Late in the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 3, 1993, attack helicopters dropped about 120 elite American soldiers into a busy neighborhood in the heart of Mogadishu, Somalia. Their mission was to abduct several top lieutenants of Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and return to base. It was supposed to take about an hour.
Instead, two of their high-tech UH-60 Black Hawk attack helicopters were shot down. The men were pinned down through a long and terrible night in a hostile city, fighting for their lives. When they emerged the following morning, 18 Americans were dead and 73 were wounded. One, helicopter pilot Michael Durant, had been carried off by an angry mob. He was still alive, held captive somewhere in the city.
The Somali toll was far worse. Reliable witnesses in the U.S. military and in Mogadishu now place the count at nearly 500 dead - scores more than was estimated at the time - among more than a thousand casualties. Many were women and children. This was hardly what U.S. and U.N. officials envisioned when they intervened in Somalia in December 1992 to help avert widespread starvation.
In the years since that humanitarian mission dissolved into combat, Somalia has had a profound cautionary influence on American foreign policy. When Washington policymakers consider sending soldiers into foreign crisis zones, there is invariably a caveat: Remember Somalia.
America's refusal to intervene in Rwanda in 1995 and in the former Zaire in 1997; its long delay in acting to stop Serbian aggression in Bosnia; its hesitation before sending troops into Haiti; and its present reluctance to arrest indicted war criminals in Bosnia stem, in some measure, from the futile attempts to arrest Aidid.
With the exception of the Persian Gulf War, modern American warfare no longer pits great national armies in sweeping conflicts. Instead, it is marked by isolated, usually brief, encounters between
U.S. forces and Third World irregulars as America seeks to alter the political equation in some tumultuous location - Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Haiti, Bosnia.
The American public is rarely exposed to the realities of warfare. The Pentagon does not allow reporters to accompany soldiers directly into battle, a journalistic tradition that ended after Vietnam. What results is a sanitized picture of combat. The public knows only what the military chooses to portray, or what cameras are able to see from afar. Americans have little understanding of what awaits frightened young soldiers, or of their heroic and sometimes savage attempts to save themselves and their fellow soldiers.
Americans recoiled at the images of soldiers' corpses being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, but they had no inkling of the searing 15-hour battle that produced their deaths. There has never been a detailed public accounting. Most of the Pentagon records documenting the firefight remain classified, and most of the soldiers who fought are in special forces, generally off-limits to reporters.
For this series of stories, The Philadelphia Inquirer obtained more than a thousand pages of classified documents and reviewed hours of remarkable video and audiotapes recorded during the fight. It interviewed in detail more than 50 of the American soldiers who fought. Also interviewed in depth, in Mogadishu, were dozens of Somalis who fought the Americans or were caught in the crossfire.
The Battle of Mogadishu is known today in Somalia as "Ma-alinti Rangers," or The Day of the Rangers. It pitted the world's most sophisticated military power against a mob of well-armed civilians and Somali irregulars. It was the biggest single firefight involving American soldiers since the Vietnam War.
The battle was photographed and videotaped by sophisticated cameras aboard satellites, a P-3 Orion spy plane, and UH-58 surveillance helicopters hovering directly over the action. Many of the soldiers were debriefed by U.S. Army historians in the days after the battle. Top commanders were later subjected to a Senate inquiry.
The secret official documentation of the battle obtained by The Philadelphia Inquirer has been fleshed out with the powerful eyewitness accounts. The result is an unprecedented minute-by-minute record of what happened that Sunday in Mogadishu.
Most of those interviewed have never before told the complete story of their experience, including pilot Durant, whose 11-day captivity was briefly at the center of world attention. Many soldiers are still unaware of certain battle episodes that did not involve them. Several are members of the Army's Delta Force, a unit so secret the Army does not officially acknowledge it exists.
Well-laid plans gone awry
Theirs is a story of well-laid plans gone awry, of tragic blunders, of skillful soldiering, heroism, and occasional cowardice. The portrait reveals a military force that underestimated its enemy.
The assault was launched into the most dangerous part of Mogadishu in daylight, even though the Ranger and Delta forces were trained and equipped primarily to work in darkness - where their night-vision devices can afford a decisive advantage.
Commanders who thought it unlikely that Somalis could shoot down helicopters saw five shot down (three limped back to base before crash-landing).
