A peacekeeping mission gone wrong

BLACK HAWK DOWN By Mark Bowden Atlantic Monthly Press 386 pp., $24

In early October 1993, I received an angry telephone call from officials at Fort Jackson, S.C. Distraught over the publication of photographs showing Somali hordes defiling the bodies of dead American soldiers, some Fort Jackson officers immediately canceled subscriptions to The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., where I was a rookie military reporter.

Little more than two years after the United States' giddy victory in the Persian Gulf, it seemed the chaotic New World Order had brought us back, however briefly, to the unpleasantness of Vietnam.

Strange thing was, the deadly, Vietnam-like firefight that generated the ghastly images in Mogadishu was soon forgotten. While average Americans, and distraught military officials, were stunned by the peacekeeping mission gone wrong, the incident soon faded from the public's mind.

Perplexed by the story's descent into obscurity, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mark Bowden set out to retell the story of a mission gone wrong. Originally published in a driving serial narrative in his newspaper in 1997, "Black Hawk Down" is now a book that reconstructs the grim 15-hour battle in the streets of Mogadishu.

Bowden's work recalls the epic Vietnam narrative "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young" (1992), a gripping account of a US Army battalion during the Ia Drang Valley battle in 1965. That bloody, coming-of-age fight taught the North Vietnamese how to counter America's daunting technological might.

The parallels to "Black Hawk Down" are evident. The book offers reminders that satellites, night-vision goggles, and high-tech gunships are nice to have but can't guarantee success in a cruel city whose culture we don't understand.

In one ferocious day of fighting six years ago, 18 Americans and an estimated 500 Somalis died in unrelenting urban Armageddon. Despite the best of intentions and plans, America's elite warriors learned a timeless lesson of war. What can go wrong does, and some people die.

Bowden recounts the hunt for warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, the downing of two Army Black Hawk helicopters, and the rescue attempt in uncommonly clear detail. His words are spare and telling:

"To kill Rangers, you had to make them stand and fight. The answer was to bring down a helicopter. Part of the Americans' false superiority, their unwillingness to die, meant they would do anything to protect each other, things that were courageous but also sometimes foolhardy.

"Aidid and his lieutenants knew that if they could bring down a chopper, the Rangers would move in to protect its crew."

Bowden provides this description of Corp. Jamie Smith, an Army Ranger gravely wounded in the battle: "Smith was now asking the medic to tell his parents and family goodbye and to tell them that he had been thinking of them as he died, and that he loved them. They said prayers together."

Despite Bowden's many gifts as a storyteller, the book has minor flaws. It would have been nice to have fewer characters to follow as the battle unfolds - there are literally dozens. And the writer could have placed Mogadishu and the battle in better historical context. Perhaps a bit more of David Halberstam - adding social texture by describing the post-Persian Gulf military - would have helped.

But those shortcomings are small and don't detract from what Bowden has done. One day soon, his book may join "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young" as required reading for military officers. For the rest of us, hungering to understand the world of one superpower and the forces swirling around it, it might also be required.

*Dave Moniz covers the military for The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.

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