Somali and US perspectives
on the "Day of the Rangers"
by Gail M. Presbey
A recent story in USA Today about the war in Afghanistan drew a direct parallel to the film Black Hawk Down:
When the history of the war is written, the traumatic battle in the mountains around the Shah-e-Kot Valley will be remembered as a testament to heroism: A bloodied, outnumbered band of US servicemen held off a determined al-Qaeda force on frigid rocky terrain at least 8,000 feet above sea level. Call it Black Hawk Down in the snow. (Jonathan Weisman, "Deadliest day for US", USA Today 3/6/02).
Why would a reporter (Jonathan Weisman) interrupt his recitation of the facts of the battle, right near the start of his article, to suggest that readers should mimic the judgment of the film? Because the film seems to have a message, not only about history, but about the current US war on terrorism: support our troops, and don’t question a war’s intent or methods.
Long before 2001, the US established a pattern of military actions against small, impoverished nations, including (just to scratch the surface) Vietnam, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, and Sudan. Though for a while this pattern was dressed as proxy fights against the mighty Soviet Union, powerful US military contractors lobby to ensure that the end of the Cold War does not mean the end of weapons procurement or military spending. Aiming to continue the pattern, how does the US government avoid looking like a thug in such confrontations? Since 9-11, the answer is simple: the seemingly small, weak secret terrorist groups around the world are actually mighty and bent on grave destruction, requiring vigilance at home and abroad, and an unlimited military budget. And US troops, with far superior military technology on their side, are the poor embattled "good guys" just trying to help others. Films like Black Hawk Down prepare US citizens psychologically so that their discomfort at being the global bully will be minimized.
We know that our government and the Pentagon are particularly concerned with the image the United States projects at home and abroad. To win a battle but to lose the P.R. spin on the battle would mean, in effect, losing the war (Arendt, 1972, "Lying in Politics: Reflections on the Pentagon Papers" in Crises of the Republic). The US hires specialists in military propaganda, and most journalists—swept up in the same patriotic fervor as the general public, and savvy about the kinds of stories acceptable to editors—fail to ferret out the real facts and unmask blatant propaganda.
Black Hawk Down focuses on the US military altercation in Somalia of October 3, 1993, known by Somalis as the "Day of the Rangers." The military maneuver was considered a grave mistake, and resulted in the forced resignation of top military officials. In the immediate aftermath, military propagandists thought that "laying low" was the best idea. However, a journalist interested in military history, Mark Bowden, didn’t want this story to be buried. He pieced together the story of the battle, wrote a series of stories in 1997 for the Philadelphia Inquirer (hereafter PI; see inquirer.philly.com/packages/somalia/Nov16/rang16.asp), put together a documentary video, and created a best selling book in 2000, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (hereafter, BHD). Now, his account has become a top draw at movie theaters with director Ridley Scott’s film production based on the book.
According to Bowden, the soldiers and their commanders had grossly underestimated the enemy. US forces went into the heart of General Aidid’s support area in Mogadishu in broad daylight, presuming they could accomplish their mission of catching Omar Salad and Mohamad Hassan Awale within a couple of hours. On top of earlier US offenses mentioned below, going into a crowded area of a city where people were still very heavily armed (since a civil war was still in progress) provoked Somalis into fighting the intruding Americans. Their being under attack and outnumbered caused the US soldiers to quickly discard the rules of war and begin shooting at anyone, even into crowds (PI). Black Hawk and Little Bird helicopters armed with automatic weapons shot into crowds overhead, turning these crowds within minutes into "a bleeding heap of dead and injured" (BHD 49). In less than 24 hours, 18 US soldiers and between 500-1000 Somalis had been killed, in order to abduct the two lieutenants. The President and other military officials bemoaned that the "price" had been too high—doubtless meaning the "high price" of 18 dead US soldiers, and not the far more numerous Somali dead.
