The month of May has two special days for our men and women in uniform: Armed Forces Day, when we recognize those currently serving, and Memorial Day, when we honor America’s fallen heroes. On the third Saturday in May, some will tip their hat and say, “Thank you for your service,” and on the final Monday in May, some will attend ceremonies at local cemeteries.
There is, however, something more important we all can do this month for our men and women in uniform: pledge that we will hold our political leaders accountable to never again deploy America’s armed forces into hostile environments without adequate force levels and resources.
Operation Desert Storm is a textbook example of political leaders following this pledge, and the battle best known as Black Hawk Down is an example of our political leaders (and those who elected them) failing in this pledge. As the former chairman of the Department of Military Strategy and Operations at the National War College, I am well aware of many examples of such successes and failures, but none more top of mind than the Battle of Mogadishu in October 1993.
I spent the past 15 months working on a documentary film, “Black Hawk Down: The Untold Story.” As I began the research in January 2018, I realized that many Americans would have little knowledge of this battle that occurred a quarter of a century ago. I began the film with a brief history.
The Story of Black Hawk Down
On December 4, 1992, President George H. W. Bush addressed the nation from the Oval Office. He talked about how many Somalis had already died and how international relief organizations were predicting more than 1 million deaths from starvation if aggressive action was not taken. The president told the nation that the famine was not caused by climate change or crop failures.
The problem was that Somalia was a failed nation-state, and the Somali people were being used as pawns in a civil war between rival warlords. Bush talked about “warehouses filled to the brim with food, yet people were starving less than a kilometer away because the warlords were disrupting international food shipments.” The evening newscasts were filled with photos and videos of starving children, and the vast majority of Americans were demanding action—a compassionate deployment of U. S. military forces.
The initial operation, Restore Hope, was a great success, primarily because the commander in chief followed the “Powell Doctrine” and deployed an overwhelming force. The warlords were well armed, but when faced with 28,000 U.S. Marines in armored vehicles, the thugs went into hiding. The famine ended.
Unfortunately, everything changed just a few months into the Clinton administration. President Clinton withdrew the overwhelming U.S. force, along with their armored vehicles, and left just a small contingent of U.S. soldiers in Somalia to serve as a quick reaction force for 21 other nations’ forces deployed under the U.N. flag.
The Somali warlords quickly responded. Violence returned to the streets of Mogadishu, and not only against the Somali people. On June 5, 1993, the armed militia of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid killed 24 Pakistani peacekeepers and wounded 44.
What happened next has been described in a number of reports, books, documentaries, and even an Academy Award-winning film. The most recent account, “Black Hawk Down: The Untold Story” describes the heroic actions of the soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division who fought their way into a “baited ambush” to rescue the 99 special operations troops trapped at the crash site of the first Black Hawk helicopter shot down on October 3, 1993. Gen. Mark Milley, the U.S. army chief of staff, has several appearances in this film and describes the battle as “the most ferocious urban combat since the battle of Hue during the 1968 Tet offensive in Vietnam.”
The Battle of Mogadishu
During the Battle of Mogadishu, 18 U.S. soldiers were killed and another 78 wounded. Many of the soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division rode into combat in vehicles that provided no more protection than a standard sedan, because Secretary of Defense Les Aspin had turned down the request from senior military leaders for U.S. armored vehicles. After the first rescue attempt failed to penetrate the numerous ambush sites, a second assault was made by putting U.S. soldiers in Malaysian armored personnel carriers (APCs).
The soldiers from the 2nd Battalion 14th Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division (2-14) rode into combat on this second rescue attempt in vehicles that protected them from machine gun fire, but not from scores of rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) that destroyed many of the APCs. Furthermore, the Clinton administration’s decision to not provide the requested U. S. armored vehicles meant that our soldiers rode into combat in vehicles driven by Malaysian soldiers who did not speak English. As one 2-14 soldier says, “We were going into a nighttime urban battle, in a white vehicle with UN painted on the side, driven by Malaysians who did not speak our language.”
I made this film for two reasons. First, to tell the heretofore untold story of the soldiers from 2-14, and second, to remind the American public that we must learn a key lesson from this battle. When we feel the tugs on our heartstrings, and listen to the pleas from TV talking heads that U. S. military forces must be deployed to avoid a humanitarian disaster—like we are now hearing about the crisis in Venezuela—we must ask three questions: 1) Are U. S. vital national security interests at stake? 2) Do we have a clearly defined exit strategy? 3) Are we willing to deploy a military force adequate to the threat environment?
Only Deploy Forces Under Very Specific Conditions
There may be occasions when a situation dictates the deployment of U.S. forces even though vital U.S. national security interests are not at stake, and even times when the requirement for rapid response may mean that a fully developed exit strategy has not yet been completed.
However, we must never again deploy forces that are not adequately equipped for the threat to our troops. If the soldiers of 2-14 had ridden into the Battle of Mogadishu in the M-1 tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles requested several months earlier, there would not have been much of a battle. This overwhelming force would have significantly limited casualties, on both sides.
On this Memorial Day weekend, there will be no better way to honor America’s fallen heroes than for all of us to remember this lesson from Mogadishu and pledge that we will never again let our compassion override our good judgment.