Book Review of Black Hawk Down:
The Power of the People Is Greater Than the Man's Technology

Revolutionary Worker #1010, June 13, 1999

We received this review from a comrade.

"Ali Hassan Mohamed ran to the front door of his father's hamburger and candy shop when the choppers came down and the shooting started.... Peering out the doorway, Ali saw American soldiers sliding down on ropes to the alley that ran west off Hawlwadig Road.... The Americans were shooting as soon as they hit the ground, shooting at everything. There were also Somalis shooting at them. These soldiers, Ali knew, were different than the ones who had come to feed Somalis. These were Rangers. They were cruel men who wore body armor and strapped their weapons to their chests and when they came at night they painted their faces to look fierce. Further up Hawlwadig...another group of Rangers were in pitched battle. He saw two of them drag another who looked dead out of the street.

"The Rangers across the street entered a courtyard there and were shooting out. Then a helicopter came down low and blasted streams of fire from a gun on its side. The gun just pulverized his side of the street. Ali's youngest brother, Abdulahi Hassan Mohamed, fell dead by the gate to the family's house, bleeding from the head. Abdulahi was fifteen. Ali saw it happen....

"Ali ran. He stopped to see his brother and saw his head broken open like a melon. Then he took off as fast as he could. He ran to his left, down the street away from the Rangers and the house they were attacking.... The streets were crowded with screaming women and children. People were scrambling everywhere, racing around dead people and dead animals. Some who were running ran toward the fight and others ran away from it. Some did not seem to know which way to go. He saw a woman running naked, waving her arms and screaming. Above was the din of the helicopters and all around the crisp popping of gunfire.

"Out in the streets there were already Aidid* militiamen with megaphones shouting, "Kasoobaxa guryaha oo iska celsa cadowga!" ("Come out and defend your homes!")

"Ali was not a fighter. There were gunmen, they called them mooryan, who lived for rice and khat and belonged to the private armies of rich men. Ali was just a student and part-time shopkeeper who joined the neighborhood militia to protect its shops from the mooryan. But these Rangers were invading his home and had just killed his brother. He ran with rage and the house of his friend Ahmed, where his AK-47 was hidden. Once he had retrieved the gun he met up with several of his friends. They ran back behind the Olympic Hotel, through all the chaos. Ali told them about his brother and led them back to his house and shop, determined to exact revenge.

"Hiding behind a wall behind the hotel, they fired their first shots at the Rangers on the corner. Then they moved north, ducking behind cars and buildings. Ali would jump out and spray bullets toward the Rangers, then run for cover. Then one of his friends would do the same. Sometimes they just pushed the barrels of their guns around the corners and sprayed bullets without looking. None of them was an experienced fighter.

"The Rangers were better shots. Ali's friend Adan Warsawe stepped out to shoot and was hit in the stomach by a Ranger bullet that knocked him flat on his back. Ali and another friend risked the shooting to drag Adan to cover. The bullet had punched a hole in Adan's gut and made a gaping wound out his back that had sprayed blood on the dirt. When they dragged him it left a smear of blood on the street. Adan looked both alive and dead, as though he were someplace in between.

"Ali moved to the next street, leaving Adan with two friends. He would shoot a Ranger or die trying. Why were they doing this? Who were these Americans who came to his neighborhood spraying bullets and spreading death?"

I had just finished reading the book Black Hawk Down when I saw the RW/OR story about Operation Urban Warrior in the San Francisco Bay Area. ("Operation Urban Warrior Hits Oakland," RW #1001) I couldn't help but marvel at the similarities and the differences between the two military operations. The carefully staged mock raid on Oakland, California showed off America's invincible fighters and glittery war technology. Yet in the very real raid on Mogadishu, Somalia of October 1993, those fighters and that technology suffered a serious defeat through an uprising of the people.

The Mogadishu battle is not an example of people's war. It is not a model for a protracted people's war that is needed to liberate an oppressed country like Somalia. It is not a model for urban insurrection in an imperialist country like the United States. The Somali people did not have a people's army. They did not have a Maoist party with a military doctrine, strategy and tactics aimed at the seizure of power. So as much as I loved reading this book, I couldn't help thinking over and over...what if? What if?

