Mark Bowden: Black Hawk Down

My experience in military is somewhat limited to a 15 month period in the german army. And even this was not completely by choice either. Nevertheless I really like to read books with a military background. As Mark Bowden puts it:

"The story of combat is timeless. It is about the same thing 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, []."

"Black Hawk Down" is a really good example of a military book. Rightly it reached a much bigger audience than most and has been turned into a major motion picture. Mark Bowden is a journalist and he did a great deal of research for the book. Opposed to a lot of American journalists turning authors he does not simply sort the content of his notebook in chapters, and voila here we have a book:

"My contribution would be to capture in word the experience of combat through the eyes and emotion of the soldiers involved, blending their urgent, human perspective with a military and political overview of their predicament. [] I wanted to combine the authority of a historical narrative with the emotion of the memoir, and write a story that read like fiction but was true."

The book is about the battle of October 3rd 1993 taking place in Mogadischu after American Rangers and Delta operators capture leading members of the clan of Somalian warlord Aidid. This story got significant press coverage with video footage of dead soldiers, one of them being drawn through the streets behind an APC. As a consequence of this battle both the UN and the USA basically stopped their attempt to try to ensure peace in Somalia.

What should have been a quick operation turned into a daylong firefight resulting in hundreds of Somalians and 18 Americans dead. The major cause for this carnage was the downing of two helicopters shot down in the city with RPGs. The Americans thought about them as basically invulnerable to the small arms available to Somalians. Two more were damaged but able to land on safe ground.

Instead of going back to base after the work was done the task force tried to secure the crash sites and extract the soldiers on board the helicopters. Doing this was opposed by a steadily growing force of armed people. Mogadischu had been through a year long civil war so there were a lot of arms around.

The book describes the ensuing tragedy in very graphic detail. Amazingly it also to a certain amount takes into account the views of some Somalians. It is written like a novel, but firmly based on detailed research carried out by the author. Compared to a real novel it has too many characters, so it is more difficult to get attached to the persons. The dramatic situation nevertheless keeps the reader glued to the book.

For everybody interested in military books this is a must read, no doubt about it. It gives a detailed picture of American special forces, specifically Rangers and Delta Force in action. But even people normally reading action thrillers should get something out of it. This experience in Somalia has been very important for US foreign politics in recent years. The massive use of force in Serbia or Iraq as opposed to a limited operation like the one described in the book is a visible result. So if you don't mind a certain amount of gore and are interested in one the topics mentioned above go out and buy this book. I for sure was positively surprised.