In December, 1992, 25,000 American soldiers entered Somalia to distribute food to its starving people.
At first, all seemed to be going well.
In the beginning, it was U.S. policy to avoid taking sides in the civil war or picking fights with Somali warlords. The Somalis believed the American troops were neutral and welcomed them everywhere.
But then what began as a humanitarian mission turned into a nation-building one.
Mohammed Farrah Aidid, the most powerful of Somalia’s warlords, had ruled Mogadishu, its capital, before the Marines arrived.
Mohammed Farrah Aidid
Aidid waited until the Marines withdrew–in April, 1993–and then declared war on the small remaining force of United Nations (U.N.) peacekeepers.
In June, his militia ambushed and butchered 24 U.N. peacekeepers. Soon afterward, they began targeting American personnel.
On June 12, U.S. troops started attacking targets in Mogadishu in hopes of finding Aidid.
On August 26th, a U.S. Army task force flew into Mogadishu. It consisted of 440 elite troops from Army Rangers and the super-secret anti-terrorist Delta Force.
On October 3rd, 17 helicopters took off from their base at the Mogadishu airport–into the heart of Aidid’s territory. An intelligence tip claimed that Aidid would meet with 20 of his top lieutenants at the nearby Olympic Hotel.
Their mission: Capture Aidid.
The force of 115 men expected the operation to last 90 minutes. They would not return for 17 hours.
After roping down from their helicopters, the Rangers sealed off the streets around the Olympic Hotel.
A 12-truck convoy arrived to drive them and their prisoners back to base. Delta Force soldiers led 20 of Aidid’s lieutenants out of the target building.
But Aidid was not among them.
Suddenly, one of the Black Hawk helicopters circling overheard was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, spun out of control and crashed.
Not long after, a second Black Hawk was shot down. More men were sent in to secure the crash sites and get the soldiers out. But the rescue team itself got pinned down.
For about 18 hours, outnumbered elite U.S. soldiers were pinned down in a hail of gunfire by thousands of Somali militia and civilians.
Helicopters flew in fresh ammunition and strafed Somali gunmen. Meanwhile, 70 vehicles–including tanks and armored personnel carriers–raced to the trapped men.
The vehicles arrived and the Rangers and Delta Force soldiers climbed aboard.
The Red Cross later estimated that 1,000 Somalis had been killed.
As for American casualties: 18 were dead; more than 80 were wounded; one was temporarily taken prisoner.
In 2001, the film, Black Hawk Down, would vividly depict this nightmarish catastrophe..
For most Americans watching TV from the safety of their homes, the worst loss was this: Seeing the body of an American soldier dragged by cheering Somalis through the streets of Mogadishu.
It was the worst land battle for American troops since the Vietnam War. And it had immediate consequences.
Within days, President Bill Clinton decided to withdraw troops from Somalia and abandon the hunt for Aidid. Most humiliating of all, American representatives were sent to resume negotiations with the warlord.
Today, almost 21 years after the disaster in Somalia, a conflict exists between gung-ho interventionist American policymakers and their war-weary–and wary–populace.
Republicans have been especially hawkish. They have demanded that President Barack Obama send “boots on the ground” to
- Iraq (as if America’s 10-year debacle there wasn’t long enough)
- Afghanistan (where its nominal president, Hamid Karzai, insists on the right to try American soldiers in Islamic courts of law)
- Syria (where a civil war now pits two of America’s greatest enemies–Al Qaeda and Hizbollah–against each other); and
- Ukraine (where a confrontation between American and Russian military forces could easily trigger a third world war between nuclear-armed superpowers)
A May 2 exchange between Judy Woodruff and Mark Shields on the PBS Newshour captures this division in philosophies:
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, one of the other things the Democrats are worried about… is the administration, the president’s standing on foreign policy….
And the president himself, Mark, held a news conference overseas in the last few days and talked about the criticism and said, what do they want me to do?
You know, we have been in these wars and are they saying, we should do more? And they say no. Well, what should we do?
MARK SHIELDS: The fact is that we’re operating in a reality of the last decade of this country, in the sense that the majority of Americans believing that we were deceived and misled into war in Iraq, that whatever one calls our experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, they will not be seen as successes.
And they are not viewed that way, and, at the same time, an American people who were essentially spared any involvement in that war, any of those wars, who have just really sort of soured on American involvement in the world.
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Right now, many Americans feel good that “we’re doing something” about the abduction of Nigerian teenagers.
But elation will quickly turn to outrage if American soldiers once again become needless casualties in yet another avoidable conflict with yet another ruthless African warlord.