The truly exciting and important thing about this battle is that it provides, in living color, many lessons on how the oppressed can go up against a much better armed and organized army--the high-tech special forces of the U.S. military--and kick some ass. How the people could go up against "all that."

On October 3, 1993, the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia were the scene of intense armed combat between the Somali people and invading U.S. soldiers. After months of being harassed, brutalized and killed by these invaders, with no opportunities to really hit back, suddenly there appeared such an opportunity, and the people of Mogadishu seized the moment, rose up, and wiped out an elite force of U.S. Rangers and other special forces--killing 18, wounding 75 and destroying four helicopters and much equipment. They also acquired lots of weapons and ammunition from their enemy.

This story was new to me. I follow the TV news and I can remember pictures and stories of a U.S. helicopter pilot being dragged through the streets by angry crowds. And of course the scenes of U.S. and UN troops handing out food to some Somalis. But the real "in the streets" story of the Somali victory and U.S. defeat in the fighting in Mogadishu was never told.

But then Mark Bowden, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, decided to dig into the story. The book is written in a series of sketches, each told from the point of view of an individual involved in the battle. Bowden interviewed as many participants, on both sides, as he could find. He has attempted to tell their stories--as they saw it. I don't know what Bowden's intentions are with this book. But those with eyes to see can find a rich vein of lessons here.

The U.S./UN Invasion of Somalia

The book gives a very brief and very wrong analysis of the history of the region and why the U.S. invaded Somalia. Contrary to the general media story, this was not a "humanitarian, save the people of Somalia" mission. It was not, as the author seems to think, a "well intended, but misguided" effort. Suffice it to say that the U.S. wanted to impose its own imperialist order on a country whose internal conflicts got in the way of that plan. The U.S. singled out as "enemy number one" General Aidid, leader of a large Somali clan who refused to go along with the new U.S. program.

Thousands of troops from the U.S., Italy, Pakistan, India and other countries occupied Somalia, constantly stopping, searching and arresting people. Somalis were killed at the slightest provocation. On September 19, helicopters from the U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division shot missiles into a crowd, killing 100 unarmed people.

By far the most hated of the foreign invaders were the U.S. Rangers, whose task was to hunt down Aidid and his lieutenants. These were highly trained special forces, who themselves were led by the super secret Delta Team, an elite unit that carried out the U.S. government's most classified dirty work. The Somalis called them all Rangers, just as they were to call the upcoming battle "Ma-alinti Rangers" (The Day of the Rangers).

For many months the Rangers had had their way in Mogadishu. Their specialty was lightning raids, relying on superior technology. They swooped in with their helicopters, shooting anyone and anything at will. Prior to October, they had carried out six such raids. Generally, they would appear suddenly in the sky. As Rangers slid down ropes, the helicopters would blast away with rockets and heavy caliber machine guns, destroying people, homes, livestock, businesses. They would quickly converge on their target, destroy it or kidnap it, then just as quickly be picked up by the helicopters and swept away from the area. Sometimes they combined helicopters with ground vehicles. They always relied on their expensive toys to carry out their raids.

One raid, aimed at grabbing Aidid himself, resulted in mistakenly kidnapping a Somali general whom the U.S. was grooming to help run the country! They laid waste to his home before realizing their mistake and letting him go.

The book describes the mind set of the Rangers. This elite unit was Army-schooled in imperialist chauvinism and arrogance. They strutted around like they owned the world and had the right--and the power--to fuck anyone or anything they wanted. They wore sunglasses indoors. Greetings were "Hoo-ah!" Somalis were considered less than human--"skinnies" or "sammies," the Rangers called them. The Rangers were all male; the author describes them as "nearly all white"--just a few Latinos and even fewer Black soldiers. When bored, these Great White Hunters would take their choppers out to the African savannah and mow down wild animals from the sky.

The Rangers loved to terrorize the Somali people. Even when they were not carrying out raids, they would fly their powerful Black Hawk helicopters low over markets, streets and neighborhoods at any hour of the day or night. The intense downdraft from the helicopter blades would destroy entire neighborhoods, blowing down homes, mosques, market stalls and walls. It would terrify cattle. Women's clothes would be torn off their bodies, and infants torn out of their arms.

