The movie, Black Hawk Down as seen by a cynic and the very real tragedy that is Somalia
A lesson that took a long time to learn
Every Saturday throughout my childhood, I sat in the movie theater to watch the afternoon matinee with wide eyes and an innocent mind. Did I think about the underlying moral themes I was receiving? Of course not. I was a child with a brain as ready as any sponge to soak up the filmmakers’ bias along with the larger-than-life images, never once questioning what I saw.
All “Indians” were mindless savages bent on slaughter of a group of innocent settlers the film had made my friends for no reason my young mind could find. There he was, the great John Wayne spouting such great lines as:
"Well, there's humans and then there's Comanches."
Like all the other children, we cheered the bugle call of the rescuing cavalry and the satisfying defeat of the sub-human, whooping and barbaric attackers. We accepted that “reality” and made it our own – surprising, one would think in youngsters living in close proximity to real First Nations reserves. In the strange apartheid of the time and place, in reality we had no contact with those people, so Hollywood’s truth became ours.
Those films had one theme in common, a simplistic look at history as “good” versus “evil,” with good always wearing a white skin.
Would anyone who grew up in a sheltered little enclave like I did, fed on such films and taught nothing in school to counteract those images know any different? Yes, I grew up in a world of white supremacy and took it for granted this was the way the world was. I had no reason to think otherwise.
Then my world changed. Things happened to make me question these subtly acquired prejudices.
The first was Marlon Brando’s refusal of his Oscar to protest the treatment of the aboriginal people of this continent in films, and the second was the film “Little Big Man.”
But by then, I was a young adult. I started to think for myself. I began to question.
Slowly, a cynic was born. Me.
I would never again take anything presented on film at face value. I learned to see such propaganda for what it was, and even began to study how it was done. By now, I recognize the beast within two minutes of encountering it.
And I’ve just encountered it again.
A Case of Propaganda?
I have long resisted watching “Black Hawk Down.” I don’t like war; I don’t like movies about war; I don’t like movies glorifying war and/or warriors; and I detest movies that push an agenda. If it looks like propaganda, feels like it, sounds like it – it probably is.
You fooled me as a child. Can’t fool me now.
Not long ago, while immersed in research on the events leading up to the reoccurring famine in Somalia for a paper to be published on another site, I saw the film offered on TNT and decided to take the plunge.
Beautifully shot, full of cinematic skill – my, but film art has come a long way since I was a kid – to me the film lost all chances at delivering a meaningful message, was little more than your basic action flick, another Apaches-versus-Settlers, grotesque in graphic violence, two-dimensional and almost maudlin at times, disturbing in it's blatant bias and departure from reality, particularly as I had just spent weeks studying the tragedy that is Somalia.
The film was a best seller, released December 2001, just months after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. One enthusiastic reviewer called it the “best movie ever made,” one he could compliment “until I passed out.”
We all have our opinions, I guess.
“Black Hawk Down” hit the screen at a time Americans felt victimized, and the film fed into that national atmosphere and the patriotic fervor it engendered. “Why are we so hated?” was the question of the day.
Even though it is touted as “true depiction of real events,” the historical accuracy is way beyond questionable to anyone willing to do a bit of research and embarrassingly simplistic. Another version of “good,” in this case the honorable, moral, heroic soldiers and “evil,” once again a faceless, mindless swarm of dark-skinned savages, attacking without reason, without provocation, and rabid with hatred.
I felt uncomfortable, embarrassed and sickened, but I watched it.
Can we please take a look at reality? Of the situation in Somalia at the time? At the atmosphere in which these events took place?
Can we examine what I’ve come to know all too well, as the tools used by filmmakers to play with your emotional responses?
The Art of Propaganda in Film
Propaganda as defined by Encarta Dictionary:
- .Publicity to promote something – information put out to promote a policy, idea or cause
- misleading publicity – deceptive or distorted information that is systematically spread
How it began
“ Jerry Bruckheimer [the film’s producer ]approached me in my office and said, “General, I’m going to make a movie that you and your Army will be proud of. He did that, so we thank him for it.” – General John. M Kean, Army vice chief of staff.
In an unprecedented collaboration, the Army had a hand in the film, allowing the movie makers to use actual Army Black Hawks, and sending dozens of soldiers to provide support and act as extras. The film was shot in Morocco. Further, “to ensure accuracy,” Major Andres Ortegon, the Army’s liaison to the film industry, monitored filming daily.
