Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War–Mark Bowden

The great Prussian Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke’s theory of war states that “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”  Time and again throughout history this adage has been tested and proven on the battlefield.   Mark Bowden proves this adage once again in his first, and best known work, Black Hawk Down.  However in 1993, the US military had gone nearly a full generation without this being true.  Previous confrontations in Grenada, Panama, and the Persian Gulf had gone like clockwork.  But all that changed in October of that year when an elite group of soldiers from the 75th Ranger Battalion and Operators from the 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, or Delta Force, came into contact with the ragtag militia of Mohammad Farrah Adid, a Somali warlord who was waging war on UN peacekeepers.  The ensuing battle was the saw some of the heaviest urban combat that the US was involved in since Vietnam and was the bloodiest engagement fought since that conflict.  In 24 hours, traditional army methods of fighting were wiped away and the ugly beast of modern urban warfare burst onto the stage.

In October 1993 the US was engaged in a peacekeeping and humanitarian mission to end the civil war in Somalia, feed its starving population, and set up a workable government.  A multinational UN force was deployed under US leadership to accomplish this task.  Standing in the way of the UN’s goals was a particularly violent warlord, Mohammad Farrah Adid.  When the main US force left Somalia in the summer of 1993 he declared war on the remaining UN forces and ambushed and killed a number of Pakistani peacekeepers.  After this incident he was made the UN’s number 1 target and Task Force Ranger, made up of elements from the 75th Ranger Battalion, Delta, and 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment were deployed with the express objective of removing Adid.  Task Force Ranger went about this mission with gusto, raiding and searching all over the Somali capital Mogadishu for Adid.

After 6 raids to capture high value targets within the Adid organization, Task Force Ranger mounted another raid on October 3, 1993 to capture Adid’s number 2 man.  This raid proved fateful.  The raid itself was a success.  Delta operators hit the target house and captured several high value targets.  However, the raid soon ran into problems.  Ranger units that were providing security for the Delta operators found themselves under withering fire from Adid’s militia.  The reason for this was the target house was in the center of the Bakara Market, an Adid stronghold, and was thus crawling with Adid militia.  To add to the problem of coming under fire in a very hostile part of town, the prisoners, Delta operators, and Rangers were supposed to be driven out of the Bakara Market in the backs of trucks and Humvees.

From almost the first moment the Rangers touched down, they found themselves taking casualties.  One Ranger fell out of a helicopter and required immediate evacuation.  This was done using vehicles from the extraction convoy, taking away resources and vehicles.  To add to the concerns on the ground getting the convoy out intact, a Black Hawk Helicopter was shot down within the first 30 minutes of the operation’s commencement.  This incident caused the US forces to lose the initiative.  The ground convoy’s mission was changed from returning the prisoners to the US base to getting to the crash site to set up security and extract survivors.  Due to the nature of the streets in Mogadishu, the convoy became lost and continued to take heavy casualties forcing it to return to base.  Ranger and Delta elements proceeded on the ground from the target house to the crash site.  Only some of the Rangers and Delta operators were able to make it the 3 blocks to the actual crash site due to the ferocity of the fight.  The remainder of the troops on the ground were forced to take up positions along the roads and in buildings near the crash site.  The Rangers and Delta operators were pinned down and taking heavy casualties for the next 15 hours.

During this time, a second Black Hawk was shot down and crashed about half a mile from the target house.  Due to the area of the city the helicopter crashed in and the fact that all US resources were focused on securing the first crash site, there were no troops to go to the second crash site.  When it became apparent that there was no one to secure the second crash site, 2 Delta operators were inserted into the second crash site and held the Somalis at bay for several hours.  This action led to the 2 operators, Gary Gordon and Randy Shugart, being awarded the first Medals of Honor since Vietnam.  Both died attempting to save the crew of the second Black Hawk.  The pilot, Mike Durrant, was captured by Adid’s militia and held for 2 weeks before being released.

It finally took a joint Pakistani, Malay, and US armored column to extract the Rangers and Delta operators from the first crash site.  The column stopped at the first crash site and waited until the body of the pilot was retrieved.  When all US forces were finally extracted, 18 Rangers and Delta operators were dead and nearly 75 wounded out of an initial force of 99.

Mark Bowden is one of the premier writers of long form journalism.  Black Hawk Down was Mark Bowden’s first book.  Ironically, it was, and still is, the preeminent source on the battle in Mogadishu.  Bowden’s gift is in his ability to tell a fast paced suspenseful story that is true.  At times the sheer volume of information in the book is a bit overwhelming.  There are over 100 characters profiled and the perspective shifts freely from omnipotent viewer to the street level.  This can be confusing at times since there is so much going on it is hard to keep all the information straight.  The story is not told in a chronological fashion.  It is told as it happens.  Black Hawk Down stands as a classic in military history.  Anyone who wants to understand the nature of modern war should read it and it’s a must read for all military officers and leaders.

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