On one raid, the Rangers handcuffed a woman who would not stop screaming no matter what they did to calm her down. Finally, a half hour later, a translator arrived and discovered that her baby had been blown down the street just before they handcuffed her.

Although the Rangers had failed to grab Aidid, their raids had all been quick, efficient, deadly...and with zero U.S. casualties. They always went like clockwork.

The worst thing for the Somali people was the feeling of helplessness. The hated Americans were untouchable. Their helicopters, their tanks, the big guns defending their bases. Especially the helicopters. Until....

Black Hawk Down!

"It was more than a helicopter crash. It cracked the task force's sense of righteous invulnerability. The Black Hawks and Little Birds were their trump card in this God-forsaken place. The choppers, more than their rifles and machine guns, were what kept the savage mobs at a distance. The Somalis couldn't shoot them down!"

The raid of October 3 did not go like clockwork. It began as a "typical" raid. About 100 Rangers were to "drop in" by helicopter on a meeting of Aidid's clan leaders and arrest all the leaders they could. They swooped over the neighborhood and blasted the target building with rockets, killing and injuring many. Then the Rangers slid down ropes to grab their prey. While some rounded up prisoners, including two top clan leaders, other Rangers set up a perimeter, stationing units at each corner of the block.

As soon as the raid began, the people of the neighborhood responded. They set fire to piles of tires. This was an established signal for others throughout the city to grab their guns, if they had any, and converge on the columns of smoke. Usually, the Rangers were gone before serious Somali reinforcements could arrive, but this time was different.

"...burning tires sending tall black columns of smoke around the perimeter of the contested blocks. Many thousands of armed Somalis were thronging toward those plumes from all directions, on vehicles and on foot. People were erecting barricades and digging trenches across roads, laying traps for American vehicles, trying to seal them in. The streets surrounding the target house and crash site were already mobbed. You could see the ring closing."

The Ranger plan was for a convoy of 15 trucks and Humvees to arrive at this time to pick up Rangers and prisoners and take them back to the Ranger base. However, the convoy got lost in Mogadishu's maze of streets and alleys. This gave the people time to move in.

Then the key turning point in the battle occurred. A Black Hawk helicopter swept low over a narrow alley. As it passed overhead, a Somali fighter with an RPG (a shoulder-fired rocket) stepped out from cover and knelt on one knee in the middle of the alley. He settled the weapon on his shoulder and took aim at the rear rotor assembly. The rocket smashed into the Black Hawk, sending it into an uncontrolled spin and dive.

The Somali fighters knew that downing a helicopter could really hurt the Americans. They therefore had done some study on this. They learned some things from Sudanese who had fought against Russian helicopters in Afghanistan. They learned to rewire the RPGs so they would explode with timers instead of on contact. This way, a direct hit was not necessary. They learned to dig holes, cover them with trees or green cloth and shoot from this camouflage, and not to shoot from rooftops since they become easy targets themselves. They were taught to shoot at choppers from behind, since the rear of the chopper was its weak point.

In other words, they found ways to use a weapon they could get their hands on (RPGs) against a high-tech weapon of their enemy (helicopters).

The Black Hawk crash changed everything. The enemy was within reach! More Somalis poured into the combat zone, including thousands of unarmed people seeking weapons and a way to fight the invaders.

The helicopter crash forced the Rangers to change their plan radically. Now they had to rescue the chopper crew. When the "lost convoy" finally reached the besieged Rangers, they were ordered to continue on to the helicopter crash site. This gave the Somalis more time to amass forces, and it also led to more confused wandering by the convoy - now made up of the 15 vehicles and over 100 Rangers, as well as prisoners.

Then another Black Hawk was shot down! It had to be rescued also. In the course of the fighting, two more Black Hawks were hit but limped back and crashed at the base.

Meanwhile, thousands of Somali fighters, armed and unarmed, were hitting the Rangers from every side. The book contains scene after scene of intense combat between the Rangers and Somali fighters in the buildings, streets and alleys of Mogadishu. It's not often that we get such a street level view of urban warfare - especially of warfare between a poorly trained but determined people and their high-tech oppressors.