Nonetheless, Bowden put a new spin on the battle, one that the US military itself didn’t dare: that the men involved were unsung heroes, and should be a source of pride for the nation. How could these soldiers be considered heroes now, after blatantly discarding the rules of war and shooting indiscrimately? There are three main factors in the film and book that contribute to this spin. First is the focus on the solidarity soldiers have with each other, presented to civilians as a model for their own behavior. Secondly, the Somalis are described as subhuman animals, living in a city that has not yet seen "civilization." Descriptions seemingly right out of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness make it difficult for viewers to empathize with Somalis who are hurt or killed, as they are encouraged instead to take the US soldiers’ point of view and to feel themselves similarly threatened. Thirdly, the reasons for the US presence in general and action in particular are either not mentioned at all, or presented as justified and righteous. Somali society is presented as so chaotic and distasteful, that the viewer can only imagine that the Somalis should rather submit to US or UN rule than to try to rule themselves. Let’s look at these three factors in more detail.
Fortune of Soldier
First, the film and book focus on the men’s allegiance to one another in hard times. They are willing to sacrifice their personal safety for the safety of the unit. The camaraderie between soldiers intensifies as they face danger together, as soldier and philosopher J. Glenn Gray noted about his World War II experience (The Warriors: Reflections of Men in Battle, 1970, 26-9). The intoxicating feeling of overcoming individual isolation and merging into a "team," a "fighting unit," is so overwhelming that soldiers often look back on such moments as the high points of their lives. In Bowden’s book, Private Kurth goes through the same emotions in miniature, which the readers are encouraged to share. One minute he is thinking he is in hell on earth and is ready to quit the service; the next minute he wants to re-enlist, saying, "Where else am I going to get to do something like this?" (BHD 246). Not in the humdrum existence of middle class American life, or life in the barracks back home.
Film reviewer Neil Gabler notices how Black Hawk Down departs from earlier war films, such as those during World War II which emphasized that the US had a clear moral imperative, and those made about the Vietnam era when any moral cause evaporated. Instead, "The rangers’ obligation is to one another – to make sure their friends and fellow troops survive... in Black Hawk Down the battle becomes the cause, and the cause is the individual. As one soldier in the film puts it: ‘It’s about the man next to you. That’s it.’" He thinks the film reflects recent trends of once again accepting unquestioningly the authority of the government as it chooses its wars and causes. (NY Times "Week in Review", 1/27/02)
In Black Hawk Down, we see the carnage of war close up. We see people’s heads and limbs blown off, reduced to quivering pulp. Bowden says that the American public only knows sanitized versions of combat; he wanted to get closer to the real experience (PI). He presumes that seeing more will discourage people from being war-hungry. Making a similar prediction, advocates of nonviolence sometimes argue that people should expose themselves to graphic accounts of war’s gruesome details (Scott Schaefer-Duffy, "The Pacifism of Rabbits," The Catholic Radical, Feb/Mar 2002). Exposed to the carnage of the Vietnam War on their televisions, many US citizens decided the war was cruel and unjust. Government control of access to war areas and information is clearly an attempt to minimize coverage of the carnage, apparently fearing the pacifist prediction is correct. In the recent war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, stories like the bombing of Niazi Kala made front page in the London Times, and included gruesome details of US helicopters in hot pursuit of fleeing people, shooting them as they fled, and sniping at those daring to try to return to remove the bodies of the dead. The London Times and other U.K. papers note that many killed had been visiting the town for a wedding celebration. The fact that such stories were missing altogether in US papers, or buried as one-liners in stories on other topics, seems to show that the government or the newspapers thought that such stories were embarrassing and might lead to people questioning the war (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, 2002, "NYT Buries Story of Airstrikes on Afghan Civilians", www.fair.org/activism/nyt-niazi-kala.html).
But what would such exposure really accomplish? Gray speaks of war (not films, but war itself) as a spectacle, and relates absorption into the sight of war to Kant’s reflections on beauty and the sublime. While not beautiful in itself, war scenes are so gripping because they manifest power (cited above, 33). "The eye is lustful because it requires the novel, the unusual, the spectacular. It cannot satiate itself on the familiar, the routine, the everyday" (29). Gray explains that this aesthetic "delights in seeing... almost always involves a neglect of moral ideals and an absence of concern for the practical" (39). Descriptions such as these cast doubt on the prediction that viewing war films will tend to cause people to condemn war.
