Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid died last week after a battle with rival forces. In a forthcoming book, former colonel DAVID H. HACKWORTH, Vietnam hero and Newsweek contributing editor, reconstructs the disastrous effort to capture Aidid in 1993 that left 18 U.S. soldiers dead. An excerpt:
IN THE LATE FALL OF 1993, I FLEW down to Fort Benning to reconstruct the way our Rangers in Somalia had been cut to pieces in October when President Clinton and his top military and civilian advisers sent them into combat without the armor they needed to survive.
I knew we were heading for trouble the previous June when a company of U.N. soldiers on station in Somalia was ambushed and 24 Pakistani soldiers went home in body bags. The U.N. secretary-general and the president of the United States started acting more like the Law in Tombstone than statesmen. They thought the thing to do was put a price on the head of warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid. Our C-130 gunships bombarded his headquarters for four days, trashing it. Our mission crept from feeding into fighting as Operation Restore Hope became hopeless and went up in flames.
On Sept. 14, Maj. Gen. Tom Montgomery, the U.S. commander in Somalia, requested armor -- tanks -- ""to get to bases if any were threatened'' and generally support our troops with their protection and firepower. His bosses, Gens. Joe Hoar, commander in chief of CENTCOM, and Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, relayed the request but did not support it strongly enough to keep the secretary of defense, the late Les Aspin, from spiking it. Aspin's reasoning was that sending the armor would be an unacceptable military escalation. In other words, after telling our warriors to get Aidid, we were saying, ""Oh, by the way, we want you to go in there naked.''
The U.S. Army wasn't eager to talk about what had happened. But one of my inside sources smuggled me classified after-action reports, and the nightmare came spilling out of the young Rangers who sat down to talk to me at Fort Benning.
The mission began on the first Sunday in October, a hot day like all the others that fall. The spooks were reporting that some of Aidid's top lieutenants were holding a meeting that day over near the Bakar Market area of Mogadishu.
At 1400 hours the Rangers were told the light was green. Sixty Rangers and 46 Special Operations troops started collecting their gear. All wore the new, experimental Ranger body armor, black, not green like the standard issue. The vests had new steel plates, lighter than anything they had worn before, about 25 pounds, good gear if you've got the full kit.
The Rangers didn't. The leaders were worried about all the weight they would be carrying when they fast-roped down to the objective from the helicopters. The decision was made to go in with only half the body armor -- the front half. That left the Rangers with nothing more than their fatigue jackets to protect their backs. They also didn't have enough ammo for a long hot fire fight, let alone a nightlong siege. And they didn't have night-vision devices.
The thinking was that this would be a daylight raid, that none of the six earlier missions had taken more than an hour or an hour and a half. No one expected the seventh to run beyond sundown. It would be WHAM, BAM, thank you, ma'am. Quick in. Quick out. The main assault was to come from the air, with a ground support convoy to extract the raiders and their prisoners. The support element had eight Humvees, plus three five-ton trucks and the vehicle of Lt. Col. Danny McKnight, the commander of the Third Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.
Shortly after 1500 hours the order came to launch. ""Okay. Get it on,'' said one of the team leaders. And everybody went out to the birds (helicopters). The target was about three miles away as the crow flies.
When the first Black Hawk reached the objective, the raiders threw out 80-foot ropes and started fast-roping down. The choppers created the day's first tactical problem. The wash from the rotor blades churned dust and trash into a brownout so dense the raiders who followed could barely see their hands in front of their faces. The other birds arrived in the middle of a dust storm created by high technology. They looked down and saw they'd have to rope in almost blind.
""That's when I started to feel really weird,'' one of them told me.
The brownout produced the first casualty. Ranger Todd Blackburn lost his grip and fell from the fast rope -- 75 feet, three stories, to the ground. He landed on his back. ""He was hurt real bad,'' remembered one of the Rangers who saw him. ""Internal bleeding, head trauma, busted his right leg and hip.'' Several more Rangers were wounded when they took up blocking positions as the Special Ops raiders hauled ass into the target building and started rounding up Aidid's surprised operatives.
