Black Hawk Down: Shoot first, don't ask questions afterwards

In October 1993, 18 US soldiers died during a botched mission in Mogadishu. The incident is the subject of a new film, Black Hawk Down. But, asks Alex Cox, why have the deaths of the Somali civilians been forgotten?
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The Independent Culture

In the 1970s and 1980s, Somalia was ruled by a corrupt president, Mohamed Siad Barre. It was a familiar story – an unpopular, despotic nutcase (read, Pinochet in Chile or the Shah in Iran) who suppressed popular dissent and did what the US government, or US-owned multinationals, told him to do.

By his last days in power, Siad Barre had leased nearly two-thirds of Somalia to four huge American oil companies: Conoco, Chevron, Phillips, and Amoco (the story presumably involves British business interests also, since Amoco is now part of BP). The land was believed by geologists to contain substantial quantities of oil and natural gas.

In 1991, unfortunately for the oil giants, Siad Barre was overthrown, and he fled the country. Somalia – as a functioning nation state with which they could do business – fell apart. The oil giants' exclusive concessions to explore and drill were worthless in the absence of a viable government to enforce their claims.

In the early 1990s, there were various humanitarian disasters also deserving of urgent intervention. For the United States to spearhead a United Nations mission to Somalia was, from a humanitarian viewpoint, capricious. But, citing famine in Mogadishu and in the southern part of the country, and an urgent need to restore order, President Bush I sent in the Marines.

The United States meant business in Somalia: this was obvious from the location of the American embassy, established a few days before the US marines arrived in Mogadishu, in the Conoco corporate compound. The Los Angeles Times reported that Bush's special envoy to Somalia had used the Conoco compound as his temporary headquarters.

The marines – along with their United Nations "partners" – settled down to their tasks of guarding American oil men and disarming the unruly populace. It didn't go well. On 7 May 1993, the Canadian press reported that elite Airborne Regiment Commandos in Somalia had tortured and murdered a civilian teenager, Shidane Arone. Other reports of murder by Canadian peacekeepers followed.

As for the Americans, having encouraged the ambitions of a Somali general and clan leader, Mohammed Aideed, they decided (shades of Osama Bin Laden!) that Aideed was their enemy. Half-a-dozen "United Nations" missions were dispatched to capture him. All failed.

On 3 October 1993, a team of so-called "elite troops" – Delta Force Rangers – tried to capture Aideed again, in central Mogadishu. Aideed wasn't there, but the American troops became confused. Shortly after, they were surrounded by angry crowds. In the massacre that followed, between 500 and 1,000 Somalis, many of them women, children, and old people, were killed. Eighteen Americans also died.

Of course, it is the American deaths, and the TV image of a couple of American bodies being dragged by enraged Somalis, rather than guilt over the massacre of hundreds of Africans, that haunts the popular-American-media mind. There wasn't a massacre. There was a firefight. Only Americans lost their lives.

In the aftermath of 3 October 1993, various articles appeared about the shootout/massacre, including internet postings by Mark Bowden and pieces in the Philadelphia Inquirer. In 1999, Bowden's book Black Hawk Down appeared.

It's interesting to observe how the story was re-told over that time. An article by the former Independent correspondent Richard Dowden the previous year makes the clear point that US troops killed unarmed men, women and children from the outset of their mission: "In one incident, Rangers took a family hostage. When one of the women started screaming at the Americans, she was shot dead. In another incident, a Somali prisoner was allegedly shot dead when he refused to stop praying outside. Another was clubbed into silence. The killer is not identified." Dowden's original articles contain these horror stories. But his book does not. Instead, Black Hawk Down gives us lashings of extraordinary heroism in the face of blah, blah, blah. Rolf Harris singing "Two Little Boys". Sanitized and deodorized Death From Above.

The author of Black Hawk Down is aware of the problem with these "elite, superior, special forces": they are all white. But he doesn't deal with what that elite whiteness means, or where it leads. The American elite forces couldn't perform their central role in Somalia – to protect the oil business – because they were white racists, untrained and unable to relate to a humanitarian mission in Africa, even when corporate money was involved. The House Armed Services Committee laid the problem on the line the following year, 1994, in a comprehensive report on the state of racial affairs within the US military – An Assessment of Racial Discrimination in the Military: a Global Perspective, 30 December 1994, US Government Printing Office.

The committee sent investigators to 19 military bases at home and abroad, where they interviewed 2,000 randomly selected GIs. They found that overt racism was "commonplace" at four of the bases, and that inadequate training in racial awareness was a widespread problem.

Another task force, which investigated organised racism in the US Army, said the problem was particularly serious in all-white, so-called "elite" and "Special Operations" units. Such racial separatism could lead to problems, its report warned, because it "foster[s] supremacist attitudes among white combat soldiers". (The Secretary of the Army's Task Force Report on Extremist Activities, Defending American Values, 21 March 1996, Washington DC, page 15.)

The Somalia mission ended in disarray. The Americans and the "United Nations" allies left. In the aftermath of the massacre, Canada, Italy and Belgium all held enquiries into the excesses of their troops. Canada put several "elite" white soldiers, who had tortured and killed Somalis, on trial. The US has never held any public investigation or reprimanded any of its commanders or troops for what went on in Somalia.

Now the US prepares for another mission to Mogadishu. It may take the form of bombings, or of a poor Somali academic, harassed by the State Department and CIA into offering himself up as sacrificial prime minister in another doomed governance experiment. It involves a substantial propaganda angle. The oil business is all powerful, and must be obeyed.

Not that I'm suggesting that the forthcoming film of Black Hawk Down, directed by Ridley Scott, is anything so crude as that. I'm sure that it will be even-handed, and depict its protagonists exactly as they were in life, skin pigment and all. And I look forward to the sensitive handling of Ewan McGregor's character: elite, white GI John "Stebby" Stebbins, renamed as Company Clerk John Grimes in the film, who is now serving a 30-year sentence in Fort Leavenworth military prison for raping a 12-year-old girl. Massacres and rapes are horrible things. No one would stoop to glorify, or justify them, would they?

The current US military doctrine is something called "Full Spectrum Dominance". It is the brainchild of several other mighty corporations and the Pentagon. Consisting of putting weapons in orbit in outer space, it will mean the US is an even greater, more unstable, military power – in heaven as here on earth. It – along with anti-ballistic missile systems and the murder of prisoners of war – is currently illegal under international law.

If British politicians go along with the next war, on Somalia, or on Iraq; if they loan the country to the US for their Star Wars and Echelon; if noted British film-makers like Ridley and Tony Scott (coming soon! Top Gun reality TV!) do devote themselves to burnishing the image of an elite US military in films like Black Hawk Down, perhaps it's time for a debate in Britain about what America's "Full Spectrum Dominance" really means.

Alex Cox has just completed 'Revengers Tragedy', a British film, for Bard Entertainments and Exterminating Angel

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