Upon its premiere screening in Washington, DC, General Kean announced the film as entirely authentic, even though there are major discrepancies between documented events and the accounts of those who were there and the film. The most striking of these is the complete omission of the role played by Pakistani and Malaysian troops in the actual rescue of the stranded American forces.
It is America as “us” versus “them,” all alone.
Nor does it once raise the question of how a humanitarian peacekeeping intervention resulted in the killing of over a thousand people in one day.
Nor does it ask whether the US troops should have been there at all. Although one of the commanders during the briefing scene does suggests “Washington, in all of its wisdom” has not provided the proper equipment. This sort of pseudo-critical dialogue makes viewers believe they are being shown a more or less factual account.
At the end of the film the viewer is left to shake his head at the injustice of “what happened to our boys” and the ungrateful savage acts of the people “we were there to save.”
How is this accomplished? By the skillful use of techniques that tug at our emotions.
Ridley Scott, the director is a brilliant master of such techniques and like all his films; it is stunning, intense and beautifully shot -- and misleading.
The film opens with scenes of Somali people dead or nearly dead from starvation. As words flash on the screen providing background and history – scant, skewed and incomplete – we are told only that “a ruthless murderer” is starving his own people to death and that a famine of “biblical proportions” is in process. Images of corpses in the desert, poor starving children and unbearable living conditions are shown to the viewer, tinted blue to heighten the gloom, the dreariness, the feeling of sadness.
1. Title Card: BASED ON AN ACTUAL EVENT
2. Title Card: Only the dead have seen the end of war.
3. Title Card: SOMALIA - EAST AFRICA
4. Title Card: 1992
5. Title Card: Years of warfare among rival clans causes famine on a biblical scale.
6. Title Card: 300,000 civilians die of starvation.
7. Title Card: Mohamed Farrah Aidid, the most powerful of the warlords, rules the capital Mogadishu.
8. Title Card: He seizes international food shipments at the ports. Hunger is his weapon.
9. Title Card: The world responds. Behind a force of 20,000 U.S. Marines, food is delivered and order is restored.
10. Title Card: April 1993
11. Title Card: Aidid waits until the Marines withdraw, and then declares war on the remaining U.N. peacekeepers.
12. Title Card: In June, Aidid's militia ambush and slaughter 24 Pakistani soldiers, and begin targeting American personnel.
The ongoing tragedy that is Somalia
1992 There’s no doubt America entered Somalia with the best of intentions, along with the rest of the UN peacekeepers. Operation “Restore Hope” was intended to bring much needed food and supplies to a suffering population. What could be kinder? More generous? More humanitarian? And how did all go so wrong?
America went into a situation with a tragic misunderstanding of the problem and the political situation.
For a full picture, we’d have to go back to the early half of the twentieth century, when Somalia – then Somaliland, Ogaden and Eritrea – was part of the Italian colonial empire which also included Ethiopia, Somalia’s historic rival. During WWII, the British assumed governorship of much of those lands, and after the war, new borders were drawn up with no attention paid to traditional clan land claims, tribal borders, history or the desires of the indigenous populations. The Ogaden land was given to Ethiopia, then under the rule Haile Selassie, partially (or primarily) because Somaliland was a client of the Soviet Union.
Despite the nature of Selassie’s rule: a feudal emperor with total power over the Ethiopian land and people, an oppressive tyrant, the rules of the cold war dictated that United States back Ethiopia against Somalia, taking “unhampered use of a military base in return for military aid.”
However, in 1974 a military coup led by Ethiopian officers ended the emperor’s rule and declared the country a Marxist-Leninist state.
Naturally, the two superpowers changed allegiances, with the Soviet Union now backing Ethiopia and the United States supporting Somalia, now under the government of the dictator Siad Barre. Can you picture the irony? American supported Somali troops bearing Soviet arms fighting Soviet backed Ethiopian troops bearing American arms.
A mess? You bet. But it was about to get worse.
Under president, Jimmy Carter, Somalia was given arms along with a tacit understanding America would ignore aggression against Ethiopia for the return of the Ogaden land.
Unfortunately, as such arrangements based on little understanding of the real situation do, the whole scenario escalated. The Soviet Union increased arms shipments to Ethiopia and Cuban troops were airlifted into the Ogaden, ousting the Somalis.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Ogaden poured into Somalia, overwhelming that struggling economy and further destabilizing the country.
From the late 70’s to early 1991, the United States sent arms to Somalia to the tune of $50 million annually in return for use of the bases originally built by the Soviets. These bases, the main of which was Berbera would eventually be used to support U.S. military interventions in the Middle East,.
