Last Friday marked the tenth anniversary of the Battle of the Black Sea, a day-long episode of urban warfare in Mogadishu, Somalia, that claimed the lives of 18 American troops and more than 500 hundred Somali militiamen. On Oct. 3, 1993, a team of U.S. special operations soldiers—mainly from Delta Force and the Army Rangers—was airdropped into the city’s volatile Bakara Market neighborhood. Their assignment: to capture two prominent lieutenants of Somali warlord Mohammed Farrah Aidid. What followed was, as Black Hawk Down author Mark Bowden notes, “the longest sustained firefight involving U.S. troops since Vietnam.”
Indeed, Somalia-Vietnam analogies were soon ubiquitous. The United States had gone into the famine-stricken nation ten months earlier to mitigate a dire humanitarian crisis. But after the bloodshed of Oct. 3, a Gallup poll found that nearly seven in ten Americans wanted an immediate or gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces. President Clinton did eventually withdraw, and Somalia became yet another manifestation of the so-called “Vietnam syndrome.”
During the post-Saigon years, the Vietnam syndrome was conventional wisdom among our political and cultural elites. It held that Americans wouldn’t support moralistic or strategic military intervention if it proved too costly in American lives. The Vietnam syndrome evolved into its post-Cold War form on the streets of Mogadishu. The domestic outrage that ensued convinced Bill Clinton that public opinion would inevitably revolt against any nation-building effort—or any war at all—at the first sign of casualties. This concern echoed throughout his presidency. It led to his ordering the USS Harlan County’s retreat from a thuggish mob in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; it paralyzed him into inaction on the Rwandan genocide; it muddled his response to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia; it influenced his appeasement of the murderous Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone; and it dissuaded him from pursuing a “boots on the ground” strategy to defeat Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. In short, the specter of Somalia ultimately ruined Bill Clinton’s foreign policy.
Ten years after the Battle of the Black Sea, U.S. soldiers are once again dying in a faraway country. To date, the number of American soldiers killed in the Iraq war is over 17 times as large as the number that perished in Mogadishu. Yet as Lawrence Kaplan details in a recent New Republic article, polls indicate that between 60 and 70 percent of the public supports an extended U.S. presence to establish civil order in Iraq, even if it takes several years and means substantial casualties.
What explains this? Three main factors. One: Sept. 11. Two: The importance and purpose of our mission in Iraq has been clearly outlined time and again by President Bush, whereas President Clinton could never decide upon America’s true objective in Somalia. Three: Even though each death is heart wrenching, the fact is we are making substantial progress in Iraq every day; indeed, our goals appear attainable. In contrast, Somalia seemed utterly hopeless.
Reflections on the tenth anniversary of the Mogadishu disaster have largely focused on all that went wrong. But let us also remember what went right: namely, the skill, motivation and heroism of our young soldiers. As Bowden so poignantly puts it, “No matter how critically history records the policy decisions that led up to this fight, nothing can diminish the professionalism and dedication of the Rangers and Special Forces units who fought there that day.”
—Duncan M. Currie is an editorial editor.