Secondly, both the film and (more explicitly) the book suggest that Somali lives are worth less than US lives. The book introduces many US soldiers first by a description of their looks: always muscular, the epitome of manhood, signifying self-discipline and strength in our vain society. On the other hand, Somalis are nicknamed by the US soldiers as the "Skinnies," suggesting by their extreme thinness that they are worth less (BHD 8-9). The book also explains the US soldiers’ view that Somalis "just lounged, doing nothing, watching the world go by outside their shabby round rag huts and tin shacks..." (BHD 50). Indeed, the main event in town was lining up by the thousands to get handouts of free food from aid agencies—judged by values widespread in the US, they’re the international version of "welfare scum" without human dignity. Bowden makes the soldiers’ judgement clear: "[T]hey all felt sorry for the kids. For the adults they felt contempt" (BHD 51).
And trading on a widespread stereotype of "welfare scum" as "on drugs," the book describes Somalis who chew khat, an amphetamine which makes their teeth look black and orange and "made them look savage, or deranged"(BHD 51). Never mind that the Somalis have suffered a long war with dire food shortages, and that khat also numbs the pain of hunger and gives one energy to move when one is severely undernourished; all these signs of poverty and coping with hunger (thin bodies, dependence on food aid and chewing khat) mark the distance between the young, strong and well-fed "full" human beings and their diminutive "shadows."
The city of Mogadishu is also presented as a primitive, pre-modern city. In the book, speculation abounds about how human life is even possible without running water, electricity and an operating sewage system. Before the Rangers descend, Bowden describes the city as "a catastrophe, the world capital of things-gone-completely-to-hell." Everything of value had already been looted, he notes. "Every open space was clotted with the dense makeshift villages of the disinherited" (BHD 7). Bowden says US soldiers looked at Mogadishu and thought of the Mad Max movies, a land run by armed gangs after the "end of the world," and that the US forces represented the "civilized world" sent to straighten things out (BHD 10). Retired US Admiral Jonathan Howe, who was put in charge of the UN mission in Mogadishu, said of Somalia, "Here was a country not just at ground zero, but below zero" (BHD 92). Of course, a place that is already "below zero" can’t sink further; if it has nothing, one does not have to worry about, or justify, destroying the last remnants. Anything would be an improvement.
The film tries somewhat to correct the one-sidedness of the comments found in the book about Somalis and Mogadishu. At the beginning of the film a Somali arms merchant who sells guns to Aidid, named Atto, is captured and jailed at the US base. You hear one soldier ask the other, "what do you think of him?" The soldier replies, "urbane, sophisticated." That being the first US description of a Somali in the film, the comparisons to Heart of Darkness that jump out from the book are muted or left unsaid; in a sense, they are "covered up," to make the film look more politically correct.
Nevertheless, the Somali eyewitness accounts in the book are all missing from the film. In these passages, we realize that Somalis are indeed human, and have thoughts and feelings. In fact, Bowden claims that the book is meant to represent both sides "neutrally"; when he represents the US soldiers’ views that the Somalis are diminutive humans, he is careful to note that the descriptions are how they were perceived, and not necessarily how they really are. He claims that he and photographer Peter Tobias were the only two Americans who ever came back to Mogadishu to piece together the story,and that he encouraged initially reluctant Somalis to cooperate with his investigation by arguing that in this way, their story could be heard by a wider audience (BHD 333). Some Somali perspectives in the book describe those who were going about their daily business and were then interrupted by the sudden outbreak of US gunfire. Kassim Sheik Mohamad’s garage was bombed and his employees killed. Mohamad and others tried to bury the dead by the end of the day, according to Islamic practice, but US helicopters routinely scoured the local cemetery near Mogadishu to shoot at them (BHD 278). Ali Hassan Mohamad saw the Rangers as "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." After witnessing the Rangers kill his brother, Mohamad decides he must take up arms and fight the Rangers (BHD 30).
One Somali educated in the US, Bashir Haji Yusef, reminded himself as he watched the fighting that most Americans have no idea what their soldiers do abroad (BHD 75). Though he separates his angry condemnation of the soldiers’ actions from a broader condemnation of all US citizens, his reflection in the book gives a rare challenge to the US reader, now learning of the actions of US armed forces. Tireless surgeon Abdi Mohamed Elmi’s 500-bed hospital, mostly empty in the morning, was overflowing with the wounded by the end of the day, and Elmi had to perform surgeries one after the other with no time for rest.(BHD 289-90). In contrast, in the film we never see Somalis past the second in which they are pierced with a bullet.
