Today marks a quarter century since Operation Gothic Serpent, otherwise known as the Black Hawk Down incident, began in Mogadishu, Somalia. I’m a big fan of both the film and book covering this event, and I highly recommend them to anyone looking for a good war story. Despite being 17 years old, the movie still holds up well. However, there is a lot of misinformation and mythology surrounding the events of Oct. 3-4, 1993, and this is to some degree magnified by the simplistic narratives conveyed both in textbooks and popular media (including the aforementioned film). Edward Chang has published a piece in RCD debunking some of these notions, and I recommend it to everyone with an interest in the topic. Some of my favorite parts are quoted below, but do read the whole thing!
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).
I think this is an important point for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that Gothic Serpent wasn’t a one-off; even inferior forces can inflict significant losses on technologically and qualitatively superior armies. I think many Americans have some extremely naive views about how powerful the U.S. military is. They aren’t wrong about the quality of Americans soldiers and equipment, they are literally second to none, but that does not at all mean that combat is easy or straightforward. The Pollyanish faith that many Americans have in quick, easy military solutions is disheartening, and it reveals a profound level of ignorance. Second, and perhaps more interestingly, the fact that previous helicopter losses went largely ignored demonstrates the power of contingency and narrative. Why do some losses elicit no reaction while others generate loud calls for withdrawal? I’m not sure, as these things are highly context dependent. Nonetheless, it is crucial to remember that much of public opinion is shaped by powerful narratives and chance, not objective fact.
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.
Again, I see two lessons here. First, most battles aren’t won or lost because of one variable (for example, the lack of armor). This does not mean, of course, that a greater number of heavy vehicles at the outset wouldn’t have made a significant difference, but it does suggest that simplistic counterfactual narratives are, well, simplistic. It’s always easy for armchair strategists to criticize after the fact, but their insights are often less than revolutionary. The other lesson to take away is just how important multinational forces are in supporting U.S. efforts. This is obvious, of course, but often underappreciated. In this case, when things started going south, it was Malaysians and Pakistanis who risked their lives, and in some cases died, to save American forces. This happens all the time. Indeed, just recently French aircraft scrambled to support U.S. special forces under attack in West Africa. For all the America First people out there, it would probably do you some good to realize just how much help and support the U.S. receives from other countries even in areas where it is dominant.
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.
I think this fact undercuts some of the claims made about U.S. war-weariness. As Chang notes later, there were clear calls for withdrawal after the Gothic Serpent fiasco, but this did not necessarily mean that the U.S. was going to pull out while one of its soldiers was being held captive. A lot of dictators have made some extremely stupid assumptions about America’s willingness to absorb losses. Somalia offers mixed lessons here. On the one hand, the catastrophic failure on the third and fourth of October definitely put pressure on key leaders to pull out. On the other hand, the U.S. was very clearly willing to escalate massively, and probably suffer losses, in order to rescue Durant. Casualty aversion is definitely real, of course, but it is highly contingent on circumstances.