Barre’s regime in Somalia was brutal. Oppressive, tyrannical, inhumane – Barre’s regime killed thousands of civilians, disallowed any political groups not supportive of his power, forced relocation of Somalia’s largely nomad population into centers of horrific conditions, centralized all government control and virtually destroyed the traditional structure of Somali society that had once served in keeping civil order.
Further, Barre practiced the age-old game of divide and conquer, pitting different Somali clans against one another, eliminating any rivals for power.
As a result, in January of 1991, when Barre’s regime was overthrown by popular uprising despite the well-armed government forces, no one was left with enough power to take charge. The whole country fell apart, disintegrating into chaos with clan based militias under the rule of a number of war lords fighting for supremacy.
At exactly this time, America was involved in the buildup to the first Gulf war, but since the Saudis allowed the United States to set up extensive bases in that country, Berbera was abandoned and Somalis left to their fate.
By late 1991, two warlords battled for control the capital, Mogadishu. They were General Mohammed Farah Aidid and Mohammed Ali Mahdi. The rest of the country suffered ongoing raids and continual fighting among lesser warlords, exacerbated by frequent incursions of Ethiopian forces.
After several minutes of this, the shot suddenly changes from the somber darkness to a bright image of a convoy of US military vehicles bringing food and supplier to the desperate people. We are psychologically relieved to be free from those blue images and grateful immediately to the troops for being not only Somalia’s saviors but our own as we are led into the sunshine.
In the traditional cinematic formula of all disaster movies, next we meet our heroes and our introduction into their lives is intensely personal. We are treated to scenes of basketball games, learn they are all dedicated family men, that they are heroic in their dedication to their cause and above all to each other. We find the usual assortment of characters, the chief protagonist, Sgt. Eversmann; the bad boy, SFC Gibson; the young rookie still wet behind the ears, Private Blackburn; and others, the rebel, the underdog, the questioner… Yep, they’re all there, and lucky for us they wear their names on their helmets to make it easier to remember who’s who.
They are “our boys” from the very moment we meet them, and they are heroic. Oh, how they are heroic. Pure Hollywood heroic. Not that soldiers are not brave when they have to try and survive against all odds, but the portrayal here is one-sided and makes good use of clichéd mantras, dramatic camera shots and superhuman stoicism to drive home the themes of dedication and comradeship, constantly developing the personal appeal of the characters.
On the other hand, the Somali people remain faceless, except for a few selected characters such as the arms merchants and members of Aidid’s militia. Those few faces shown struck me with one thing: they didn’t look like Somali’s do, with their wide eyes, narrow faces and slim, graceful bodies. No, they far more resembled Africans of the west coast areas. What becomes more difficult for the viewer, there is little differentiation between Somali militia soldier and the citizenry. One scene shows nothing more than black hands grabbing weapons – all of Soviet vintage, ignoring the fact that Somalia was, for years armed by the United States.
Our second introduction to the Somali people, after the visions of the starving and dying in the introduction, is when a truck arrives with food. The Somali’s attack the stores like rabid dogs, ripping and tearing, fighting and grabbing.
Suddenly a shot rings out. A Somali soldier dressed entirely in black with his face also covered in a fabric of that color, stands atop the truck. “This food is the property of General Aidid,” he shouts while he and his equally sinister looking compatriots menace the starving mob with their weapons.
Before we go any further, let’s take a look at what this meant for the Somali civilian population.
First, the farmers could not work their land, and had not been able to do so for many years. It was too dangerous. Somalia had been at war with one super power armed enemy or other since the ‘70’s. Without cultivation and the irrigation practices of traditional agriculture, the land itself fell into ruin. A few years of drought finished the process.
Now Somalia was at war with itself. The warlords were well fed and didn’t give a damn that the people were not. Indeed, starvation made for a passive population. Farmers left the land, seeking sanctuary in the cities or relocation camps.
Second, the large segment of the population that had once lived as nomads, tending their small flocks on the arid desert had been “centralized” in relocation camps. Where once a family roamed free, never allowing flocks to overgraze a particular area, now they were imprisoned on a few square yards without rudimentary hygiene.
Why was this done? You can’t supervise nomads. You can't take a census. You can’t conscript them into the army. You can’t control them.
Soon, disease and starvation threatened to kill millions.
This was the final chapter in a long story of super power manipulations, the “cold” war fought on any hapless territory so long as it was far from home. From the early days of Italian domination – a time of rape, plunder and extreme racism – to the final days of the Soviet collapse and the West's support of a brutal dictator, the Somali people were nothing but pawns in a global chess game.
