[The following review originally appeared on GlennFrazier.com.]
Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War, by Mark Bowden, is an in-the-streets account of the now infamous seventh mission of Task Force Ranger and Delta Force in Mogadishu, Somalia. Militarily, the mission was a success; politically, it was a disaster.
Black Hawk Down was recently released as a major motion picture. I haven’t (yet) seen the film, but even to those who have I strongly suggest reading this book. In addition to being made as a movie, an even earlier version of this book appeared as a series of articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Additionally, there is a “companion documentary” (Somalia: Good Intentions, Deadly Results), a shorter version of which has appeared on CNN. Of course, the most famous media related to this story is the news footage of the dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets by angry mobs; second to that would be the image of Black Hawk pilot Mike Durant’s smashed face in the video made of him by his captors. Both of these are around; if you really need a reminder, try Google.
In the 1990′s, the United States found itself in three separate conflicts in (at least partially) Muslim lands. The Gulf War was a conventional military venture, the UN missions in the former Yugoslavia represented a basic—albeit convoluted—peace-keeping venture. The nation-building force in Somalia after the initial famine-busting mission heavily involved special operations. The first sent ripples among the military theorists of nations across the world; the second involved the civilizationally odd American preference to support the Muslim community over that of Orthodox and Western forces; the third was seen as a victory of sorts by Third Worlders and Islamists who drew from it the lesson that America could be shocked into backing out of a conflict. Understanding each of these conflicts—militarily, politically, and culturally—is important to understanding this greater conflict we are now in. Black Hawk Down does much to shed light on the personal and tactical elements in the Somlian campaign’s bloodiest battle.
While Mark Bowden is a journalist and is quite clear about saying he has no background or experience in combat tactics, covert operations, military strategy, etc., this book is very illuminating. Since the book’s publication, Bowden has been invited to address the Military Operations Research Society, the U.S. Military Academy (West Point) the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (Ft. Leavenworth), and the Central Intelligence Agency. The book been personally recommended by the U.S. Marine Corps commandant and is part of the mandatory reading curriculum at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.
So how did this journalist write something that garnered so much respect among military professionals? Quite simply, he tells the soldiers’ tales and he tells them straight. The political backdrop, the larger strategic military picture, the command decisions made outside of Mog—these he treats lightly and only as much as needed to provide context for the first-hand accounts of the Americans and Somalis that were actually there. This is a street-level, blow-by-blow narrative of some of the most intense combat American forces have faced since the Vietnam War, and nearly every word of it is drawn either from interviews with combatants, from transcripts of radio traffic, or from video footage shot by U.S. military personnel.
I read this book over Memorial Day weekend this year. It was extremely appropriate. Overall I really enjoyed this book and feel I’ve learned quite a bit from the experience. I had already read a shorter account of overlapping events—from the CIA perspective—written by Vernon Loeb for the Washington Post, titled “After Action Report“, but this book fills in details that the other perspective lacked. (At the same time, I strongly recommend you read “After Action Report” as well.) I’ve heard criticisms of the film that said it was often hard to tell one character from another; I could say the same for the book. At the same time, the sense of confusion that sometimes creeps into the narrative is, in fact, a natural consequence of the fact that this is combat, as experienced by modern soldiers. By the time you complete the book, you’ll have enough information to get a remarkably complete picture of the “Battle of the Black Sea”; while in the midst of it, though, you may well find yourself flipping back through the book to remind yourself which unit and which part of the city you are currently reading about.
All in all, this is a book well worth reading, and have added it to my Warblogger’s Bookshelf. It is an insight into the terrible human experience of modern warfare, set within a significant series of events whose importance were not fully understood in their own time. If it were fiction, I’d say it was a brilliant, thrilling “page turner”; it, however, is not. It is the story of a handful of American soldiers who really lived and (some of them) died, often in stunningly heroic ways. To understand a part of what emboldened enemies such as Al Qaeda, to learn what modern unconventional combat can be like, to renew your faith in the courage and skill of the folks in America’s armed forces, read this book. You can buy it now at Amazon.com.