Lest we forget, “Black Hawk Down”

During 3 – 4 October 1993 American Rangers and Delta Force fought The Battle of Mogadishu —  the largest firefight in the three decades between the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars.  Black Hawk Down, the book by Mark Bowden and the movie based on it, tell powerful stories of American skill and valor under fire. The discussions about these events usually examines events before and during the battle, debates about “what if” and “should have”. However the most poignant and valuable passages are, I believe, at the end of the book — describing the worst failure of this battle.

Even inside the military, where one might expect to find strong professional interest in the biggest firefight involving American soldiers since Vietnam, there appears to have been little in the way of a detailed post-mortem.

… Since I was starting my work three years after the battle, I expected the historical portion of the work had already been done.  Surely somewhere in the Pentagon or White House there was a thick volume of after-action reports and exhibits detailing the fight and critiquing our military performance.  I was wrong.  No such thick volume exists. While the Battle of the Black Sea may well be the most thoroughly documented incident in American military history, to my surprise no one had even begun to collect all that raw information into a definitive account.

… I have spoken to hundreds of active US military officers … who contacted me seeking copies of {my} newspaper series or more detailed information about certain aspects of the fight.  Among that number have been teachers at the military academies and the Army War College, the National Defense Analysis Institute, the Military Operations Research Society, the USMC training base at Paris island, the Security Studies Program at MIT, and even the US Central Command.

I was flattered, but uneasy with the idea that our armed forces would rely on a journalist with no military background to inform them about a battle fought by many men who are still on active duty. As one of the former Delta team leaders remarked after hearing of yet another invitation I’d received, “Why aren’t they talking to us?”

“Lessons learned” are among the most valuable fruits of battle, but they must first be harvested. It is disturbing that NFL teams routinely spend more effort reviewing films of their games than the US Army appears to have done reviewing the the Battle of Mogadishu (until Bowden published his book).

Lessons learned from each engagement might have been unimportant over the millennia during which the conduct of war changed little.  As Martin van Creveld says in Technology and War:

When Alexander the Great crossed into Asia Minor he was presented with a suit of armor guaranteed to be of Trojan War vintage. He then actually wore this 900-year-old contraption in battle, until it became so battered that a replacement became necessary.

As we move into the era in which 4GW is the dominant form of warfare, every battle can yield insights of value for the next battle.  These insights are a key to success amidst the fast evolution of 4GW methods.  That the Army relied on a journalist rather than its own experts to gather this information was in itself a major “red flag” warning. That is not the worst of it, however.

I have had officers at the US Army War College ask me whether General Garrison ought to have requested armor as part of his force protection package, and officers at the Special Operations Warfare School ask me whether the air support package was adequate. I continue to plead ignorance on these issues. I think before anyone holds a strong opinion about, say, a Bradley Armored Vehicle, he ought to at least know what one looks like. I do not qualify.

Plato said that in the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king. In the absence of a professional research and analysis about this battle …

Instead, the military has embraced Black Hawk Down.  It is now one of the mandatory books on the curriculum of the US Army Command and General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, where I have received three separate invitations to speak. … I have lectured twice at CIA headquarters as well as at the US Military Academy at West Point.

Our officers use what tools they have at hand.  By all accounts Black Hawk Down has proven useful, along with other reports written both before and after Bowden’s book — some by military professionals, none whom had Bowden’s resources (I doubt any of them spent a week in Somalia doing research).  See the list at the end of this article; none of these have the degree of research which an engagement of this importance deserved.

What explains the failure of the Army’s senior generals to order a thorough report?  Bowden says…

In Washington a whiff of failure is enough to induce widespread amnesia.

How true, and how sad. Perhaps our senior generals should take a page from the playbook of Andrew Grove (CEO of Intel 1987-1998): “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” (see the Preface of his book for more about this)  That might be a good motto for the age of 4GW, motivating our senior generals to have increased curiosity about events in the world outside the “Versailles on the Potomac”, and examine even failed operations — especially failed ops — with close attention and clear vision.