And now, a famine of biblical proportions and unimaginable suffering hit the television screens of the world, something political commenters call the “CNN effect,” and without which, the whole situation would likely to have been ignored.
Certainly, the generous hearts of people around the globe wanted to help, and America was first among these. But early relief work under the Red Cross and other organizations soon found that less than 5% of the relief supplies made safe passage to those in want. Instead, shipments were commandeered by the warlords and sold.
Finally, in 1992, the United Nations Security Council sent experts to perform a study to determine if “peacekeeping” troops should be sent in to protect the relief shipments, which the experts recommended. However, those who understood the situation advised to hold off, that a large number of “blue berets” would be seen as an invasion, threatening not only the food distribution process but also the lives of the aid workers.
But wait – the Americans to the rescue! They circle above in their helicopters asking permission to attack the food pirates. Denial comes in the form of a recitation of the rules of engagement. The soldiers shake their heads sadly, turn the helicopter around and gaze with compassion on the starving people below one last time.
One of the Somali soldiers below waggles his bull horn at the copter as it departs.
From very early in the film this dichotomy of good and evil is constantly reinforced. We see the heroes we’ve come to know so well to the point we even know the names of their family members menaced by faceless, snarling savages unmotivated by anything other than blood lust and an unquenchable thirst to kill a white man, preferably an American.
Even prior to the action, scenes shot in the Bakara Market never show the face of a single Somali – unless he was selling guns. As a result the Somalis are marginalized in a movie about their own country. They are trivialized.
Why the Somalis had picked up guns and fought was never explored.
Even the violence was disproportionate. The wounds suffered by the Americans are shown in graphic detail, one severed from the waist down, a thumb hanging by a thread, an American uniform pierced through the abdomen by a missile… Blood and guts everywhere. They all seem to live long enough to deliver an unlikely, heart-rending, final brave message. “Do me a favor, okay? Tell my parents that I fought well today. And tell them that I... that I... that I fought hard.” Or from a soldier severed in half, “tell my girls I’ll be okay.” One wonders if the director has ever seen a mortally wounded human being. They don’t make speeches; they scream in agony.
In sharp contrast, the Somali’s killed by our heroes are killed cleanly and hygienically. They drop immediately as though struck with surgical precision. Single shots take them out throughout the movie. Not one Somali is killed who isn’t holding a firearm. The violence toward the Somalis is very sanitary and efficient. Apparently, Somalis don’t carry the usual five quarts of blood.
At first, Washington agreed to hold off, but pressure from the compassionate American people changed their views. In August of 1992, a U.S. announcement said UN forces should be sent with or without the agreement of the warlords.
Ali Mahdi whose interim government of Somalia was acknowledged in the UN mediated February cease-fire – though he held little territory – agreed, believing this might strengthen his position.
Fearing just that, Aidid opposed the UN presence, until August 13 when Mohammed Sahnoun, a UN special representative, got Aidid to agree to 500 Pakistani troops.
In the meantime, the UN Security Council abruptly authorized another 3,000 peacekeepers, but without consulting anyone in Somalia, or even informing them. Aided saw this as a plot.
Then the US made another surprise announcement, two days before the Republican National Convention: the undertaking of a military airlift of food to Somalia.
This is, I believe, the point at which the opening of Black Hawk Down attempts to tell the story, but with minimum information.
“The U.S., in 1992, sent Marines as part of a United Nations hunger relief effort. But "Aidid waits until the Marines withdraw, and then declares war on the remaining" U.N. forces, ambushing and killing Pakistani peacekeepers. The Rangers are then sent to "remove Aidid and restore order [1993.]"
What the film does not tell viewers is the long and painful history of the region, including the United States’ role therein, nor the UN’s unilateral decision that “Aidid should be politically marginalized,” even though Aidid was the stronger contender. As the leader of one of Somalias oldest and most powerful clans, deeply rooted in history, Aidid’s organization believed they had the right to rule. The inferred support of his greatest rival set the stage for the next tragic events. Killing Aidid or attempting to do so, would be an act guaranteed to anger Somalis, who, let’s remember, have no reason to trust or love foreign interventionists.
Another piece of information the filmmakers chose to leave out was the actions of the Pakistani troops that led to their demise.