At that moment, the ground convoy led by Colonel McKnight pulled up. The trip from the air base had taken only about 12 minutes. The convoy arrived just as the last of the raiders were fast-roping down. McKnight ordered three vehicles to medevac Blackburn back for what turned out to be lifesaving treatment, but he was otherwise pleased with what he saw.
The basic mission had gone well, but it had stirred up the Islamic Green Hornet, and all his little brothers and sisters were gathering to sting back. The Blackburn medevac ran into unfriendlies and Sgt. Dominic M. Pilla, a 21-year-old Ranger from Vineland, N.J., was killed fighting them off. Colonel McKnight didn't yet know the score. In the fog of the gathering battle, no man could.
""Everything was just going fine,'' he told me. ""Then we started to load the detainees. That's when everything changed.''
All of a sudden Aidid's irregulars loosed a fusillade of RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). One of the rockets killed a five-ton truck, and Staff Sgt. David Wilson picked up some shrapnel in his leg. The ground platoon was now down to four vehicles and a long way from home.
The gunner on the .50 cal clutched his arm and said he was hit. The medics pulled him down and Sgt. Lorenzo Ruiz, 27, from El Paso, got up on the gun, hosed down the alleys and bought a short breather.
Then it got worse.
""I heard this WHOP, WHOP, WHOP, WHOP,'' one young Ranger told me. ""I'm running back. I'm looking down National Street over the top of the building and I saw the first bird get shot. We were all saying, "The bird, the bird is hit'.''
The Black Hawk flown by Chief Warrant Officer Clifton Wolcott had hovered over the target, circling, providing fire support. Wolcott was directing his gunners and snipers. At one point the chopper wheeled broadside, and an RPG gunner cut loose and hit the rotor. Wolcott lost control. The chopper began to spin. A young Ranger ran up to Colonel McKnight.
""I said, "Hey, sir, I just saw the bird go down. Do you want me to move to it?' And there was a big "No. No, stay where you are.' So I said, "Okay,' and ran back to my vehicle.''
The pilots of the other choppers saw Chief Warrant Officer Wolcott's bird get hit. Over the radio they heard him calm- ly telling his crew and the two snipers aboard they were going down. Then the radio went dead. The bird crashed into a building and courtyard below, killing Wolcott and his copilot. But from the wreck the two snipers were firing at a growing mob of Somalis. The Rangers lived by a code: they would never leave one of their own behind, not dead and sure as hell not alive. I feel the same way some- times, but I think the priority has to be for the living.
What happened next is blurred by the fog of battle. Some say Gen. William Garrison, commander of the full Ranger task force in Somalia, gave an order for McKnight to move the assault team and rally round the chopper. When I heard that, I found myself thinking, Where was General Garrison sitting when he made that decision? Could he see the rat's maze of streets and alleys around the Bakar Market? Could he see the Somalis swarming everywhere? Could he see he was ordering the raiders right into a buzz saw? Or was he just drilling holes in the sky over the fight, puffing on a dead cigar, blind as Ray Charles and nowhere near as talented at his work?
The Americans began to pick their way toward the crash site. By now the element of surprise was gone and the Somalis were fighting on their own turf, an advantage they knew how to use. The Rangers were exposed on every flank.
""Somalis were running in the street, people were pointing to us, there was AK-47 fire everywhere,'' said one good kid.
Sgt. Casey Joyce was with the Rangers fighting their way toward the downed chopper. His dad, Larry Joyce, and I had served together in Germany in the 1960s. Casey was born in 1969. He had grown up wanting to be a warrior stud like his dad. He was a bright, handsome kid, extraordinarily gifted. He went to college for three years, then decided to join the Rangers. He wanted to prove something to himself. His dad's combat experience in Vietnam -- two tours at the peak of the war -- fascinated him. He wanted to know what it was like to be under fire. On that day in Mogadishu, sadly, he got the chance.
The Humvees drew such intense fire that the rescuers had to leave the vehicles and fight door to door. At one point, a Somali technical vehicle with a heavy machine gun was blistering them. Casey grabbed an antitank weapon and put one right in the gunner's lap. The vehicle dis- integrated. Casey turned and shouted: ""All right.''
