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Monday, 20 March 2006

Review: Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden (1999)

Dewey Decimal Classification: 967.73053 2

Mogadishu, capital of Somalia, is a dusty, terrifying place filled with guns and discontent. U.S attempts to impose order following an aid programme included elements of the U.S. Army. The Army Rangers and Delta Force, both elite groups of soldiers, were stationed in the country to prevent looting of aid. Local warlords, heavily armed with Russian weapons, are beyond the law and take whatever they can, causing pain to the population.

But the Americans are even more hated than the warlords. So when an attempt is made by the U.S. Army to extract factional heavyweights from a building in downtown Mogadishu on 3 October, 1993, the reaction is fierce. Everyone seems to have a weapon.

Mark Bowden has exhaustively researched this gripping book, talking to hundreds of Rangers and Delta Force commandos to piece together, fraction by fraction, this story of hardship and death. The most significant gun battle the U.S. had engaged in since the Vietnam War is portrayed in stark and uncompromising colours.

The book is engrossing, which is no doubt why my tutor recommended it to us last Tuesday.

  ‘Where the hell is Strous?’
  ‘He blew up, Sergeant.’
  ‘He blew up? What the hell do you mean he blew up?’
  ‘He blew up.’
  Floyd pointed to where the medic had been running. Strous stepped from a tangle of weeds, brushing himself off, his helmet askew. He looked down at Floyd and just took off running. A round had hit a flashbang grenade on Strous’ vest and exploded, knocking him off his feet and into the weeds. He was unhurt.
  ‘Move out, Floyd,’ Watson screamed.
  They all kept running, running and shooting through the brightening dawn, through the crackle of gunfire, the spray of loose mortar off a wall where a round hit, the sudden gust of hot wind from a blast that sometimes knocked them down and sucked the air out of their lungs, the sound of the helicopters rumbling overhead, and the crisp rasp of their guns like the tearing of heavy cloth. They ran through the oily smell of the city and of their own bodies, the taste of dust in their dry mouths, with the crisp brown bloodstains on their fatigues and the fresh memory of friends dead or unspeakably mangled, with the whole nightmare now grown unbearably long, with disbelief that the mighty and terrible army of the United States of America had plunged them into this mess and stranded them there and now left them to run through the same deadly gauntlet to get out. How could this happen?

It only took less than two days to end the fight, but the men had expected to be in and out of the city within two hours of take-off. The delay caused by the downing of two helicopters by rocket-propelled grenades led to a staggering number of Somalis killed and injured and unexpected casualties among the U.S. soldiers.

Worth a look and an afternoon on the couch.

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