Camera angles play a huge role in the definition of point of view. We see fast moving scenes of black hands grabbing at the fallen helicopter, disconnected faces snarling at the fallen soldiers and unknown black arms pulling a trigger and shooting haphazardly at a corpse. We get the sense we are watching animals, particularly in the aerial views of running and swarming bodies – like a giant herd, or a school of frenzied fish. We fell no compassion for the Somalis whatsoever.
Suffering becomes very one-sided and definitely, we are shown no scenes of men, women and children killed by gunfire pouring down on their homes from the gunships above. Of fleeing crowds mown down.
In this way, Black Hawk Down protects the audience from understanding the full scope of devastation suffered on October 3, allowing only the film’s main message: the Somalis were the villains and Americans the heroes. And don’t you forget it!
You won’t. The director does not give you a chance.
Pulling every trick out of the box, even the soundtrack plays a major role in defining our emotional response.
As background to the scenes of our heroes relaxing in the comparative safety of their compound where they play chess, watch TV, call home to speak to wives and children and poke fun at authority, where the message of camaraderie is stuffed down our throats till we gag, the music is familiar, Elvis Presley and the House of Pain’s “Jump Around,” tunes known to even an old woman like me.
The first appearance of Aidid’s militia is accompanied by harsh techno music that sets the hair on my arms to standing up.
The Americans fly off to strains of soft music and the ethereal voice of Enya.
The Somalis drop dead to percussion, atonal electronic notes and female ululations.
Subtlety is not Scott’s strong suit.
The UN had decided to shut down Aidid’s radio station while allowing Ali Mahdi’s to continue. The Pakistani soldiers entered the station to take it over and look for weapons, an action that was later condemned as “highly provocative and unwise.” A few days later, Pakistan troops fired on an unarmed crowd. The militia’s response was the killing and literal evisceration of 24 Pakistani soldiers.
But wait, there’s something else not reported in this film: the succession of events.
In 1993, with the return of US special forces, woefully ill-informed, they performed a series of raids in quick succession: The HQ of the UN development program; the offices of the charity, World Concern; and the offices of Medicins sans Frontieres (Doctors without borders). They captured scores of innocent civilians and aid workers along with the chief of the UN’s police force. (Ooops.)
This comic farce was followed by very real tragedy.
On July 12, when some of the most senior members of Aidid’s clan hold a meeting in a building to discuss a peace agreement with UN, the US special strike force, even more misinformed, blew them up, killing 54 people, but not Aidid (who died in 1996 of complications from battle wounds.)
Thus they succeeded in making enemies of the Somalis.
The showdown came on 3 October, with an attempt by U.S. Rangers and special forces to snatch two senior Aidid aides near the Olympic Hotel. Resistance was fierce. Two U.S. helicopters were shot down; a third just made it back to base before crashing. An armoured rescue column was ambushed and partly destroyed.
The stranded special forces were harried by gunmen from all sides, and took cover in a small house near the main market.
In return, the US troops in the UN compound began firing missiles at residential areas.
A task force was sent to retrieve the beleaguered troops.
But the worst of all has to be the dialogue. As a writer, I am particularly sensitive to the use of dialogue to build character, to set tone, to build the plot. I couldn’t help wondering which of Hollywood’s many hacks had been engaged to write this most ridiculous, banal, trite, sappy script.
Here are some of my favorite gems:
The tag line of the film is “Leave no man behind,” and that line is delivered in some form or another at least a half dozen times, to the extent the viewer can see it coming. Here it is. Wait for it. “No one will be left behind. You hear me? No one.” Yet, later in the film when we note a machine gunner left behind, no one seems to be worried.
Did I use the word trite? Sgt. Matt Eversmann, the main character of the film, remarks, "I think I was trained to make a difference." When the Rangers and Deltas are requested to return to Mogadishu to rescue their comrades who are trapped in the city, one soldier tells another, "It's what you do right now that makes the difference."
Did I say ridiculous? Sgt. Lorenzo Ruiz, while lying on his deathbed, says to his commanding officer, "Don't go back there without me. I can still do my job."
Did I mention banal? SFC "Hoot" Gibson, when talking with Eversmann: "They won't understand why we do it. They won't understand it's the men next to you. That's it."
Did I describe it as sappy? In the final scene, Eversmann talks to Smith's corpse about the battle and what he has learned. In perhaps the most cliché moment of the movie, he says, "Nobody asks to be a hero. It just sometimes turns out that way."
At the end, the camera zooms out to slow music and a mournful song. We are sad. A letter is read from a soldier to his wife:
“My love, stay strong and you will do well in life. I love you and my children deeply. Today and tomorrow let each day grow and grow. Keep smiling and never give up even when things get you down. So in closing my love, tonight tuck my children in bed warmly. Tell them I love them, then hug them for me and give them both a kiss goodnight for daddy.”
