
Throughout 1992, global television coverage of starving women and children — similar to scenes on today’s screens — highlighted the immensity of the suffering. The U.N. Security Council struggled to deal with the situation, initially dispatching 50 unarmed observers and deploying 500 Pakistani peacekeepers to the airport as well as authorizing an emergency U.S. airlift from Mombasa, Kenya, to southern Somalia. But it was all to little avail. Finally, in mid-1992 U.S. Sens. Paul Simon and Nancy Kassebaum visited Somalia to assess the situation, and together with humanitarian aid agencies they appealed to President George H.W. Bush to intervene to end the famine. He did so shortly after Thanksgiving, offering U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali a U.S.-led peacekeeping force to manage the situation until the United Nations could mobilize its own larger force. Operation Restore Hope was born.
Under the leadership of Ambassador Robert Oakley and Lt. Gen. Robert Johnston, the operation quickly brought an end to the famine crisis. The Americans convinced the warlords to open supply routes for delivery of humanitarian assistance, setting in motion the transformation of the civil war into a political process. Governance was re-established at local levels pending national reconciliation. The U.S. peacekeepers pledged to avoid the use of force except in self-defense. On Dec. 11, 1992, less than a week after the first Marines arrived, the two warlords had agreed to a cease-fire, the opening of the roads, and the removal of armed vehicles from the main roads. A Conference on National Reconciliation in Somalia was convened in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, four months later.
All this was possible because Oakley, Johnston, and Gen. Anthony Zinni (later head of the U.S. Central Command) communicated directly with the warlords. The United Nations, however, didn’t — and things went downhill in a hurry once its peacekeeping force arrived. Operating without consultation with or consent of the warlords, U.N. forces quickly found themselves at war with Aidid after his forces on June 6, 1993, killed 43 Pakistani peacekeepers. The denouement began on Oct. 3, 1993, with "Black Hawk Down," a failed attempt to capture Aidid that led to the death of 18 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of Somalis in an overnight firefight. Eighteen months later U.N. forces withdrew, and Somalia descended into the nightmare that has engulfed the country ever since.
But let’s revisit the tentative success that came before the catastrophe. The key to the success of Operation Restore Hope, as noted above, was the twofold policy of a major military deployment and the establishment of lines of communication to the warlords. With U.S. troops on the ground in significant numbers, Aidid was eager to avoid confrontation. Meetings between Oakley and Aidid were easily arranged, and so-called misunderstandings — e.g., over shelling the U.S. mission’s compound — were quickly resolved; humanitarian food convoys moved safely to the most affected areas. The U.S. military established the Civil Military Operations Center, which facilitated unique cooperation with humanitarian aid organizations.
The current situation is clearly different. Aidid and Ali Mahdi were interested in asserting their clan interests and gaining power. Al-Shabab, in contrast, promotes an extreme anti-Western ideology. But the possibility of a two-pronged approach involving force and dialogue is nevertheless conceivable. The reported withdrawal of al-Shabab from Mogadishu on Aug. 6 gives African Union and government forces a new opportunity to restore order and take control of the city’s port and airport, the vital logistical lines for the delivery of humanitarian aid. They should be supported in doing so.
In the meantime, the most severe famine is in southern Somalia. The USA Patriot Act has established penalties for the provision of any material assistance to al-Shabab, but recent statements by Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice and other government officials have indicated that the State Department will not impose penalties on agencies seeking to provide assistance to the famine-stricken as long as they pledge to combat attempts by al-Shabab to hoard aid or collect taxes. Further clarity would be useful. In addition to providing funds to the World Food Program and the United Nations, non-U.S. and non-U.N. avenues for providing humanitarian assistance — such as Islamic Relief, which is currently operating in the zone — should be identified and supported.
Communicating with al-Shabab is also crucial, whether it is done directly or indirectly through intermediaries like the Organization of the Islamic Conference, an international association of Islamic states. A first step would be to identify moderate elements of al-Shabab who have reportedly facilitated humanitarian relief. It would be important in these discussions to seek commitments to both ensuring the safety of the humanitarian aid workers and preventing or at least minimizing the diversion of food supplies to al-Shabab’s fighters.
The lesson of Operation Restore Hope, and of the Balkan conflicts that followed, is that humanitarian and refugee crises cannot be compartmentalized from their political causes. The international community, while addressing the immediate crisis in Somalia, needs to keep its focus on a durable political solution that would lay the foundation for economic recovery and development. This can only be achieved by the Somali people themselves. Even if the central government remains weak, viable local governments have been reasonably effective in many parts of the south. The international community can assist them in two major ways: by separating big-picture concerns over "the war on terror" from Somalia’s domestic struggle for national reconciliation, and by persuading neighboring Ethiopia and Eritrea to refrain from interfering in the conflict. The focus on training African Union and Somali government forces should not deflect attention by American policymakers to these broader issues.
