What You May Not Know About 'Black Hawk Down'
The 2001 blockbuster war film Black Hawk Down depicted a battle largely forgotten upon the movie’s release. Being released in the wake of 9/11 also gave it an extra dose of significance it might not have held otherwise. The battle occupies a special place in American military history, a legendary status among other post-Cold War military engagements that struggle to gain recognition in the public eye.
The price paid for recognition, however, is that the story becomes a legend that takes on a life of its own. It goes on an unscripted journey, ending up in a place well-removed from where it began. Consequently, the public often appreciates the wrong story or only a part of it. 25 years after the Battle of Mogadishu and 17 years after the film’s release, what the public believes it knows about Black Hawk Down, if not entirely inaccurate, isn’t the whole story.
Dramatic retellings are, of course, entitled to take creative license with a true story. This piece doesn’t contest such alterations. Nor are any of these facts “untold” – they are widely available in various books on the battle. Instead, this piece aims to correct some widely-held assumptions about the battle and reveal some lesser-known facts that have the potential to alter public perception of the Battle of Mogadishu.
There was a Black Hawk down before ‘Black Hawk Down’
The loss of the two Black Hawk helicopters during the October 3 battle shocked Americans, but it shouldn’t have. A week before, in an incident that inexplicably went unnoticed by the public, the Somalis shot down a UH-60 on September 25 via rocket-propelled grenade (RPG), killing three crewmembers. This Black Hawk didn’t belong to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment of Task Force Ranger (TFR), but instead to the 101st Airborne Division, which had attached its choppers to the 10th Mountain Division, deployed to Somalia as the Quick Reaction Force (QRF). The incident should have raised alarm bells, but it did not, even among the pilots of the 160th, who believed their superior tactics and training versus that of the conventionally-trained aircrews would enable to them to escape such a fate.
The incident marked the first loss of a helicopter during the war and was a major propaganda victory for the Somali National Alliance (SNA), the primary belligerent facing off against the United Nations (UN) forces. It foreshadowed the horrors to come.
The 10th Mountain Division played a key role in both the battle and the broader war
The film depicts the Battle of Mogadishu as being fought largely by Army Rangers and Delta Force. While not inaccurate, the 10th Mountain Division played a significant role in the October 3 – 4 battle, as well as the larger UN intervention, one not as well-appreciated. In fact, by the time TFR deployed to Somalia, the 10th Mountain had already been engaged in combat on a number of occasions.
One battle is indicative of the Fort Drum-based light infantry unit’s experience in-country. Early morning September 13, a two-company force executed a cordon-and-search mission to find a mortar site and weapons cache not far from the 10th Mountain’s headquarters. During the raid, the U.S. troops detained 50 men believed to be militia, but it’d also attracted the attention of hostile Somalis who began to box in the Americans. As the 10th Mountain attempted to leave, they came under fire from gunfire and RPGs. Complicating matters was the presence of civilians, which made it difficult for the soldiers to return fire. Air support and bigger guns were brought to bear, allowing the Americans to escape without suffering casualties, while the Somalis claimed to have lost between 25 and 60 fighters.
Then, on October 3, the 10th Mountain QRF was dispatched to the second crash site. Though heavily-armed and comprising a convoy 17 vehicles-strong, it collided with stiff resistance at the K-4 traffic circle and became bogged down in a half-hour-long firefight. At one point, the QRF requested air support from AH-1 Cobra gunships, but even this wasn’t enough to break through. Eventually, the QRF had to retreat to TFR’s garrison at the airport and, hopefully, assemble an even bigger force, this time including armor, to plow its way into a Mogadishu that had become akin to a wasp’s nest.
The rescue convoy endured a treacherous journey
The lack of armor is often cited as a contributing factor to the losses endured by TFR. While there is truth to this, it doesn’t change the fact the opposition faced was often overwhelming. The ordeal of the multinational convoy that rescued the troops at the first crash site is instructive. Despite being nearly two miles long, filled with Malaysian Condor APCs and Pakistani tanks, and supported from the air by Black Hawks and Cobras, the sheer ferocity and number of Somali fighters caused major problems for the rescue force.
