Black Hawk Down: 20 Years Later

By Dustin Walker

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of a tragic episode in American military history popularly known as “Black Hawk Down.” Twenty years later, a small mission to capture two lieutenants of an obscure warlord in a little-known desert capital has become one of the most famous battles in American history, immortalized by author Mark Bowden and filmmaker Ridley Scott.

On October 3, 1993, 160 U.S. Army Rangers and other special operators in Task Force Ranger launched a raid into the heart of Mogadishu’s Bakaara Market to capture two subordinates of the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. A routine mission was transformed into a desperate search and rescue attempt as an angry mob composed of thousands of heavily armed militiamen tried to swallow up the remains of two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters shot down providing air support. American troops, who had not seen this kind of fierce urban combat in more than a generation, battled through the night to save their brothers.

Twenty years later, America remembers 18 brave soldiers who lost their lives in the Battle of Mogadishu.

We recall with horror the human capacity for barbarism and violence as the bodies of slain soldiers were mutilated and dragged through the streets for the entire world to see.

But more than that, we remember the triumph of courage and selflessness embodied by heroes like Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Sgt. 1st Class Randy Shughart. When Black Hawk helicopter Super 6-4 was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and crashed, pilot Michael Durant was trapped in the cockpit with two broken femurs, a broken back, and three other wounded personnel. As an angry mob approached Durant, Gordon and Shughart were riding in another helicopter above. They requested to be inserted to protect the wounded, but were denied twice. On their third appeal, permission was granted.

Sgt. 1st Class Randy Shughart (left), Master Sgt. Gary Gordon (right)

With just their sniper rifles and pistols, Gordon and Shughart dropped in, fought their way to the crash site, and removed Durant from the cockpit. They established and defended a perimeter against waves of attackers. Shughart depleted all his ammunition before being fatally wounded. After Shughart was killed and he had depleted his rifle ammunition, Gordon retrieved a rifle and five rounds of ammunition from the helicopter and gave it to Durant with a simple, “Good luck.” Gordon then exhausted his pistol before being killed. Knowing they would likely die in the process, Gordon and Shughart gave their last full measure of devotion to save a colleague, for which they were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. Durant would be captured and released eleven days later.

As we remember those who fought and died twenty years ago, it is critically important that we reflect upon the lessons learned in Somalia.  

Strategy, Resources, and Will

The first lesson applies to any military conflict: before we send American troops into harms’ way, we owe them nothing less than a clear strategy with defined objectives understood and supported by the American people and matched with the resources and political will necessary to achieve success. Unfortunately, the American involvement Somalia failed that test on every count.

American involvement in Somalia began as a successful humanitarian mission, which ended a famine that killed 300,000 Somalis. But after that initial success, the United Nations expanded the mandate to a nation building mission responsible for building a democratic Somalia. The United States balked at that level of responsibility and transferred control to a U.N. command, but remained heavily involved. Meanwhile, worsening relations between peacekeepers and Somali warlords led to 24 Pakistani soldiers killed and another U.N. resolution tantamount to a declaration of war on Aidid and his militia. Soon after, the U.S. would begin to focus heavily on raids aimed at capturing Aidid.

By the time of the Black Hawk Down incident, the Somalia mission had become muddled. Was it a humanitarian intervention? Was the mission to build a democratic Somalia and were there resources to accomplish such a goal? Or was this a manhunt for a murderous warlord? As General Anthony Zinni, then an assistant to the U.S. Special Envoy to Somalia, said in an interview years later, the mission entered its “most dangerous period” when the U.S. and U.N. “[got] into this quasi sort of environment of thinking we’re still doing some humanitarian and peacekeeping, peace enforcement, [and] at the same time [go] into these battles on the streets of Mogadishu.” Political leaders in the United States could not resolve these questions for themselves, let alone for the American people.

Despite the increasing military operations tempo from nation building and the hunt for Aidid, the Clinton administration cut back U.S. resources as congressional pressure mounted to bring home U.S. troops. Thus, mission and resources were disconnected. Amid those cutbacks, U.S. commanders in Somalia requested armored vehicles, tanks, and AC-130 gunships fearing increasing danger to U.S. personnel. Secretary of Defense Les Aspin rejected those requests citing U.S. policy to reduce troop presence in Somalia.

American troops paid the price for Aspin’s decision. Instead of an AC-130 fixed-wing gunship flying out of range of rocket-propelled grenades with its powerful and highly-accurate cannon suppressing enemy resistance, helicopters were the only available aerial asset and were forced to fly low and slow over enemy-infested buildings in broad daylight. Black Hawk Down author Mark Bowden said in 2002 that it is likely there would not have been a battle in Mogadishu had the AC-130 been available. As a U.S. convoy attempted to get wounded troops back to base, their lightly armored Humvees were torn up by small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades. Heavy casualties in the convoy delayed return to the airport and cost lives.

U.S. strategy was confused and its objectives unclear. Resources did not match the strategy and made American casualties more likely. When strategic confusion met American fatalities, whatever political will was left to remain in Somalia collapsed.