Then he took a hit in the back, where his body armor was AWOL. The round ricocheted off his front armor and re-entered, leaving him with a massive chest wound. When I heard the story, it hit me like a slug through my own body.
Most of the casualties took place between 1530 and 1800 hours when the Rangers and Special Ops team were trying to consolidate at the crash site.
Wolcott's chopper was number 61 in the flock of birds flown by the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. When he went down, number 62, flown by Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant, came in to replace him. Within 15 minutes another volley of RPGs sizzled aloft and once again Aidid's gunners scored. Durant's chopper took one in the tail rotor. For a few moments he was able to keep flying, but he didn't have enough power to make it back to the airfield. He too lost control and the bird started to spin. It crashed a little over a mile away from number 61. Two Special Ops warriors, Master Sgt. Gary I. Gordon and Sgt. 1/c Randall D. Shughart, volunteered to fast-rope down to the second wreck. They pulled the crew's bodies out of the chopper and placed Durant, the only survivor, in a sheltered position. Then, singlehandedly, they fought off hundreds of Somali attackers, slugging it out in high-noon hell until they were gunned down.
Colonel McKnight put the number of RPGs fired at the choppers at around 200. ""That is not an air-defense weapon,'' he said. ""It wasn't aimed. It was just, "If we can fire enough of these things up here we are bound to hit something sooner or later'.''
Exactly. The Viet Cong used machine guns and RPGs the same way. Anyone who had studied their tactics knew this, and Aidid and at least one of his top lieutenants had boned up under the Soviets.
A few days before the raid, Aidid's irregulars had downed a chopper with an RPG, so no one should have been surprised when those mean little suckers started whumping up into the sky.
To a degree what happened next depends on your angle of vision.
Senior officers emphasize the positive: the nerve, training, skill and endurance of the Rangers pinned down through the night before help arrived.
""Some people have said, "Why did it take so long?' '' Colonel McKnight observed, reading my mind. ""There was no need to rush it because we were calm. We knew they were okay. They were really in control. We had nobody die of wounds out there that night because they were under good care.''
What about Specialist James Smith, who died that night, I was told, from a belly wound and a severed femoral artery? I wondered if the colonel was just careless, or was he bulls-ting me? One of his men later stood up for him, saying that he was a caring officer, devastated by the losses. No one can doubt the passion that went into extracting the trapped Rangers. But the fact remains that it took five hours to organize a relief column with enough muscle to punch through to them.
To get there they needed armor. Since their own commander in chief and secretary of defense had refused to give it to them, they had to borrow some from the Pakistanis and Malaysians, who were in-country under the auspices of the United Nations. A separate command. Three languages. It all took time.
The convoy had to advance street by street, alley by alley, building by building, laying down suppressing fire the whole way. The Somalis were not rabble. They kept pressing the attack when they could have gone home to chew khat and fight another day. ""When you shot a guy, the next joker would just come over and try to pick up the weapon,'' one of the rescuers told me. It took two and a half hours of stiff fighting to even get near the objective.
""Unfortunate casualties.'' To me, the words the commander in chief used afterward are so rotten I can hardly believe he said them. But he did. Our best young warriors were sent to their deaths or the gimp ward as if they were toys, not the nation's finest treasure. This was done in pursuit of an idiotic decision to shift the mission in Somalia from feeding to fighting. Then the president and his secretary of defense refused to provide the Rangers with the armor they needed to carry out his orders without getting themselves blown away. The generals who should have thrown their stars on the table and resigned rather than carry out this mission went along for the ride. One of them got another star for being such a good sport.
Bill Clinton has surrounded himself with Rhodes scholars, but very few of them seem to have a lick of common sense. Most of them are totally naive about military operations.
Here's what I would like to see. When one of those policymakers gets a soldier killed, he should have to go with the chaplain and member of the unit who bring the bad news to the widow or parents. We need to do something to make the policy crowd a hell of a lot more careful. The dead are not just numbers. These are young men and women with names that are real, with dreams, with a future. Their lives are being snuffed out because the Olympians in Washington often don't understand the consequences of their acts.
From "Hazardous Duty," by David H. Hackworth with Tom Mathews. To be published by William Morrow & Co. Copyright 1996 by David H. Hackworth.