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Photo by Perry Heimer, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration on Wikimedia Commons.

The Streets of Mogadishu

N. W. Collins—

“Every American has seen the shocking images from Somalia,” President George H. W. Bush commenced the live address from the Oval Office.1

Announcing the new mission to East Africa, President Bush presented the national objective: to lead a global coalition to ease the humanitarian crisis in the region, to serve as a catalyst for the community of nations to act. “I have given the order . . . to move a substantial American force into Somalia . . . As I speak a Marine amphibious ready group, which we maintain at sea, is offshore Mogadishu.” The coalition would set out to avert human catastrophe by restoring peace and stability to the region, he explained. Addressing service members, he assured them that they would have the nation’s full support for this difficult and dangerous deployment. In sum, “Let me be very clear: Our mission is humanitarian . . . America will answer the call.”2

From the perspective of the White House, the streets of Mogadishu from 1992 to 1994 would represent a full cycle in the use of U.S. force: the launch of a large-scale humanitarian aid mission; the coercive disarmament of local power brokers; the waves of escalating attacks and deaths of U.S. service members; and ultimately, the abrupt U.S. and multinational withdrawals.3

Colin Powell, a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and later U.S. Secretary of State, expressed astonishment that street fighting in Mogadishu, and specifically the deaths of eighteen U.S. service members in October 1993, precipitated a major shift in the use of U.S. force. A similar firefight during the Vietnam War, Powell noted, would not even have merited a headline, much less a reversal of U.S. foreign policy.4

However, the firefight of October 3-4, was indeed different. What began as a quick and routine raid on a Sunday afternoon ended more than eighteen hours later with a United Nations rescue force. A U.N. relief column—in a convoy totaling more than sixty vehicles with Pakistani tanks in the lead and Malaysian armored personnel carriers rolling forward, and with U.S. helicopters overhead—reached trapped U.S. service members, then made it out of the city and returned to U.N. bases. While some tactical objectives of the raid were achieved, the broad strategic costs were high.5

Captured in images and globally broadcast, this street combat in Mogadishu drew the world’s sustained attention. A journalist from Toronto, Paul Watson, got to the sites of the U.S. helicopter crashes on Monday, October 4. Unlike his previous reporting, he grabbed his 35mm Nikon camera, feeling an imperative to gather visual evidence, he later explained. Watson, then living through weeks of street shelling, feared that words alone from Somalia could no longer rise above the international din. Whether it was too easy for his Canadian readership to dismiss his written reports as “mere” descriptions of tribal warfare, or to skip over them when the fervent violence grew too grim to follow or fathom, Watson didn’t know. Whatever the reason, reporting without imagery had failed to break through. Neither the mutilation of AP and Reuters journalists in July 1993 nor the dismemberment of U.S. soldiers in September 1993 had received the scrutiny or response that Watson believed such attacks had warranted.6

On that October 4, Watson captured an image tragically familiar to him—but new to others—of a U.S. soldier’s body being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Several U.S. media outlets declined to show the picture, citing its graphic and brutal content. The few that did show it circulated an altered or partial image. TIME magazine covered over the dead soldier’s exposed scrotum with digital editing, and the AP ran a more tightly framed version of the image. The photograph, even though mediated by its multiple conduits, had an immediate impact. Delivered in its delimited form, the picture still functioned as an explicit symbol of the ghastly stasis of Mogadishu.7

Three days later, on October 7, President Bill Clinton spoke from the Oval Office in a televised address to the nation: “This past weekend we all reacted with anger and horror as an armed Somali gang desecrated the bodies of our American soldiers and displayed a captured American pilot, all of them soldiers who were taking part in an international effort to end the starvation of the Somali people themselves.” The United States announced a reversal in its Somalia policy, effectively ending its role in both the U.N. humanitarian mission and its national intervention in Somalia’s violent conflicts. The White House set a six-month deadline for the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from the region and immediately ordered an end to any use of American force in-country with the sole exception of acts of self-defense.8

In the three weeks following that firefight, nearly every U.S. public assumption about the value and purpose of the country’s mission in Somalia was overturned, including the premise that congressional leaders would sustain the operations until their successful conclusion. On November 11, Congress followed with a formal prohibition: an amendment to the National Defense Appropriations Act to end the use of funds on U.S. military operations in Somalia by early spring. By mid-December, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin resigned under pressure, a decision that others tied to failures in Somalia.9

A retired Army colonel who had questioned the legitimacy of an earlier U.S. assault on a Mogadishu building, undertaken on July 12, 1993, returned to Somalia in late October to work on the White House exit strategy. The National Security Council plan for the area was then described as: “We would wash our hands of Somalia. Blackhawk Down was a military and political embarrassment to the United States. Two helicopters shot down by Aidid’s militia. The warlords were beating [us] . . . So the U.S. would back out of this mess.” 10