The United States has repeated these mistakes since Black Hawk Down and is in danger of doing so again. The polls consistently reflect that the American people do not understand the strategic rationale behind the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan. The war goes on, but it is not clear that the resources necessary to achieve something resembling victory (an endstate that has gone woefully underdefined in Afghanistan) were ever given to our warfighters. But in Afghanistan, rather than the panicked outrage that led to withdrawal from Somalia, the American people have essentially ignored Afghanistan, and U.S. leadership has been content to quietly wage the war out of their view.

Also consider that if it had not been for a sudden diplomatic turn of events, the United States was on the verge of conducting some kind of military operation in Syria amid conflict, confusion, and contradiction about strategy and objectives. Was this about chemical weapons? A humanitarian crisis? Assad? Iran? And what could military action do to further U.S. objectives? It's no wonder the American public opposed military strikes in Syria overwhelmingly. 

Learn From Mistakes, Don’t Obsess Over Them

There were mistakes made in Mogadishu, but one of the lessons of Black Hawk Down is that the United States cannot allow past mistakes or the fear of repeating them to numb our leaders into inaction.

Only a week after the Black Hawk Down incident, the USS Harlan County carrying military medics, engineers, and civil affairs officers was headed for Port-au-Prince, Haiti in support of a U.N. mission. An angry mob of 50-200 lightly armed men gathered to intimidate the ship and prevent it from docking. That small show of force was enough for a decision to be taken at the National Security Council level to remove the ship. The United States sailed away from Haiti.

In 1994, as many as 1,000,000 Rwandans were systematically butchered mostly by machete in the space of 100 days. Classified documents released in 2004 revealed that the Clinton administration knew of a “final solution to eliminate all Tutsis” well in advance of the genocide. But the United States did nothing. President Clinton himself has cited the “reaction from Black Hawk Down” as one of the primary motivators in his decision not to intervene – a decision he has said is his greatest regret and could have saved as many as 300,000 lives.

In 1995, the United States resisted calls to insert U.S. ground troops into the Bosnian Civil War, instead choosing to rely on airpower to protect U.N.-designated “safe areas.” One of those protected enclaves was the town of Srebrenica. Despite its safe status, Bosnian Serbs bypassed 400 Dutch peacekeepers and captured the town in July 1995. As the United States watched from the air, every fighting age male was killed in an organized series of executions and buried in mass graves.

Twenty years later, the “Mogadishu effect” has been replaced by the “shadow of Iraq.” The Iraq war is surely an example that should give Americans pause before becoming involved in another military conflict. But the recent example of Syria suggests we are dangerously close to overlearning the lessons of that war. Intervention skeptics could not accept even the most basic of U.S. intelligence findings, no matter how many sources may have verified them. Even when Iraq War opponents President Obama and Secretary Kerry presented such information, the level of distrust was enormous. Despite the fact that there were no calls for troops on the ground in Syria, intervention skeptics seemed to treat the eventual introduction of ground forces as a given.

What kind of shadow will Iraq cast if the United States is confronted with a nuclear Iran? Will the legacy of past mistakes prevent the United States from taking necessary steps to confront this threat?

For years after Mogadishu, U.S. leadership never made an effort to systematically address the American public’s fear of another Black Hawk Down. Twenty years later, U.S. leadership must work to ensure that the fear of another Iraq does not lead to another Rwanda or worse.

U.S. Special Operations Have Come a Long Way

One area in which lessons have been learned is in special operations. The Battle of Mogadishu was a “watershed moment” for the U.S. special operations community, says Linda Robinson, a senior international policy analyst at RAND and a favorite expert of Special Operations chief Admiral William McRaven.

According to Robinson, Mogadishu is a sober reminder of the perils that special operations forces face as they try to balance humanitarian and military objectives in complex sociopolitical environments. Special Operations Command was just six years old in 1993 and its forces were mostly postured for hostage rescue, not manhunts or fierce urban combat. When General Zinni assessed the military intelligence available in Somalia, he noted that the U.S. lacked “the ability to penetrate the faction leaders and truly understand what they were up to, [to] understand the culture, the clan association affiliation, the power of the faction leaders, and maybe understanding some of the infrastructure.”  That is exactly the kind of expertise and sophistication that has been honed by today’s special operators, veterans of a decade of village stability operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Special operators have become students of culture, language, and politics as much as practitioners of special weapons tactics.

Robinson has written a new book One Hundred Victories: Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare. In the book, she forecasts that special operators will increasingly work alongside allied partners to prevent situations like Somalia from ever emerging – combatting terrorists, insurgents, and transnational criminals through training and support. But Robinson warns that because of the bin Laden raid, there is still a widely-held perception shared even by some in the policy community that special operators are merely search-and-destroy teams. Though the special operations community shares no such illusion, Robinson says there is a risky temptation among policymakers to “individualize” special operations missions like was done in Somalia with Mohamed Farrah Aidid. Not only did the decision to focus on Aidid distract from other objectives, it set the U.S. up for failure given the difficulty of tracking down a man with ample resources and home field advantage.

Twenty years later, the lessons of Mogadishu offer important lessons that are still relevant for protecting Americans when they are sent into battle. Here's hoping we take the time to learn them.

Dustin Walker is the Editor of RealClearDefense.

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