The resultant battle which led to the destruction of two Black Hawk helicopters and the deaths of 18 American soldiers had US personnel facing not only Aidid’s militia, but warriors from the rival militias, united in the face of what was seen as an act of war.
The 3 October battle was a solely U.S. affair, undertaken without even informing other UN contingents—Malaysian and Pakistani troops—who later had to be called upon to help rescue the stranded U.S. aircrews and Rangers – a fact completely missing in the film.
Another fact not mentioned in the film is the understandable but somewhat ignoble act of the American special forces in locking Somali women and children into the house in which they were besieged. Taking hostages is not heroic enough for Hollywood.
We know what happened to 18 American soldiers that day.
Did you know over 1,000 Somalis lost their lives in the 18 hour battle? Here is a report from a doctor working in Digfer Hospital, Mogadishu’s largest, (which also came under fire from rockets that day though this is officially denied).
“I was just finishing a surgery when the first explosion shook the hospital. Afraid for my life I went to the basement [of the hospital] with all those patients who could move. Those who could not were not so lucky.
We heard more explosions, gun fire and helicopters, and the first casualties arrived. For many long hours I listened to accounts of what was happening in the streets. Rocket fire from the American compound was unceasing. From their gunships, they shot at everything that moved, took hostages, gunned their way through crowds of men and women, finished off any wounded who were showing signs of life.
Many people died in their homes, their tin roofs ripped to shreds by high-velocity bullets and rockets. One moment there was a crowd, and the next instant it was just a bleeding heap of dead and injured. They all said that.”
Americans were sickened and horrified by the images of the lifeless corpses of their soldiers dragged through the city by jubilant crowds. They turned to one another and asked, “Why are we so hated when all we want to do is help?”
A Kleenex moment, to be sure.
The ending has nothing to do with the Somali people or the humanitarian effort that the beginning of the movie stresses. There is no understanding of what has happened and why.
The credits start rolling with a drum cadence and a hymn-like tune playing in the background. With this final nod to patriotism, we are urged to remember the soldiers as American heroes.
A personal note
I have nothing but respect for the men and women in uniform, thrust into situations they don’t understand under commanders with no better understanding, directed by executive decisions based on even less understanding, but still do their job and try to survive.
I grew up with the military, on one of North America’s largest defense research bases – Suffield, Alberta. Over the years I met and came to know military personnel of three nations: Canada, Britain and the United States. I know how the military works and truth is a lot closer to the movie Mash than it is to the super-heroes of Black Hawk Down.
There’s a reason the standing refrain in the military is SNAFU – situation normal, all fucked up. Because it usually is.
The rank and file knows that, which makes it all the more amazing they go about doing what they do. For that alone, I respect them.
“Ours is not to wonder why, just to fight until we die.”
My grudge with Black Hawk Down is that though it had the opportunity to present the real picture, to educate us, to ask the important questions, instead it degenerated into the piece of propaganda it is. I felt like I’d watched a long and bloody commercial for the military.
I almost expect "the Duke" to appear on the screen and say "Well, there's humans and then there's...."
--Lynda M Martin
September 20, 2011
There is so much more to consider before seeking any kind of answer to that question – at least as it relates to this sad segment of history.
Not the least of which is the behavior of the UN forces in general.
The deployment of Italian troops was a questionable decision made by the UN Security Council in the first place. Once the colonial lords of Somalia, their arrival was not well viewed by a people with a long memory of past injustices.
Nor, apparently had the Italians improved their view of the Somali people. Parts of the world (few mainstream news services carried the story) were shocked by gruesome photos of Italian soldiers torturing a Somali youth and abusing and raping a Somali girl. According to several eye witnesses, Italian soldiers kidnapped a pretty young girl from the market, tied her to the front of an armored personnel carrier and raped her while officers looked on. The South China Morning Post published an AFP report about an Italian battalion commander who sexually abused and strangled a 13-year-old Somali boy. There are also allegations that, in 1993, Italian soldiers beat seven suspected Somali thieves, killing one; that they beat to death a 14-year-old boy who sold a false medal and beat a couple in a car. An Italian paratrooper was quoted as saying: "What's the big deal? They are just niggers anyway."