"The richest source of power to wage war lies in the masses of the people"--Mao-Tsetung

One thing I loved about this book was seeing the confidence of the Rangers falling apart as they witnessed the limits of their technology and their way of fighting.

The Rangers had seriously underestimated the Somali people. Their arrogant confidence in their invincibility led them to attempt a raid in broad daylight in a busy market area in the most anti-American neighborhood in Mogadishu.

Previous raids had generally been at night. The Rangers used their night vision equipment to give them an advantage over the people. Also, it was easier to spread terror in the dark--storming in on black helicopters and roping down in dark uniforms and blackface.

The Rangers had never dropped into this neighborhood before. They terrorized it from the sky, but they had not been on the ground.

Now they were on the ground. And for all their bluster and self-confidence, America's elite fighters were not used to being "on the ground" with the enemy. Their way of fighting was missiles and jets hitting the enemy from afar (like in Iraq and Yugoslavia) and lightning raids. Slugging it out in the city streets was not their strong suit.

The U.S. jammed all Mogadishu radio frequencies to cripple Aidid's communications. There's no way to tell from the book how this affected Aidid, but it did not seem to affect the masses of fighters in the streets. Battle locations were communicated by smoking tires. Neighborhood patrols gathered their fighters and weapons by word of mouth. The fighters did not rely on technology, so its absence was not a crisis for them.

On the other hand, the book gives glimpses of how the U.S. forces' reliance on technology backfired in some cases. One radio operator in the thick of the battle was sending information through his radio for some time before he realized it was broken. A walkie-talkie was then tried, and it only worked erratically among the narrow alleys, walls and buildings.

Even though the Rangers had "circled the wagons" and were not far from each other, the urban landscape--and their lack of familiarity with Mogadishu--made it difficult for the various pockets of survivors to find each other.

Night vision equipment was a big advantage for the U.S. forces. According to the book, this equipment worked very well, although it narrowed peripheral vision. In this raid, however, the arrogant self-confidence of the Rangers negated this advantage. The raid began in the middle of the day, and they were all sure it would only take a couple hours. Therefore, all the Rangers left their night vision goggles behind! Then the sun went down....

This reminded me of something Malcolm X once said about the U.S. soldiers and their technological superiority in Vietnam. In the jungle, he said, when the sun went down "it was even Steven."

The U.S. forces' reliance on helicopters clearly was a two-edged sword. Their ground vehicles also caused them some problems. The five-ton trucks and the Humvees were very wide and could not navigate Mogadishu's side streets and alleys. They were forced to stick to the wider streets. Their routes were therefore somewhat predictable and barricades and ambushes could be set up in advance.

The Somali people, on the other hand, invented what they called "Technicals." These were Toyota pickups with machine guns mounted on the back. These were narrow, maneuverable and well suited to their style of fighting.

Somali People Fighting "With One Hand Tied"

The Somali people were truly fearless fighters. The book describes instance after instance of amazing courage and determination. Since many of these are seen through the eyes of U.S. soldiers, you often have to laugh at how they interpret them. For example, many Rangers were stunned that unarmed civilians would rush toward a firefight and not away from it! Or that civilians would pick up guns and fire them inexpertly at their oppressors. They were shocked to see women and children were shooting at them!

The other side of this also hits you in the pages of the book. The organized leadership of the Somalis was a local warlord, not any liberating force. It is true that these warlord forces had certain military strengths. Aidid himself had for a while been the army chief of staff of the previous Somali regime --which had been sponsored and supplied by various imperialists. But with those strengths came other weaknesses: this was not an organized rising of a revolutionary people led by a Maoist vanguard and armed with the theory and doctrine of People's War. So the Somali people who fought heroically in these conditions did so in a sense with "one hand tied behind their back." Still, they accomplished a lot and shocked some very arrogant invaders. "The Day of the Rangers" was a striking moment in time, rich with lessons for the oppressed.

It is in this spirit that I strongly recommend this book to RW/OR readers.

*Mohamed Farrah Aidid was the main leader of the Habr Gidr clan in Somalia. Aidid was the designated enemy in the U.S. military operations in Somalia. He was killed a few years later.

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