Black Hawk Down
By midnight, the rescue convoy was getting close…It was the wrathful approach of the United States of America, footsteps of the great god of red, white, and blue. It was the best fucking sound in the world.
The paragraph comes near the end of the book. The major part of the danger is passed. The passage reveals the relief that comes after a terrifying day of frustration and scrapes with death.
It is clear throughout Black Hawk Down that Mark Bowden did an incredible amount of research for his book. Bowden doesn’t attribute his paragraphs. He does describe movements, thoughts, and feelings of those involved. It is clear that the information comes from the subjects.
It is easy to spot which characters don’t die in Black Hawk Down. This is somewhat refreshing in the tensest moments. When Mike Durant is surrounded by shrieking Somalis, you know he makes it out. How would Bowden find out about the incident, if Durant didn’t survive to tell the story? John Stebbens, despite his fears, makes it out in the end because he told Bowden exactly what he thought when he was told to suit up.
Black Hawk Down is a military story. In the afterword, written some years after the book initially hit shelves, Bowden says he has no military background. He is a journalist who followed a journalist’s need to tell a good, thorough story.
And it is thorough. The reader gets the sense that every minute is accounted for, even the hours waiting, hiding in deserted houses for a convoy that might never show up.
Bowden writes in exquisite detail. The reader is almost transported to the hot, blown out city that is Mogadishu on a Sunday afternoon in October 1993. You can almost feel your legs dangle out of the doors of the helicopter as it cruises across the bay, toward the target house.
At times, the reader relives the confusion as the convoy loses its way in the narrow, ill-kempt streets. You almost feel the fear as bullets whizz past, or friends are shot.
One impressive thing about the book is its almost real time feel. Only a few times does Bowden give the reader information that the soldiers wouldn’t have had. He does tell the story from several different points of view, so you get the whole picture, but it feels more like you are a general, receiving reports and information as they develop.
Bowden went so far as to interview Somalis who were there. It is impressive that he makes the faceless enemy into real people with real feelings. He describes their fears, their anger and their frustrations with the Rangers.
Early on, he relates the story of a teenager, Ali Hassan Mohammed. Ali watches his brother die in the spray of American bullets. He sees other atrocities. He knows of past crimes committed by the invaders. Frustrated, the young man grabs a gun and runs through the streets. Ali’s chapter ends, “He would shoot a Ranger or die trying. Why were they doing this? Who were these Americans who came to his neighborhood spraying bullets and spreading death?”
Bowden sprinkles other accounts of native Somalis among the stories of embattled Rangers, fighting for their lives. Your heart breaks for people on both sides of the conflict.
Somebody else writing this story might have left out the backstories of the Rangers. Bowden goes into details about their lives: who they were before joining the army, their plans with their girlfriends or fiancés after the fight, even down to what John Grisham novel they were reading before the call came to mount up.
Bowden does an equally fine job describing life in the hangar. Endless hours of waiting, standing guard, mustering, standing down, mustering, short missions, more waiting made most of the soldiers eager for battle. Characters become endearing when Bowden describes jokes, pranks, skits and other hijinks played out in the hangar.
Perhaps the overarching theme of the book is America’s military invincibility. In the beginning, the soldiers feel like nothing can go wrong. They are the best-trained soldiers in the world. Then one black hawk helicopter goes down. Then another one. Many of the men start to question their invincibility. The convoy of Humvees sent to extract the hostages and soldier from the target building is shot to pieces by the angry mobs. Several soldiers die, and many, many more are wounded. The story, in the moment, seems like a mounting fiasco. Then, at last, the might of America, with some friends, is unleashed and the soldiers are rescued. When all are safely gathered, the situation is evaluated and it looks terrible. Most of the men have wounds, many of them serious. Some of them are dead.
Bowden makes a point to put the whole thing in perspective in the epilogue. According to him, 99 American soldiers survived a night in completely hostile city. They lost 18 men, and many were wounded. But the mission was accomplished. He praises the men for being well trained, and for using that training to stay alive.
The real feat of Bowden’s book is to write about the story for its own sake. It didn’t appear that Bowden was writing to either criticize or promote the operation. He reserves comments on performance and outcome for the epilogue and afterword. Even then, he comments that he isn’t knowledgeable enough to say what might have fixed the situation. It comes off as a pure story, free from analysis or commentary.
Alas, Bowden rounds out his tale by pointing out that the Rangers did win the Battle of the Black Sea, but because of factors outside the soldiers’ control, America lost the war in Somalia.