Some of the Somali testimony included in the book succeeds in blurring temporarily the "us" and "them" dichotomy. The book briefly mentions that friendly Somalis helped a crew of a crashed Black Hawk helicopter to escape (BHD 61). Bowden’s web site shows Yousuf Dahn Mo’Alim, who saved the pilot Durant from an angry mob, and then was shot by US gunfire (PI, photo page).
While the Somalis are portrayed as seeming sub-human and animal-like, the US soldiers also seemed to lack humanity, merging with body armor, goggles, helmets, and other machinery (BHD 81). Some Somalis liked to unmask and de-armor such US soldiers. For example, when they found the pilot Durant, they tore his clothes off, looking for concealed weapons (BHD 196). That Somalis were able to commit cruel acts is also part of the story—not all were innocents. Hassan Yassin Abokoi saw a mob descend on US soldiers who had been in a crashed helicopter. "He saw his neighbors hack at the bodies of the Americans with knives and begin to pull at their limbs. He then saw people running and parading with parts of the American’s bodies," as if they were trophies (BHD 195). And of course, there’s the infamous image of Black Hawk crew chief Bill Cleveland’s corpse being dragged naked through the streets by a gloating crowd of Somalis (BHD 260, 292). Certainly this glee about the dismemberment or the exposure of a dead body is deplorable. But the US side also mutilated bodies, with automatic weapons instead of handheld knives. Bowden describes how the Rangers laughed when one woman was shot so severely she "no longer even looked like a human being" (BHD 217).
Americans often like to think of themselves as rooting for the underdog, and giving credit to those who are trying hard. Stiff resistance in the beginning makes temporary underdogs of the Rangers and Delta Force crews, until the arrival of superior helicopter power. When the Black Hawk is shot down, Bowden explains: "It was more than a helicopter crash. It cracked the task force’s sense of righteous invulnerability" (BHD 80). Bowden wants to express how the Rangers become human by feeling their vulnerability: though they had only practiced for battle previously, and yearned to be in a real battle, they were disillusioned by the actual fight in Mogadishu (BHD 8,18). But how much have they changed because of their experience? Even after the fighting, the men feel as if they had been in a movie which could not have been real (BHD 345-6).
In today’s Afghanistan, despite the overwhelming US strength in technological force, the media still focuses on US troops as "underdogs" fighting against overwhelming odds, singing the heroism of its troops under harsh circumstances. The claim that the US casualties at Shah-e-Kot were similar to those in Black Hawk Down is due in part to their helicopter being shot down. But in what sense were the troops "outnumbered?" There were 21 soldiers in the helicopter, who were fired upon once they were downed. Through use of mobile cameras mounted on aircraft, Pentagon officials say they saw "a large number of enemy forces" advancing on the crash site. But overall, the same USA Today article explains, there were merely several hundred al-Qaeda fighters against 2,000 US and allied troops. The article also explains that "within minutes, Air Force F-15 and F-16 fighter bombers were on the scene, pounding al-Qaeda positions and trying to drive back the enemy." They were shortly joined by Air Force AC-130s gunships, equipped with Gatling guns and howitzers "which can blast out as many as 1,888 rounds a minute." But the journalist’s eye trains us on the movement of the dozen or so vulnerable US soldiers, searching for safety behind rocks, because to focus on the larger overall imbalance of power (air surveillance, F-15 and F-16s, and AC-130s) might be disquieting; it would show the US as international bully.
Destroying the Village …
Like most readers of Bowden’s book, "[n]one of the men... knew enough to write a high school paper about Somalia. They took the army’s line without hesitation. Warlords had so ravaged the nation battling among themselves that their people were starving to death" (BHD 10). US forces were claimed to be in Somalia on a peacekeeping mission for the UN. They got involved in trying to arrest Gen. Aidid’s top ranking military men, because Aidid had been opposed to the power-sharing plan the UN had for a post-war Somalia (PI). Indeed, the US public’s shock at the public display of the killed US soldiers was because they had thought that the troops were there only to "feed the hungry," and they hadn’t known that Aidid was "at war" with the US since July 12, 1993, and that before the US had already conducted six missions or raids, with mixed success, before October (PI).