Ground rescue convoys were blocked for hours by barricades and ambushes - leaving at least five U.S. soldiers to die awaiting rescue, including two Delta sergeants who were posthumously awarded Medals of Honor.
The American soldiers were so confident of a quick victory that they neglected to take night-vision devices and water, both sorely needed later.
Carefully defined rules of engagement, calling for soldiers to fire only on Somalis who aimed weapons at them, were quickly discarded in the heat of the fight. Most soldiers interviewed said that through most of the fight they fired on crowds and eventually at anyone and anything they saw.
Animosity between the elite Delta units and the Ranger infantry forces effectively created two separate ground-force commanders, who for at least part of the battle were no longer speaking to each other. Delta commandos took accidental fire on several occasions from the younger Rangers. Poor coordination between commanders in the air and a ground convoy sent vehicles meandering through a maelstrom of fire, resulting in the deaths of five soldiers and one Somali prisoner.
Official U.S. estimates of Somalian casualties at the time numbered 350 dead and 500 injured. Somali clan leaders made claims of more than 1,000 deaths. The U.N. placed the number of dead at "between 300 to 500." Doctors and intellectuals in Mogadishu not aligned with the feuding clans say that 500 dead is probably accurate.
The Task Force Ranger commander, Maj. Gen. William Garrison, testifying before the Senate, said that if his men had put any more ammunition into the city "we would have sunk it."
America went to war in Mogadishu in an effort to remove warlord Aidid from the political equation. The U.N. was attempting to form a coalition government out of the nation's warring clans but encountered stiff and bloody resistance from Aidid. Jonathan Howe, who managed the U.N. effort, sought and obtained the intervention of special U.S. forces for the purpose of arresting Aidid and other top leaders of his clan.
The mission that resulted in the Battle of Mogadishu came less than three months after a surprise missile attack by U.S. helicopters (acting on behalf of the U.N.) on a meeting of Aidid clansmen. Prompted by a Somalian ambush on June 5 that killed more than 20 Pakistani soldiers, the missile attack killed 50 to 70 clan elders and intellectuals, many of them moderates seeking to reach a peaceful settlement with the U.N. Interviewed for this series, Howe said he believes the number of Somalis killed in the surprise attack was closer to 20, and included only Aidid's military leadership.
Aidid clan at war with America
After that July 12 helicopter attack, Aidid's clan was officially at war with America - a fact many Americans never realized. By Oct. 3, images of dead soldiers being dragged through the streets shocked the American public, most of whom believed their soldiers were in Somalia to help feed the starving.
But Task Force Ranger was not sent to Mogadishu to feed the hungry. Over six weeks, it conducted six missions, raiding locations where either Aidid or his lieutenants were believed to be meeting.
On its first mission, the force inadvertently arrested nine Somali U.N. employees. A later mission arrested a friendly Somali general who was being groomed by the U.N. to take over a Mogadishu police force. But by late September, the task force had begun to hit its stride with the capture of Osman Atto, Aidid's banker. The deadly Oct. 3 raid was the sixth and last.
Most of the Rangers who fought were only a few years out of high school. These young men were shocked to find themselves bleeding on the dirt streets of an obscure African capital for a cause so unessential that President Clinton called off their mission the day after the fight.
In strictly military terms, Mogadishu was a success. The targets of that day's raid - two obscure clan leaders named Omar Salad and Mohamed Hassan Awale - were apprehended.
But the awful price of those arrests came as a shock to Clinton, who felt as misled as John F. Kennedy after the Bay of Pigs. It led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Les Aspin and destroyed the career of Garrison, who in a handwritten letter to Clinton accepted full responsibility. It aborted a hopeful and unprecedented U.N. effort to salvage an impoverished and hungry nation lost in anarchy and civil war.
Every battle is a drama played out apart from broader political issues. Soldiers cannot concern themselves with the decisions that bring them to a fight. They trust their leaders not to risk their lives for too little. Once the battle is joined, they fight to survive, to kill before they are killed.
The story of a battle is timeless. It is about the same things whether in Troy or Gettysburg, Normandy or the Ia Drang. It is about soldiers, most of them young, trapped in a fight to the death. The extreme and terrible nature of war touches something essential about being human, and soldiers do not always like what they learn.
For those who survive, the battle lives on in memories and nightmares and in the ache of old wounds long after the reasons for it have been forgotten.
Yet what happened to these men in Mogadishu comes alive every time the United States considers sending young soldiers to serve American policy in remote and dangerous corners of the world.