The use of Belgian troops was equally misguided, as all of Africa is aware of that country’s past atrocities of the Belgian Congo, a brutal regime even for a continent with an extensive history of brutality. The London Telegraph, in a combined dispatch with AFP, reported that Belgian troops roasted a Somali boy over the open flame of brazier. The incident was even photographed. Once the despicable act was made public, the soldiers involved faced court martial. The military court sentenced the two paratroopers to a month in jail and a fine of 200 pounds.
And, apparently, this was not an isolated incident. Another Belgian soldier stands accused of forcing a young Somali to eat pork, drink salt water and then eat his own vomit. Another sergeant is suspected of having murdered a Somali whom he was photographed urinating upon. Another child, accused of stealing food from the paratroopers' base, died after being locked in a storage container under the blazing sun with no water for 48 hours. Fifteen other members of the same regiment were investigated in 1995 for "acts of sadism and torture" against Somali civilians.
Defense Minister Jean-Pol Poncelet stated any soldier convicted of criminal acts in Somalia will be dishonorably discharged.
Canadians, accustomed to taking pride in their peace keepers were shamed by reports that a group of Canadian paratroopers were investigated for torturing a Somali to death and killing three others. The soldiers involved had taken photographs and videos of the incidents and made them public on their return. The affair led to the disbanding of Canada's elite Canadian Airborne Regiment, greatly damaging the morale of the Canadian Forces, and marring the domestic and international reputation of Canadian soldiers. One soldier was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.
“We promised them peacekeepers, and...we sent them thugs.” —Rex Murphy, Canadian journalist
And Americans? There are no official public reports of atrocities perpetrated by Americans. However, a young Somali journalist writes of events he witnessed.
“… They [American troops] drive down the roads in their Humvees going so fast people scramble to get out of the way. If they don’t move fast enough, they are hit and knocked down, their carts are smashed, their loads destroyed. When there is a crowd, they fire weapons in the air first, then point them at the people, shout at them to get out of the way.
They fly in their Black Hawk Helicopters so low over the markets the stalls fly apart, the goods blow away, the dust rises and no one can see. People are screaming. Once they handcuffed a screaming woman to a Humvee. She wouldn’t stop screaming so one soldier struck her in the head with his weapon. A man came to try and translate for her. The soldier hit him in the abdomen. Only later would they listen. The downdraft from the rotors had ripped the woman’s baby from her arms and blown it away into the dust. We found the lifeless body later.
When they meet, they greet each other with “Hoo-uh” and slap high-five standing on their vehicles and make jokes about us as they point and laugh.
They call us skinnies and niggers. But they take any woman or girl they want. They feel they have the right to f…k whoever or whatever they want and after they are done they throw some money at them.
They will never win the support of the Somali people…”
So it should come as no surprise that the Somalis burned with hatred not just for Americans, but for all foreign forces. Those sent to help and protect them had taken sides in the internal conflict of the country, abused those they were there to help and a peace keeping mission had become an active guerilla-style ground war.
However fragmented Somali society may be with clans, sub-clans and extended clans, they come together very quickly in the face of an outside threat.
One thing that the U.S. and UN never appreciated was that, as the level of aggression escalated, so increased the determination of Somalis to resist and fight back. By the time of the 3 October battle, literally every inhabitant of large areas of Mogadishu considered the UN and U.S. as enemies, and were ready to take up arms against them.
- BBC News - Timeline: Somalia
A chronology of key events in the history of Somalia
What happened next?
In 1995 UN peacekeepers leave, and Somalia remains under the chaotic rule of rival warlords.
In 2000, clan leaders and tribal elders meet and elect Abdulkassim Salat Hassan president of Somalia, who appoints Ali Khalif Gelayadh as Prime Minister. They form a government, the first in Somalia since 1991 known as the Transitional Federal Government. The TFG receives recognition and promises of support from the U.S. However, this government does not receive support from the rival militias and their leaders.
Early in 2001, the warlords announce they will form a government within six months in direct opposition to the TFG. Later that year, the TFG appeals to the world for aid due to the famine in the south. The infighting continues.
In 2004, the fourteenth attempt at instituting a government since 2000, the TFG elect Abdullahi Yusuf as president. They sit in absentia having taken refuge in Kenya. In that same year, a tsunami formed by the earthquake off Indonesia hits the Somali coast. Tens of thousands are dispossessed.
2006 February - Transitional parliament meets in Somalia - in the central town of Baidoa - for the first time since it was formed in Kenya in 2004. April and May, Scores of people are killed and hundreds are injured during fierce fighting between rival militias in Mogadishu. It is the worst violence in almost a decade.
