It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting the ultimate practitioner.
-Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
Now that moviegoers have had a chance to see the (largely well-executed) Hollywood version of the Battle of the Black Sea in Somalia in the 90s in Black Hawk Down, maybe a closer examination of how the U.S. got there (and got out), along with the larger foreign policy ramifications, will merit more attention.
That sounds ludicrous, but we live in an era where nobody studies history and an entire generation has picked up what little they know of Vietnam from Oliver Stone.
Ironically, the soldiers interviewed by Mark Bowden for the book (the basis for the film) repeatedly characterized the battle scenes they experienced as being "like a movie" - which was the only experience some of the young Rangers (some still in their teens) had of war.
One thing's clear: the prospect of prolonged military engagement is still greeted with tremendous rancor by the boomer generation - which now (by and large) runs most of the country, and which remembers Vietnam very specifically, because it came into our living rooms as the first televised conflict, and because most of us are old enough to know a veteran who was there.
As Colin Powell has pointed out, the death of fewer than 20 soldiers (as occurred in Mogadishu) wouldn't have even merited a press release in the Vietnam era.
Somalia transcends partisan politics.
The Bush Administration was responsible for U.S. entry into Somalian civil war, as part of a larger humanitarian mission to end a politically-sponsored, man-made famine. Warring factions, clans, and warlords were using starvation as a weapon.
Task Force Ranger came later - at least partially a military effort to remove Mohamed Farrah Aidid from power - the purported goal of that being an end to civil war, and the establishment of peace and democracy.
Though this military entry was sponsored by the Clinton Administration, it was vigorously lobbied for by Admiral Jonathan Howe, a former member of the National Security Council (under George Bush), and the top UN guy on the ground in Somalia.
In 1993, the capital city of Mogadishu was looted and poverty stricken. Famine relief efforts had helped, but people were still starving, and the humanitarian food supply from outside was still being interrupted by warlords. Most Somalis were unemployed. Indoor plumbing was nonexistent. There was no working sanitation or trash-removal system (holes were dug in the street). Islam was one of the country's few uniting factors.
When the Marines pulled out in the spring of 93, leaving only a nominal UN force behind, things got worse. In June, Pakistani troops were (arguably) massacred by Aidid; he was labeled an outlaw and thrown out of the UN's "nation building" process.
UN forces proved themselves remarkably inept at tracking and capturing outlaws - a point worth remembering.
By July, an attack was approved that might capture key clan leaders. Somalis died, but when four journalists covering that attack were killed by a Somali mob, Somalia finally made the news.
Task Force Ranger (including a Delta team) showed up on August 23, 1993.
Give or take a few weeks, that's more or less where the movie picks up - chronicling the October conflict (18 U.S. soldiers lost) that led to a full withdrawal of military force.
The U.S. learned a lot of very specific tactical lessons from the battle, but they're all the luxury of 20/20 hindsight armchair soldiering, as Bowden reports in great detail.
General William Garrison didn't have an appropriate contingency for one Black Hawk down, much less two. But the Black Hawk is built to maintain flight after sustaining extensive damage, with no oil. They're just not invincible. He proceeded without QRF-requested AC130 gunship and armored vehicles, but the military would never launch a mission if they waited until they got every resource they asked for. That artillery wasn't part of the Ranger's plan that day. And while the book (and the movie) suggests that there was considerable infighting between Delta and Ranger leadership that could've contributed to ineffective combat -the assets of each were unique, and integral.
One of the most tragic lessons learned, later, as Bowden reports (while there's justifiably no room for it in the movie version), is that "Aidid's men [had] received some expert guidance in shooting down helicopters from fundamentalist Islamic soldiers who had experience fighting Russian helicopters in Afghanistan."
From them, they learned how to successfully launch an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) that could disable and possibly crash a Black Hawk helicopter.
The Afghanis had learned this, of course, at the feet of the world's greatest military superpower, after Reagan pledged all available resources to their war against Russia.
Almost before the heat of battle had cooled in Mogadishu, U.S. troops were quickly and unceremoniously withdrawn. It became, arguably, Clinton's Bay of Pigs.
Raising at least some question about why we were there, and once U.S. troops were committed, why would we leave before the mission was accomplished? (A criticism that's very fairly leveled at Clinton - but it's the exact same criticism leveled at Bush post-Desert Storm.)
Bowden, quoting Powell, makes it clear that the U.S. never had any reasonable expectation that Somalia would break out in "full-fledged Jeffersonian Democracy" and he cites an unnamed state department official as saying "here you have a country where just about everybody is caught up in hatred and fighting. [They] don't want peace. They want victory. They want power"
And with Aidid now dead, conditions in Somalia have not improved. The Habr Gidr clan is still a force.
The other larger issue that Bowden captures expertly is the U.S.'s discomfort level with our post-Cold War status.
He asks in an Afterword, "As the world's only military superpower, should we stand by and let terrible human tragedies unfold?"
And though the question is naive, his willingness to wrestle it is laudable.
Most people don't.
Just as most didn't question our post World War I isolationism or our absence in the League of Nations (which crippled it), allowing Germany to re-arm. Most everybody swallowed appeasement. Just as they embraced WWII involvement, post Pearl Harbor. To be sure, Hiroshima and Nagasaki sparked a few questions, but then the U.S. settled right into the role of Global Policeman (Korea, the Bay of Pigs), but by Vietnam, television had changed the playing field as to what would and wouldn't be tolerated. The threat of mutual annihilation gave many the illusion of safety during the Cold War, but once Russia imploded, caving in on itself, outward threats to national safety only grew more real.
Because, who have we armed along the way?
The enemy of your enemy isn't necessarily your friend; it's a critical mistake in foreign policy to believe that he is.