For more on this topic

  • “Intelligence Lessons Known and Revealed During Operation Restore Hope Somalia,” David L. Shelton (Major, USMC), Marine Corps Gazette (February 1995) – subscription only site.
  • “Lessons Unlearned: Somalia and Joint Doctrine”, Kenneth Allard, Joint Force Quarterly (Autumn 1995) — this links to a PDF of the article.
  • Somalia Operations: Lessons Learned, Kenneth Allard (1995) — this links to a PDF of the book (10 meg)
  • Non-Lethal Force: The Slippery Slope to War?“, F. M. Lorenz, Parameters (Autumn 1996) — describes Operation United Shield, the US-led evacuation of UN forces from Somalia.
  • “A Leap Into the Dark: Crisis Action Planning for Operation Restore Hope”, Christopher L. Baggott (Lt. Colonel, USA), Army Command and General Staff College (December 1996), 66 pages — this links to a PDF.
  • “Critical Analysis on the Defeat of Task Force Ranger”, Clifford E. Day (Major, USAF), Air Command and Staff College (March 1997), 42 pages — this links to a PDF.
  • Mark Bowden’s series of articles in The Philadelphia Inquirer about the Battle of Mogadishu are here (November 1997)
  • “Battle of Mogadishu: Anatomy of a Failure”, Roger N. Sangvic (Major, USA), Army Command and General Staff College (December 1998) 69 pages — this links to a PDF.
  • Ambush in Mogadishu, Frontline, broadcast by PBS (29 September 1998)
  • The CIA in Somalia: After-Action Report“, Vernon Loeb, Washington Post Magazine (27 February 2000)
  • “US Forces, Somalia After Action Report and Historical Overview of the US Army in Somalia, 1992-1994”, Center of Military History (2003) — not available online.
  • The North Virginia Community College has an excellent overview of the Somalia operations here.
  • The USAF’s Air University site has an extensive list of resources about Operation Restore Hope here.


See Opposed System Design for a powerful – demolishing – critique of my analogy about the National Football League’s use of game films.  Following this article’s advice to do a review after every event:

Lesson learned: *never* use analogies about sports which one never plays or watches!

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6 thoughts on “Lest we forget, “Black Hawk Down””

  1. Pingback: Opposed Systems Design :: Wehrmacht Lessons Learned :: February :: 2008

  2. In my un-educated opinion, it seems that reflection, being one of the most potent illuminators we have, is a luxury for leaders, not managers. Managers are crisis oriented and can’t afford to take time away from managing to think creatively and consider possibilities. They are not “built” to consider a wide range of options, or use history in present context. Leaders, to me, seem to be in a position where they are somewhat insulated from the chaos of the organization and thus can spend their time, reflecting, contemplating, reading the after action reports, and most importantly, finding the right path. At the top of our military, along with the contractors, do we have managers or do we have leaders?
    Fabius Maximus replies: In my experience the manager-leader duality is more of a textbook dichotomy. Almost any person with responsilbity for others, except for infants and toddlers, has the responsibility to manage and some opportunity to lead. At each time and place, the need for one or the other may compel attention — an each person has a different preference when choosing between these roles. Still, I have seen busy managers replace by another person who relies more on leadership — and vice versa.

  3. Good article. Strange that so little analysis was done of this. In addition to the high level issues (should we have been there, should we have stayed or cut losses, how much force to bring), there are likely some good tactical lessons to learn. How well was the thing planned and executed. how well do our people respond to emergent situations.

    Interesting how much the Falklands War was analyzed (as most recent real naval engagement). But this thing was not.

    FWIW, there has been a tendency of special ops (SEALs worst, I think) to screw up some operations. Grenada, Red Wings, etc. I know the whole spooky, spooky thing. And I know noone is perfect and it hard getting things done. But even in exercises, I have seen screwups in navigation, coordination, etc.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      That’s interesting to hear about the problems in ops by Special Ops. Does this result from their rapid expansion and years of rapid operations?

      Have there been article about this?

  4. It’s just a general impression. I don’t have any articles.

    I think some of the issues predate the massive $$ influx from GWOT. Although even then SOCOM was sexy and growing.

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      More likely then the influx of money is that Spec Ops units are have problems after 16 years of too-rapid operational tempo AND massive expansion which might have decreased quality.

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