Bowden explains that on that July day, 50 to 70 clan elders and intellectuals met to discuss Admiral Howe’s UN peace initiative were killed when the venue of the meeting, Abdi House, was bombed by US/UN forces (the massacre was also covered by Washington Post reporter Keith Richburg). A Somali eyewitness, Mohamad Hassan Farah, testified that 16 TOW missiles (meant to pierce tank armor) were fired at the building (BHD 72). By contrast, Howe said that only 20 people were killed, and all had been in Aidid’s military leadership (PI). Targeting Aidid loyalists may have increased the perception, cited by Farah, that the US was against Aidid and the Habr Gidr clan, and was in fact favoring a rival clan, the Darod, from which the former leader Siad Barre hailed (BHD 71).
Mickey Kaus cites further background as to why by October 3 most Somalis were united behind Aidid and against the US intervention. As he explains, the UN operations there happened in two phases. Phase I, mostly successful and very important, was an emergency feeding operation. At that point there were troops stationed there to oversee the food distribution process. But later a Phase II "nation-building" project began. The UN wanted to oversee a power-sharing version of national unity in Somalia, but Aidid felt that since he had done the most conquering, he should be in power. Aidid’s suspicion that the UN was in favor of Barre’s rival ethnic group was reinforced when the UN closed down Aidid’s anti-UN radio station, while allowing a rival station to operate. When 24 Pakistani UN troops showed up to "inspect" the radio station, Aidid loyalists suspected them of foul play and killed them. The UN decided to launch a manhunt in search of Aidid and his leaders ("What Black Hawk Down leaves out: that Somali Raid really was more a debacle than a victory," 2002, slate.msn.com/?id=2060941&device=).
Bowden’s epilogue calls into question his claimed "neutrality." While he states critically that the US should not have taken sides (against Aidid) in the civil war, he then argues that once the US had decided to get involved, it should have seen its project through to the end (BHD 355). He notes that many soldiers were actually disappointed that they couldn’t have stayed and finished the battle for Somalia’s next government (BHD 329), and he claims he wrote the book for these American soldiers (BHD 345-6).
Bowden also concludes with harsh words for Somalia. He thinks that the UN forces were there as an effort to help Somalia rebuild a unified national government. By fighting with US and other UN forces, Somalis rejected outside help, without being able to resolve their problems on their own. He argues that "without natural resources, strategic advantage, or even potentially lucrative markets for world goods, Somalia is unlikely soon to recapture the opportunity for peace and rebuilding afforded by UNOSOM. Rightly or wrongly, they stand as an enduring symbol of Third World ingratitude and intractability... they’ve effectively written themselves off the map" (BHD 334). Bowden falls short of saying what the Somalis did was "wrong" in a moral sense, but he judges them as short-sightedly missing their golden opportunity. But the Abdi House massacre should mute even this criticism; it is surely difficult to ask an embattled clan to accept the help of a group that has been bombing their leaders.
Bowden notes in his afterword that the book is now embraced by the US military, because it covers the "predicament of being an American" in this day and age. The predicament is that one must do something to make this a better world (BHD 353). Sometimes that involves war. Bowden quotes General Garrison as saying "some people needed to die. It was how the real world worked" (BHD 24). The book also gives the impression that war itself is inevitable, a permanent feature of reality, so that attempts to avoid it are futile. Bowden begins with a quote from Cormac McCarthy: "It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him" (preface). The film begins with a shorter quote, from Plato, "Only the dead have seen the end of war." Later on, the Somali soldier who holds Durant captive tells Durant, "there will always be killing in our (Somali) world," that even if Aidid was killed, they would never adopt American democracy, and that the UN could never bring peace. With war presented as a permanent feature of reality, no wonder the book is embraced by the US military, an organization whose funding might be slightly threatened by prolonged outbreaks of peace.
While Bowden calls the Somali death toll "catastrophic," it is not in the context of condemning the US troops for discarding rules of war and causing the high casualties. In fact, the impression is that discarding such rules is one of the things about war that cannot be changed, a lesson that the young Rangers finally learn by experiencing a real war. Rather, he makes the remark in the context of calling Somalia’s victory against the US forces "hollow," almost as if it is the fault of Somalis themselves that their death toll was so high. Aidid could have been spared these casualties if only he cooperated with the UN plan from the beginning (BHD 333). No wonder the military loves this book. After the pilot, Durant, makes a comment on videotape during his captivity, that "things have gone wrong" in Somalia because too many innocents were killed, he later feels bad about saying it and wishes he hadn’t (BHD 321).