2006 June-July - Militias loyal to the Union of Islamic Courts take control of Mogadishu and other parts of the south after defeating clan warlords. For a brief six months, the city of Mogadishu and most of Somalia enjoyed peace under the Islamic Courts Union, the first non-clan affiliated government the country has known. The ICU was widely supported by the Somali people, and had only just begun reconstruction of a national infrastructure when Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006, but was viewed with suspicion by the Bush administration.
2006 – 50,000 heavily armed Ethiopian troops invade Somalia. Most African nations (and much of the rest of the world) consider this invasion to be American supported, an “invasion by proxy.” Washington denies the claim. It resulted in 20,000 Somalia deaths and according to some reports, left up to 2 million Somalis homeless.
To date -- There hasn’t been so much as a week without clashes, violence and death.The continual turmoil between rival factions has given rise to the more radical Al Shabab movement.
2010 -- The UN once again sends in peacekeeping forces, mostly Ugandan troops to defeat Al Shabab. The fighting is fierce.
Under President Obama, Somalia became the ninth country to be bombed by drones
The humanitarian needs of the Somali people have grown with each year. Recently, Kenya temporarily closed her borders due to fighting between Al Shabab and Transitional Federal Government forces. For the third year Somalia has suffered a total crop failure due to drought on those lands where farmers can sow their crops in comparative safety.
2011 July - UN formally declares famine in two regions of southern Somalia. Aid agencies warn that millions face starvation, after drought, conflict and poverty combine to produce the necessary conditions for famine. Tens of thousands of Somalis flee to refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. The UN estimates that a quarter of the population is either internally displaced or living outside the country.
If war is hell, then continual conflict has made Somalia a true hell-on-earth.
Lynda M Martin, September 20th, 2011
Recommended reading on this subject matter from various points of view
http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/pa-205.html Somalia – Time for an African Solution, African thinkers discuss Somalia, includes an excellent history section
http://hornofafrica.ssrc.org/de_Waal3/ A “different” view of the history involved here
http://www.suite101.com/content/black-hawk-down-a213064 a discussion of the ethical decisions made by US forces
On the 2006 invasion by Ethiopia
http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2006/12/28/ethiopian-army-seizes-mogadishu-does-anyone-outside-of-the-bush-and-zenawi-administrations-think-this-was-a-good-idea/ An ex-pat white African discusses the invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia
http://www.trinicenter.com/articles/2007/130607.html The Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006 as discussed by the Trinity group.
On Somalia today
http://www.biyokulule.com/view_content.php?articleid=3455 An excellent article by a journalist who has returned to Mogadishu recently and found it the same old war torn place
http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/North_Africa/Somalia_MostDangerousPlace.html Gettleman, a reporter for the NYT describes first hand Somalia of today and calls it the Most Dangerous Place in the World
http://www.rastafarispeaks.com/somalia/ “Africa Speaks” various articles about Somalia from the African perspective
http://www.medialens.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=541:somalia-hidden-catastrophe-hidden-agenda&catid=22:alerts-2008&Itemid=65 Modern day Somalia and the possible politics behind the catastrophe
Bibliography -- a partial list of source material beyond that linked or cited in the body of the article
http://lib.mnsu.edu/about/staff/schomberg/somali.pdf Minnesota University Mankato Library A bibliography of English language books on Somalia
Allard, Kenneth (1995). Somalia Operation: Lessons Learned. Washington, D.C: National Defense University Press.
Bowden, Mark (2000). Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War. New York: Penguin USA.
Crocker, Chester A. (May/June 1995). "The Lessons of Somalia: Not Everything Went Wrong." Foreign Affairs 74(3).
U.S. Department of State (1994). "Presidential Decision Directive 25." Washington, D.C: Bureau of International Organizations, U.S. Department of State. Available from http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/pdd25.htm.
A Modern History of Somalia: Nation and State in the Horn of Africa by I. M. Lewis.
From Bad Policy to Chaos in Somalia: How an Economy Fell Apart by Jamil Abdalla Mubarak
African Rights (London). Somalia: human rights abuses by the United Nations forces. London: African Rights; 1993.
African Rights (London). Somalia: Operation Restore Hope: a preliminary assessment. London: African Rights; 1993.
Somalia operations: lessons learned , Allard, Kenneth. Washington, D.C.: National Defense University Press; 1995.
Conflict in Somalia: Drivers and Dynamics http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTSOMALIA/Resources/conflictinsomalia.pdf
Somalia: Faint hope for a failed state http://www.africafiles.org/article.asp?ID=7586