Black Hawk Down

Weekender

By THOMAS HUKAHU
HOW did you go with your reading this year? Did you read many books, if at all? Which one was the most interesting that you read?
Incidentally, the book that may close the year for me is a non-fiction, Black Hawk Down (1999) by Mark Bowden. I completed the book on Dec 10. A week before that I completed a crime novel and then started on Bowden’s bestselling piece.
Yes, I think you all have seen the 2001 movie by the same name, which is based on the book.
I must have first seen the two and a half hour film in 2004 and have re-watched it numerous times, going over and over some of my favourite scenes in the feature film.
The general summary
The book (in fact, a minute-by-minute account) details a raid that personnel from the elite armed forces of the United States conducted in Mogadishu, Somalia, on Oct3, 1993, which was a Sunday afternoon. The aim of the mission was to capture warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s two top lieutenants who were in a meeting in the building not too far from the teeming Bakara Market. The raid has been named the Battle of Mogadishu and has an important part in US Army history where US soldiers were engaged in one of the fiercest firefights unlike any other since the war in Vietnam, where ground forces and helicopters were involved.
Soldiers in the raid included Special Forces operators with the Delta Force (dubbed the D-boys), the US Army Rangers and US Navy SEALs. The four SEALs, from the now popular Team Six unit, were part of the team that were in the Humvees (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle) that were in the convoy of vehicles that would ferry prisoners and the Delta and Ranger personnel back to base after the raid. The joint operation – named Task Force Ranger – was headed by former Delta operator Major-General William F Garrison.
As seen in film, the D-boys were to storm the house in which Aidid’s top officers were occupying, while the four Ranger teams (called Chalk 1, 2, 3 and 4 respectively) were to seal off the four corners of the perimeter of the building. A convoy of Humvees and trucks would come from the US Army Headquarters set up three miles (4.5km) at Mogadishu Airport situated to the southwest, near the coast. The trucks will collect the prisoners captured and assault team members (the D-boys) and support team (Ranger Chalk units) and take them all back to base.
The plan was that simple and straight forward.
The D-boys were inserted in or near the target building by MH-6 Little bird helicopters and the Ranger chalks would rope down from four MH-60L Black Hawk choppers. Four AH-Little Birds – equipped with guns and rockets – provided aerial fire support as well as crew chiefs and Delta snipers on Black Hawks.
As seen in the film, things went wrong even before the US soldiers were fired upon by Somali militia, as when Ranger Private First Class Todd Blackburn fell off while roping down a Black Hawk, as the aircraft swerved in trying to avoid an attack by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) operated the militia.
Blackburn was the baby of Chalk 4, and had just fresh out of high school and had not even been to Ranger school. Chalk 4 was then under the leadership of Sergeant Matt Eversmann (a main character in the movie), someone who was leading a chalk for the first time due to his two seniors leaving due to various reasons.
Not long afterward Blackburn’s fall, a Black Hawk was shot down and the operation which seemed successful at first, where the top brass of Aidid were rounded up, took another turn where officers from the Ranger and Delta teams were directed to secure the crash site. As the teams of Rangers and D-boys moved from the target building to the crash site, they came under heavy resistant fire and a number of them were shot and at least two killed.
It seemed like the whole of Mogadishu, a city of a million inhabitants, had swarmed upon the US soldiers with no other intention but to eliminate them. It was as if the soldiers had struck a hive of bees which was now furious and ready to sting anybody who was foreign in that neighbourhood which was situated not too far from the crowded Bakara Market.
The convoy of vehicles returning to the base also encountered heavy enemy fire and many others were killed and injured. Twenty minutes after the aircraft went down, another Black Hawk was brought down by another militia attack and that complicated the mission altogether.
What was supposed to have been a mission carried out in less than one hour and involving 19 aircraft, 12 vehicles (including nine Humvees) and 160 men lasted almost 24 hours. It was reported that 19 US soldiers were killed and 73 wounded, while hundreds or thousands of Somalians (reports unconfirmed) were killed and many more injured.
A few vehicles with a few injured soldiers including Blackburn had to return to base early in the afternoon. They came under enemy fire and suffered casualties.
The remaining vehicles got lost in trying to locate the D-boys and Rangers who had arrived at the first crash site. The convoy also suffered casualties – a few died from bullet wounds or RPG attacks. Garrison made the call to have the lost convoy return to base to avoid having more personnel in the convoy getting killed by Somali militia.
As a result of that decision 99 elite soldiers fought for their lives on that afternoon and into the night after reaching the first crash site.
