Book Ends

The last two nonfiction books I’ve read are Black Hawk Down and  In a Time of War. The two nonfiction books have both dealt with wars that have happened since I became an adult.  In a Time of War chronicles some of the members of West Point’s class of 2002 as they progressed through the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, mostly Iraq.  Black Hawk Down retells the events of the Battle of Mogadishu in October of 1993.  Both these books strike close to home for me.  They present a set of delimiters around a pattern within the  U.S. military involvement overseas.

In October of 1993, I was in my final month of the Infantry Officer’s Basic Course at Fort Benning Georgia.  Within the year I would  arrive at my first Regular Army unit, the 25th Infantry Division.  The Ranger platoon leaders in Somalia were class of 1990 grads, the seniors when I was a Plebe.  The soldiers to my left and right at Rangers school, the ones from Ranger regiment, would go and serve with the men that fought in Somalia.

Mike Palaza, a 1991 West Point grad and fellow Alumnus of Stoughton High School stated that he wasn’t going to marry his girlfriend if he was headed to Somalia:  he was headed to the 10th Mountain and knew that he’d be deployed.  He was being melodramatic when he said that he wasn’t going to get married before going to Somalia. “I won’t make her a Widow.”  But they got married and he deployed there anyway.  He is still alive and well.

SSG Franklin was my senior squad leader when I got to my Platoon in Hawaii.  He had a Combat Infantryman’s Badge from his deployment to Somalia.  He claimed he hadn’t really earned it, just had done a lot of Cordon and Searches in houses looking for weapons.  When I went to Haiti, I had a team leader in my platoon who said comparable things.  It seems that for most of the deployment in Somalia, the US forces were considered a neutral force, just there to help distribute food.  It wasn’t until we decided that Aidid was the bad guy that things went south. It is hard to hear these two points of view and then read the chaos and hell that was Mogadishu during the events told Black Hawk Down.

If you look at the chain of events from the time I graduated High School up to the present situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a continuing narrative.  With the fall of the Soviet Union, we stopped paying attention to the Mujhadeen in Afghanistan, and we lost interest in the Iran/Iraq war and it’s effect on those countries and the region.  Saddam Hussein didn’t get the message that we wouldn’t tolerate an invasion of Kuwait.  By responding, we put American troops on the Arabian Peninsula. The mujahideen fighters, trained and equipped by the United States, now turned their enmity against us.  We were already questionable allies due to our support of Israel, so it wasn’t too hard to make us the bad guys. Al Qaeda has claimed responsibility for inciting much of the violence in Mogadishu in 1993.  It was these actions that lead the US to drive Osama bin Laden out of the Sudan (a short jaunt away across Ethiopia) where he was then building the terrorist network that later attacked American 2001.  He claimed that they learned the US could be chased from a country by making it take casualties.

What was clear from reading the book and from what little I’ve studied is that we misread the situation.  Aidid was willing to let the United Nations help, but he was the real power in Mogadishu.  In the news they called him a “Warlord.”  He was the single most powerful leader to come out of the Somalia Civili war.  Not that he was undisputed, there were many such powerful men, but he had a larger power base than the others.  When the US decided that he was not to be allowed to participate in the future government, they turned a potential ally into an enemy.  Yes, he was a vicious man, but the country was known for brutality, he was just more successful.  Yes, he killed UN peace keepers.  But the story there is fairly murky, at least from what little I’ve seen. The facts of Somalia are such that no one with any degree of power got there without blood on their hands.

What is the difference between a warlord, a tribal leader, a sheik, a community leader, a mayor, a governor?  The power to rule must be granted at least in a portion by the people who are ruled, if only because they think the alternative is worse.  Here in the United States, we were unusual when we said that the military leadership you be subservient to the civilian leadership.  This new fangled idea is not the norm in much of the world:  it is still catching on.  I acknowledge the difference between a person who has seized power and one who has been selected by his community.  We in the United States often forget that places without traditions of elections have more primitive methods for selecting leaders that  nevertheless still have the support of the community.  We may not like these men:  we certainly decided that we didn’t like Aidid.

In a time of War shows a later next stage in the evolution of America’s foreign policy through force.  The West Point class of 2002 deploys to war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan and  suffers casualties. Nine years after I graduated from West Point, a year after I had removed myself from the roles of the Army Reserves, these kids were graduated into a very different Army than I had experienced.  But things don’t change much at West Point.: Their experiences had been similar enough to mine.  The soldiers upon which  the book focused were from company D-1, the Company next to mine for my final two years at the Academy.

I often wonder what would have happened if President Bush senior hadn’t listened to the advisors who told him to stop before heading the troops up to Baghdad.  If what happened in Iraq since 2003 is any indication, we would have certainly been involved in some serious fighting come 1993.  I suspect that my generation of classmates would have been placed in much the same situation as the class of 2002 and later classes.

I cried a couple of times during the book.  Both times it was during the notification scenes.  I can’t imagine a worse thing to do to someone you love than to make them suffer through the fear and dread of deployment to a war zone, except to die on them.

The war in Iraq was going poorly when the book was published.  Since that time, we have lived through “The Surge”, “The Anbar Awakening” and a change in the outlook for Iraq in the long term.  A big part of that change is that the American strategy changed.  Gen Petraus, the Armies chief counter-insurgency expert, gets a lot of credit for his role in getting Army commanders to understand the real situation on the ground, and to work with the people in their locales.  With his current position in CENTCOM, he will be able to affect the operations in the Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as monitor the evolving relationship between Iran and the United States.  I am cautiously optimistic that we will carve a decent situation out of these conflicts.

Returning to thinking about Somalia in the light of the current conflicts really drove home how lucky I have been personally, how much some of our soldiers have given, and how complex American foriegn policy really is.

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