The film has been the subject of protests in New York City; the group A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, www.internationalanswer.com) argued that it presents the war as a "race war," and Village Voice film reviewer Geoffrey Gray notes that while there were only two African-American soldiers stationed in Somalia, the starkness of white U.S. soldiers fighting against Africans plays into Ridley Scott’s racist film aesthetic (2/6/02). The film depicts one African American soldier who is around while Eberhart, the commander of a small unit, explains that he is not sure he agrees that the US should be fighting in this war, and that he respects the Somalis. After Eberhart speaks, the one African American solider accuses Eberhart of being a starry eyed idealist, and then quickly espouses some realpolitik. So how can it be a race war if the African American soldier is not critical, while only the starry-eyed white idealist is? The role of racism on an international scale is not addressed in the film, although it is an aspect of the film that has impressed and stunned critics and viewers.
Bowden never mentions that the unacceptability of the carnage (both US and Somali) is a lesson to be learned from the failure of the military involvement. Indeed, if the recent war in Afghanistan is an example of lessons learned and applied, it seems that the only lesson learned is that US casualties must be minimized, not necessarily those (civilian or military) on the other side. When Bowden explains, "What happened to these men in Mogadishu comes alive every time the US considers sending young soldiers to serve American policy in remote and dangerous corners of the world," (PI) this makes clear that the Pentagon is only counting the loss of US lives and not the overall loss of lives. On his web site, Bowden explained to a reader that: "The reality of war ought to give the public and our leaders appropriate pause before risking the lives of American soldiers... One reason I think troops were committed in Mogadishu was the heady feeling that followed the Gulf War, which looked nice and antiseptic on all those videos on CNN" (reply, 11/20/97). As Bowden explains, the Rangers were "shocked to find themselves bleeding on the dirt streets of an obscure African capital for a cause so unessential..." (PI). While the cause was supposedly the noble one of helping Somalia reconstitute its government, the cause was not important enough to justify loss of US lives.
Kaus reports that the Rangers themselves had accepted the fact that casualties are part of their job, and were frustrated with Clinton for calling off the project. While mourning the loss of 18 of their men, they considered the battle worthwhile because the ratio of casualties was "favorable" to the US However, Kaus cautioned that: "With such a favorable ‘exchange ratio,’ Phase II of the Somali mission was rapidly approaching destroy the village in order to save it territory". In an parallel from Afghanistan, military officials describing the recent battle in Shah-e-Kot, which resulted in 7 US deaths, were quick to note that "In the larger operation, the enemy death toll is far higher." It was explained that 40-50 al-Qaeda fighters besieging the downed Americans were killed (Weisman in USA Today). The entire operation in Afghanistan has resulted in few US casualties, while civilian Afghan casualties (directly from the attack, not counting increases in starvation) are estimated to be about 3,800.
Bowden argues that the battle shows the limits of what force can accomplish. For example, force alone could not install a democratic government in Somalia (BHD 342). But if this is so, wouldn’t it have been better to send a different deployment to Somalia, a non-military force? If people can’t be forced by gunpoint into living in peace with each other, what would be more helpful? Kaus argues that given Bowden’s conclusion about the limits of force, his own advice that Clinton should have gone ahead and finished the plan to undermine Aidid’s power would have been pointless—even its ultimate "success," at the price of more lives, would have been a failure.
Kaus notes that the film ends with an air of defeat. We see the caskets of the dead soldiers, but we also get the distinct impression that nothing has been solved in Somalia. Yet the film comes at a time when the US government wants people to acquiesce or support the use of troops around the world in fighting the war on terrorism. Gabler (in the New York Times, cited above) argues that the film will be seen as calling for renewed pride in US forces and signals US citizen’s preparedness to see them engage in combat. Rather than caution regarding jeopardizing the lives of US soldiers (let alone noncombatants of other countries) as Bowden claims was his intention, the film may renew the commitment for US intervention abroad, and possibly, in Somalia itself.