As U.S. Marine General Anthony Zinni later recalled, “I think everybody thought we were there to do a very limited humanitarian effort. When it became nation-building and hunting warlords, then casualties associated with that mission were not understood. It was not what the American people felt that they had signed up to.”11

A U.S. Army leader later pointed out, though: “The American ‘people’ didn’t sign up for anything.”12

By March 25, 1994, fifteen months after that initial Oval Office announcement of the mission’s launch, a U.S. journalist in Mogadishu reported a makeshift sign hanging in an abandoned mess hall: “Operation Get the Hell Out of Somalia.” What had begun with a distribution of relief supplies, via a mix of C-141 Starlifter cargo planes, C-130 Hercules turboprop transports, and KC-10 Extender aircraft, had unraveled in street fighting and was ending in full withdrawal.13

This marked a watershed moment of retreat and became something more: an overall shift in America’s willingness to answer the world’s call.

Eleven days after the final withdrawal date of U.S. forces from Somalia, the White House received notification of a killing campaign underway in nearby Rwanda. The United States, as well as many member countries of the United Nations, had known of preparations for mass slaughter since the previous year, and made only modest attempts to intervene, disrupt, or avert them. On April 6, 1994, the presidential plane of Rwanda was hit by SA-16s, ground-to-air missiles launched from near the nation’s capital, killing all aboard, including the Rwandan president. This shoot-down was followed by a coordinated campaign of slaughter, ending in more than a half-million Rwandans killed in twelve weeks. U.N. leadership, as mass killings were underway, formally categorized the killings as genocide, a legal designation requiring action from the international community. U.S. and U.N. leadership did not answer the call. The international community undertook minimal action to avert the systematic destruction of a people. While the United States and the United Nations acknowledged a moral obligation to intervene to prevent genocide, meaningful measures were not taken. The United States was temporarily, but substantially, overshadowed by the ghosts of the streets of Mogadishu.14

N. W. Collins is the author of Grey Wars: A Contemporary History of U.S. Special Operations and the chair of Defense & Security Studies at Columbia University.

1. For the originating mission, see address to the nation by President George H. W. Bush on December 4, 1992, which followed U.N. Security Council Resolution 794, adopted unanimously on December 3, 1992. In President Bush’s letter to U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, he wrote that the objective of sending forces forward was “to create security conditions which will permit the feeding of the Somali people.” Bush publicly announced the U.S. intention to launch Operation Restore Hope in Somalia on Thanksgiving Day. For some analysis into conditions leading up to these events, see United Nations, 100-Day Action Programme for Accelerated Humanitarian Assistance for Somalia (October 6, 1992) and Jonathan T. Dworken, “Restore Hope Coordinating Relief Operations,” Joint Forces Quarterly 8 (Summer 1995): 14–20.

2. Following this address from the Oval Office, President Bush submitted a “Letter to Congressional Leaders on the Situation in Somalia” on December 10, 1992. For ground reporting throughout the year, see the articles of Keith B. Richburg for The Washington Post as well as his book, Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa (New York: Basic Books, 1997). For detailed reports, see the International Review of the Red Cross, at that time published every two months, for updates on conditions in Somalia; Nos. 292–97 offer the complete set of briefings in 1993.

3. For analysis of shifts in decision-making, and the consequences of these changes, see Kenneth C. Allard, Somalia Operations: Lessons Learned (Washington: National Defense University Press, 1995); Martin Binkin, Who Will Fight the Next War? The Changing Face of the American Military (Washington: Brookings Institution, 1993); John R. Bolton, “Wrong Turn in Somalia,” Foreign Affairs 73:1 (January/February 1994): 56–67; Walter Clarke and Jeffrey Herbst, eds., Learning from Somalia: The Lessons of Armed Humanitarian Intervention (Boulder: Westview, 1997); Eric V. Larson and Bogdan Savych, American Public Support for U.S. Military Operations from Mogadishu to Baghdad (Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2005); Jonathan Stevenson, Losing Mogadishu: Testing U.S. Policy in Somalia (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995); and Karin Von Hippel, Democracy by Force: U.S. Military Intervention in the Post–Cold War World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

4. See Colin Powell, My American Journey, with Joseph E. Persico (New York: Random House, 1995) and Mark Bowden, “The Final Chapter: Freeing a Pilot, Ending a Mission,” Philadelphia Inquirer (December 14, 1997), for interview of Powell: “No one expected a large number of soldiers to get killed. Is 18 a large number? People didn’t start noticing in Vietnam until it was 500 a week.”

