A war movie entitled "Black Hawk Down," recently opened in U.S. theaters to rave reviews in part because it captures in excruciating detail the 1999 best-selling book of the same name. The book tells the true story of the Battle of Mogadishu in Somalia in 1993. VOA's Andrew Baroch talked with the author, Mark Bowden.
"Most Americans probably remember scenes from the aftermath of that battle, which were of the bodies of dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu by jeering mobs of Somalis. I remember seeing those pictures and just being horrified, angered, and also really feeling confused," says Mr. Bowden.
For most of the 1990's, few details were publicized about how those American soldiers died, until journalist and author Mark Bowden decided to find out what happened and write a book that became a bestseller in 1999. Mr. Bowden explains how U.S. humanitarian aid efforts degenerated into the nightmarish combat in Mogadishu and an end to U.S. involvement in Somalia.
In 1992, U-S soldiers were deployed to Somalia to guard United Nations food shipments to millions of people who were starving due to drought and civil war. "The United States began with really good intentions in Somalia and ended the famine and there were efforts to create a stable coalition government in that country so the situation wouldn't just deteriorate when troops were withdrawn. One of the warlords resisted these efforts to cooperate and began attacking U.S. peacekeepers. That resulted in the United States going after this warlord," says Mr. Bowden.
On October 3, 1993, about 100 U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force commandos rode two giant Black Hawk helicopters into the capital to arrest several aides of this warlord. Mark Bowden says that the events that followed show how "what seems to be a straightforward military operation can over a short period of time evolve into a very dangerous and bloody episode." First, one U.S. helicopter was shot down. Then another.
The Americans found themselves surrounded by thousands of gun-toting Somalis sympathetic to the warlord and his militia. Eighteen U.S. soldiers were killed and some 73 were injured in an 18-and-a-half hour battle. About 1,000 Somalis died. It was the longest and bloodiest firefight involving U.S. soldiers since the Vietnam War.
The author describes how it all ended. "The men who were trapped in the city basically dug in and set up perimeters that enabled them to hold off the Somali militia through a very long night. They probably wouldn't have been able to do so if not for the helicopters of 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, who fly these little MH-6 AH-6 helicopters, that are capable of coming down even below roof level to run gun runs," he says. "The helicopters basically prevented the Somalis from amassing in sufficient numbers to really overrun the position held by the Rangers and Delta Force. They held out until very early in the morning, when a mile-long column made up soldiers from the [U.S.] Tenth Mountain Division, Rangers, Delta Force, Pakistani and Malaysian tanks and armored personnel carriers basically fought their way into the city and rescued them."
In his book, "Black Hawk Down," Mark Bowden says the Clinton Administration's efforts to downplay the military aspect of its mission in Somalia contributed to the disaster at Mogadishu. The author says the U.S. Army Rangers and Delta Force commandos needed more formidable protection than the Black Hawks provided.
Bowden:"Ordinarily, these men trained to use an AC-130 gun ship, which is a fixed-wing propeller plane that flies high enough over the battlefield that really in Mogadishu no one would have been able to shoot anything high enough to hurt it. Because the Clinton Administration didn't want to send a weapon with that high a profile it's a very large and obvious weapons system to Somalia because, politically, they were trying to down play our military involvement they refused to allow the AC-130 to accompany these men to Mogadishu. They were using Black Hawks. Black Hawks fly much lower and much slower."
Baroch: "Can you tell us some of the stories of individual heroism?"
Bowden:"There are so many. Probably, the two that stand out the most are the stories of Randy Shugart [SHOO-gart] and Gary Gordon, who were Delta operators who volunteered by themselves to go down on the ground to hold off a growing mob of hundreds of armed Somalis after the second Black Hawk helicopter crashed. These two men by themselves held off the mob as long as they could before the site was overrun and they were killed along with every member of that crew except the pilot, Michael Durant, who was carried off and held captive for eleven days. For their efforts, Gordon and Shugart received posthumously the Medal of Honor."
Mark Bowden's research included scores of interviews with Somali and American combatants. He describes the Americans as "somewhat disappointed and embittered" that until recently "they and many of their friends who had been injured or killed" had received little notice or appreciation.
Mr. Bowden says he's gratified that his book as well as the movie, and TV documentary released this month tell the story of their heroism at the Battle of Mogadishu.