Operation Restore Hope was not a panacea. But it demonstrated the capacity of outside forces to work constructively with Somalis at all levels to reduce human suffering and open up the prospect of a better future for the Somali people. The fact that this has not yet happened does not mean that it cannot be achieved.
*Correction: This article originally erroneously identified the U.S. casualties in the Battle of Mogadishu as Marines. They were in fact U.S. Army soldiers. The article has been changed to reflect the correction.
Tags: Africa, Argument, Default, Diplomacy, Disasters, Flash Points, Food/Agriculture, Foreign Aid, Free, History, Human Rights, International Organizations, Military, Obama Administration, Security, Somalia, Terrorism, U.S. Foreign Policy, United Nations, Web Exclusive
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Black Hawk Down Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden.
Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War is a non-fiction account of the Battle of Mogadishu, the result of a failed military operation in Somalia in 1993 in which U.S. forces sought to kidnap two lieutenants belonging to faction leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid. The book is based on twenty-nine of author and journalist Mark Bowden’s articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the incident. In his research, Bowden pored through army records, interviewed people involved on both sides of the conflict, and reviewed aerial footage of the battle. In 2001, Ridley Scott directed a movie by the same name based on the book.
In December 1992, President George H.W. Bush deployed U.S. forces to Somalia to alleviate the ongoing famine made worse by drought and civil war. Operation Restore Hope was designed as a fully humanitarian mission, but by 1993, the nation descended further into chaos and the scope of the operation expanded to maintain political stability. Militia belonging to warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid killed twenty-four Pakistani U.N. peacekeeping soldiers. In response, U.S. forces sought to capture Aidid, but he proved elusive. With U.S. forces continuously in pursuit, many Somali locals came to view the Americans as an occupying force.
On October 3, 1993, U.S. forces entered Mogadishu to capture two of Aidid’s lieutenants during a known clan meeting. The operation was meant to be quick, less than an hour long, and in the middle of the day. Therefore, the soldiers, Delta operators, Rangers, and SEALs left a good deal of equipment such as extra canteens and Night Operation Devices at the military base in favor of additional ammunition. The military was confident of success having run similar operations without casualties.
The operation went smoothly in the beginning, with the wanted men arrested and the area secured. However, a young Ranger, who had yet to attend Ranger school, fell out of one of the Black Hawk helicopters. The situation deteriorated from there. The surrounding neighborhood was far more hostile and armed than anticipated. Thousands of Somalis flocked to the scene. They burned tires to send smoke signals to other parts of the city to come and fight. Soon, the Rangers were taking fire from all sides. Worse, one of the Black Hawk helicopters was hit by a rocket and crashed a few blocks away. Soldiers, both by foot and by vehicle convoy, attempted to secure the crash site, but were unsuccessful. The convoy got lost in the winding streets and suffered heavy casualties. They returned to the base with half of their men wounded. A search and rescue team was sent by air to assist in the securing of the crash site.
Meanwhile, a second Black Hawk helicopter crashed in the city. Somali militia took the pilot as prisoner in hopes of a ransom or prisoner exchange. A Quick Reaction force was assembled to secure that crash site, but they could not penetrate the roadblocks and ambushes set by the Somali militia and locals.
The original ground troops left in Mogadishu arrived at the first crash site after their prisoners were finally secured by the returned Humvee convoy. In their search for cover, the men got separated into two groups. In one of the cleared houses, the men created a makeshift clinic to tend to their wounded until they were rescued.
At midnight, the U.N. base dispatched a rescue operation comprised of American, Malaysian, and Pakistani troops. Due to the roadblocks and fighters in the streets, it took hours for the rescue operation to reach the trapped soldiers. They loaded their vehicles with the wounded, but there were not enough seats. Dozens of men were forced to run along with the convoy until they reached safety at a stadium.
By the early hours of October 4, nineteen Americans had been killed and seventy-three wounded. Malaysia and Pakistan also suffered casualties in the midnight rescue. Although figures differ for the Somalis, the United States estimates that they suffered 1,500–3,000 casualties, only a fraction of which were militiamen.
As a journalist, Bowden’s style is that of an objective observer. He does not have a military background, nor was he in Mogadishu during the battle, so his information is purely from research. The battle is conveyed as a riveting narrative with the fighters as compelling characters. The minute-by-minute retelling of the fierce fighting is reminiscent of a hand-held camera. His point-of-view shifts from combatant to combatant. However, the narrative does take the opportunity to step back. The background information about the political situation in Somalia, the overall mission of Operation Restore Hope, and the humanitarian crisis put the battle in perspective.
To focus on an even wider perspective, Bowden asserts that the battle ended a brief period in American history when Americans viewed themselves as invincible, “a time when America and its allies felt they could sweep venal dictators and vicious tribal violence from the planet.” The new President Clinton would often take a more cautious approach to worldwide crises.