5. These operations have been covered in great detail, most prominently in Mark Bowden’s reporting for the Philadelphia Inquirer and later as a book, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999). See Michael J. Durant and Steven Hartov, In the Company of Heroes (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2003); Clifford E. Day, Critical Analysis on the Defeat of Task Force Ranger (Montgomery: Air Command and Staff College, March 1997); James O. Lechner, A Monograph of Combat Operations in Mogadishu, Somalia, Conducted by Task Force Ranger (Fort Benning: U.S. Army, September 19, 1994); Forrest L. Marion, “‘Heroic Things’: Air Force Special Tactics Personnel at Mogadishu, October 3–4, 1993,” Air Power History 60:3 (Fall 2013): 32–43; USSOCOM History and Research Office, Naval Special Warfare Forces in Somalia, 1992–1995 (Tampa: U.S. Special Operations Command, 2001), among others. For discussion of the strategic costs, see John L. Hirsch and Robert B. Oakley, Somalia and Operation Restore Hope: Reflections on Peacemaking and Peacekeeping (Washington: U.S. Institute for Peace Press, 1995); and Robert B. Oakley, “An Envoy’s Perspective,” Joint Forces Quarterly 2 (Autumn 1993): 44–55. The ADST Foreign Affairs Oral History Project has extensive interviews of embassy personnel in Somalia in 1993. In particular, see the interview of Ambassador Smith Hempstone by Charles Stuart Kennedy on May 6, 1998, as well as Hempstone’s memoir, Rogue Ambassador: An African Memoir (Sewanee: University of the South Press, 1997). See also the interview of Ambassador Stevenson McIlvaine, on the ground in Mogadishu in 1993, by Charles Stuart Kennedy on September 23, 2003.

6. See Paul Watson, Where War Lives: A Journey into the Heart of War (Toronto: McLelland and Stewart, 2007). For further discussion of Mogadishu 1993, from the perspective of journalists, see Donatella Lorch, “Four Friends,” New York Times (August 22, 1993), and Keith Richburg, “Peace Effort in Somalia Meets Initial Failure,” Washington Post (January 4, 1992), in which he notes, “Somalia has ceased to exist . . . And right now, nobody cares”; and “In Somali Capital, Shrapnel Reigns; Civilians Pay Heavy Price in Artillery Duel for Power,” Washington Post (January 11, 1992), in which Richburg writes, “People here talk of the shelling . . . like people elsewhere might discuss the rain: not too heavy today, but likely to pick up again tomorrow.”

7. See National Public Radio, Fresh Air, Interview of Paul Watson (August 27, 2007) regarding his photojournalism for the Toronto Star in Mogadishu, 1993.

8. See President Bill Clinton’s address to the nation on October 7, 1993 for the announcement and his “Message to the Congress Transmitting a Report on Somalia” (October 13, 1993).

9. See Public Law 103-139 (November 11, 1993) for the update to U.S. combat operations in Somalia. Regarding “backing out of this mess,” and the broader context of that assessment, see interview with M. A. Wright by Charles Stuart Kennedy, as part of the ADST Foreign Affairs Oral History Project (May 11, 2003). See John Warner and Carl Levin, “Review of the Circumstances Surrounding the Ranger Raid on October 3–4, 1993 in Mogadishu, Somalia,” U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, 104th Congress, First Session (September 29, 1995), which was an extensive inquiry, including hundreds of interviews with both U.S. and Somali forces.

10. See Ann Wright, “Legal and Human Rights Aspects of UNOSOM Military Operations,” Memorandum to the Special Representative of the Secretary General from UNOSOM Justice Division (July 13, 1993). See also Keith B. Richburg, “U.N. Helicopter Assault in Somalia Targeted Aideed’s Top Commanders,” Washington Post (July 16, 1993).

11. See Anthony Zinni’s PBS Frontline interview “Ambush in Mogadishu” (November 1, 2001) regarding his service as operations lead for Unified Task Force, Somalia (UNITAF) from November 1992 until May 1993, and later serving as assistant to Ambassador Oakley, then presidential envoy to Somalia in 1993.

12. For the observations of General Raymond A. Thomas, see Grey Wars, p. 53

13. See Reid G. Miller, “Somalia Presence Officially Ending with Exit Today,” Pittsburgh Post (March 25, 1994). For further analysis, see U.N. Security Council, Commission of Inquiry Report, Pursuant to Resolution 885 (1993) to investigate attacks on UNOSOM personnel, presented in New York on February 24, 1994; United Nations, Statement by the President of the Security Council on the Conditions for the Deployment and Renewal of Peacekeeping Operations (New York: May 3, 1994). For further discussion of coalition activities, see United States Forces: After Action Report Somalia and Historical Overview: The United States Army in Somalia, 1992–1994 (Washington: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 2003): “Coalition forces including large components from France, Italy, Belgium, Morocco, Australia, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Canada soon joined U.S. forces. During the course of RESTORE HOPE, some 38,000 soldiers from 23 different nations and representatives from 49 different humanitarian relief operations worked together to put food into the mouths of the starving people of Somalia.”

14. See the definitive study by Alison Des Forges and her team, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda (New York: Human Rights Watch and Paris: FIDH, 1999) as well as Gerard Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995); and Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998).

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