… But Not To Save It
Sharif Nashashibi, Chair of Arab Media Watch, is concerned about the growing trend in US policy toward Somalia. He notes that US interest in Afghanistan is a regional interest, one of maintaining dominance in the region and friendliness with Russia and its allies Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, in order to ensure accessibility of a future Caspian Sea oil pipeline. In the context of East Africa, Somalia and Sudan are the only two countries which are not yet cooperating with US policy agendas. Ethiopia has had an interest in ensuring that Somalia remains weak, for a united Somalia could begin troubles with its 3 million ethnic Somalis. Ethiopia has on occasion over the last few years conducted military maneuvers within Somali territory. Now Ethiopia claims that terrorists are hiding within Somalia and is requesting that the US do something about it.
In his State of the Union address, Bush mentioned Somalia as a possible stronghold for terrorists and therefore a potential target for the US. However, no one from the US Embassy staff had visited Somalia since September 11, and there is no evidence presented of terrorist activity in the country. In the meantime, however, the US has closed down the Barakaat, a telephone and banking system used by Somalis abroad to send from $300-500 million dollars per year back to family members living in Somalia. The US government argues that the system was used by al Qaeda terrorists; but closing it puts untold hardship on many Somalis. The US has also declared Al-Itihaad to be a terrorist group. Al-Itihaad did fight to establish an Islamic State from 1991 until its defeat by Ethiopian forces in 1997, but in the meantime it has become the country’s leader in providing education, health and welfare services, so shutting it down would also lead to the misery of many in Somalia. The UN has declared that Al-Itihaad is not engaged in terrorist activities, but the US (like Aidid before it) seems uninterested in cooperating with the UN Recently, certain Somali factions walked out of a precarious peace process sponsored by the UN which had as its goal the creation of a multi-ethnic Somalia. It seems that the faction leaders who walked out were assured that they had backing from the US and Ethiopia. Ironically, Aidid’s son Hussein, who was a US marine, is the leader of one faction refusing to cooperate with the UN, and is assured of US backing (Sharif Nashashibi, "Target Somalia: A Hidden U.S. Agenda?," 1/8/02, www.netnomad.com/hiddenagenda.html; Donald MacNeil, "A New Scrutiny of Somalia as the Old Anarchy Reigns," New York Times, 2/10/02, p.A4).
Such developments suggest that the US is not pursuing the most peaceful agenda but rather one which will ensure the allegiance of the new Somali government with US policy. Nashashibi (cited in previous paragraph) states: "Thus when one sees the regional gains made by the US in its wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, it is not difficult to draw parallels to Somalia, and to understand the deep-rooted fear and suspicion in the Arab and Muslim worlds that behind the ‘war on terror’ is a strategy of attaining regional dominance and compliant allies regardless of local and humanitarian consequences".
Martin Doornbos explains that currently in Somalia there are many groups opposed to the re-emergence of a centralized state. Through lengthy, painstaking negotiations over recent years, they have come to prefer a loose federation (similar to Switzerland or the United Arab Emirates), to minimize chances that one clan or subclan would dominate the whole. While such an arrangement would be unconventional in the African context, Doornbos thinks it would be the best working model for Somalia. However, the UN and the European Union are still trying to institute a government of national unity. On October 19, 2001, Prime Minister Galaydh of the interim national government pledged to the UN Security Council that he would support the war on terror, but he and his cabinet were soon rejected by Somalis. However, after September 11, all neighboring states as well as the OAU (Organization of African Unity), EU (European Union), and UN, are all now supporting the old and status-quo concept of a centralized national government. Doornbos fears that other nations’ and organizations’ agendas will override Somalia’s own attempts at solving its problems ("Somalia: Alternative Scenarios for Political Reconstruction." African Affairs vol. 101, 2002). It seems that the US-led "war on terror" will put US regional designs first, even at the cost of continuing to destabilize Somalia.
If the US hopes to engage others in war around the world by having elite forces swoop down, with expensive technology, intent on saving their own lives while willing to jeopardize the lives of others, we need to find alternatives quickly. Surely such methods cannot ensure peaceful reconstruction of war-torn peoples. They also jeopardize non-combatant immunity and human rights. The popularity of this film may bode ill for the conscience of our nation. Films like Black Hawk Down therefore become the sites of a contest: who will win the hearts and minds of US citizens, and for what cause?R
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