It was not until the early hours of Oct 4 that the Task Force Ranger convoy of vehicles would come for the outnumbered soldiers with support from forces aiding the United Nation’s effort to help the Somalis who had suffered because of the civil war that had ravaged the country for years. Those involved in the UN’s efforts included the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division (two companies of about 300 soldiers) and Pakistani and Malaysian military personnel. The Pakistanis had tanks and Malaysians had their Condor armoured personnel carriers. Those soldiers and vehicles would provide the massive rescue team that would reach the first crash site and extract the Rangers and D-boys.
The book tells you inside stories. The good thing about the book is it tells you much more than what the film could have done – like who exactly Garrison was and how he thought as a military strategist as well as how he could coordinate personnel from different military units like the Rangers and Delta operators to work as a team despite their peculiar ways of doing things.
The book describes how different the two specialised armed units operated and were trained to accomplish missions. The Delta commandos were known to work and think as individuals whereas the younger Rangers operated under the command of their commanding officers – as if they went by the rules of a book.
As seen in the film, Captain Steele, the most senior of the Rangers and the commanding officer of the four chalks did not like the D-boys because he knew the younger Rangers could get killed if they tried to move like the commandos who were the more experienced and were often admired by the younger Rangers.
As is the case with the Special Forces units of the US military – like the Delta Force and Navy SEALs – officers who undergo special training and pass would usually have done years of service with other units of the military before applying for training with Special Forces. It is said that of every 10 officers applying for Delta Force training, only one would pass successfully and serve in the elite team of fighters, something that most young soldiers in the army of navy dream about.
The book also informs you about what was going through the minds of all sorts of soldiers, the team leaders as well as privates who were barely out of their teens.
Details of some moving scenes in the movie are described sufficiently in the book. Like, the sacrifice of the D-boys – Sgt First Class Randy Shughart and Master Sgt Gary Gordon – who were snipers on a Black Hawk who requested to be inserted at the second crash site and secure it, and in the process where killed while defending sole survivor of the crash, pilot Mike Durant.
Or, Ranger Specialist Brad Thomas who arrived at the base on the convoy that delivered Blackburn and others and hesitated going back to the city after the casualties were removed and soldiers rearmed and ready to return. It was Sgt Jeff Struecker who had taken Thomas aside and spoken to him, saying: “The difference between a coward and a hero is not whether you’re scared, it’s what you do while you are scared.”
Thomas did get onto one of the vehicles to go back and rescue his Ranger buddies.
To write the book, Bowden interviewed the soldiers who had taken part in the raid in Mogadishu, listened to recorded radioed conversations by the officers of the teams involved, interviewing military experts on tactics and ethics as well as family members of those wounded or killed in the raid.
Good read for everyone. If you are in the military or even police force, the book by freelance journalist Bowden would be an interesting read to educate one on how soldiers think and act, successfully or otherwise, when under enemy fire as well as their reactions on seeing their friends struck or killed by the bullets of an enemy.
It informs one also on the different arms different US military personnel used and for what reason, as in the case of M16s used by Rangers, and M14s and CAR (Colt Automatic Rifle) 15 used by D-boys, among others.
For anyone who is interested in reading about modern warfare, the book is good material.
Bowden has admitted that he has no military experience but learning about the research he has made (from the sources pages) to compile the material in the book, one cannot but appreciate what he had learned in the two years that he gathered information from experts for the publication.
Bowden has mentioned that it seemed America wanted to forget about the raid but what material he had amassed and wrote caused personnel in the different military units to open up to him on various issues. He was surprised too to find that there was not much in the files of the military on that raid, possibly because it was deemed a failure by some. It was as if everybody wanted to forget about the battle “which was won but the war that was lost”.
For yet other people, like those who have watched the film and want to know more about the characters portrayed in the movie, the book would be a good window into which one could look into to understand something about the lives and thoughts of those soldiers who died serving their country, or as some soldiers would like to think, merely standing up for the man next to them.

  • Basic details of the book
    Title: Black Hawk Down
    Category: Non-Fiction (Historical War)
    Author: Mark Bowden
    Year published: 1999
    Publisher: Corgi
    Pages: 570
  • Thomas Hukahu is a regular contributor to Weekender.

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