In the face of the opposition, the cohesion of the convoy fell apart, as vehicles separated in panic. The lead APC was struck by an RPG, killing the Malaysian driver and forcing the occupants out onto the street. The U.S. and Malaysian troops aboard the first two vehicles disembarked and set up a defensive perimeter and faced fierce opposition, only to be stranded by the rest of the convoy. Eventually, the group had to move out on foot, ultimately linking up with the remainder of the rescue force. Two of the 18 Americans killed during the battle belonged to this “lost platoon” – James Martin died on-scene, while Cornell Houston died later at a military hospital in Germany. Neither death was depicted in the film.
The film’s depiction of the rescue convoy ignores this experience, all but implying it waltzed its way through Mogadishu. This is unfortunate, given the casualties inflicted, along with their courageous and, ultimately, successful attempt to rescue the surrounded. It proves the outcome of the battle was truly a multinational effort and would have been direr if not for the contributions of hundreds of soldiers whose names and faces may never appear on the silver screen.
The ‘Mogadishu Mile’ never happened
At least, not the way the movie depicted. While a number of soldiers had to move on foot from the crash site to safety, it wasn’t all the way to the soccer stadium being used as a rallying point, which comprised a distance in excess of a mile.
Instead, the “Mogadishu Mile” was the distance covered by the troops moving on foot opposite the direction of the stadium to a rendezvous point where APCs, tanks, and other vehicles were waiting to exfiltrate the soldiers. There was also little running – the group moved tactically, utilizing cover and stopping as necessary, for running out in the open as shown in the film would have exposed them to attack, as well as exhaustion, given the fact the soldiers had been fighting for over 12 hours by this point and were suffering from dehydration, fatigue, and, for some, injuries.
The Somali death toll was catastrophic
Owing to many factors, including the disparity in firepower, the Somali resistance can only be described as a tactical failure. Estimates vary widely, ranging from 200 up to the low-thousands, including non-combatants. However many were killed directly by the battle, the likelihood is that the ultimate death toll was higher than in the immediate aftermath – Third World living conditions and a lack of medical care ensured many more would die in the days to come.
Somali casualties also revealed the disturbing extent to which the SNA were willing to take losses, even in the face of what they likely perceived as overwhelming force. The entire U.S. intervention in Somalia was, in a sense, a textbook example of quantity counterbalancing quality. Unless the U.S. and UN were willing to exert even higher levels of firepower upon the enemy, thereby increasing the risk of collateral damage, the interventionist forces were at both a tactical and strategic disadvantage, especially in a conflict with no clear frontlines or distinctions between combatants and non-combatants.
After the battle, the Clinton administration threatened to escalate the conflict
Michael Durant, the lone survivor of the second Black Hawk that was overrun by Somalis, was captured and held prisoner for 11 days. Robert Oakley, Special Envoy to Somalia, issued a rather blunt ultimatum to Durant’s captors while negotiating his release, stating:
…there’s going to be a fight with your people. The minute the guns start again, all restraint on the U.S. side goes. Just look at the stuff coming in here now. An aircraft carrier, tanks, gunships… the works. Once the fighting starts, all this pent-up anger is going to be released. This whole part of the city will be destroyed…”
The White House backed up the threat with the deployment of a mechanized infantry unit – including Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles – an additional 10th Mountain battalion, AC-130 Spectre gunships, a new special ops team, and the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier battle group. UNITAF had more firepower than ever before at its disposal, and the president had bluntly expressed a willingness to use it if Durant was not released immediately.
How serious the Clinton administration was about escalation is a different matter. As reinforcements were deployed, Washington had already settled upon withdrawal. There was considerable political and public pressure to wrap up things in Somalia and another battle, even for the sole purpose of rescuing an American servicemember, would have complicated matters even further. Fortunately, the Somali warlords took Oakley’s threat seriously and immediately released Durant, facilitating an end to U.S. involvement in Somalia.
Edward Chang is a freelance defense, military, and foreign policy writer. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and War Is Boring.