Folly and Redemption: Thirty Years After Black Hawk Down
The American military adventure in Somalia is a prime example of what goes wrong when there’s no check on presidential war powers.
I was eight when my family received the news that my uncle, Sergeant First Class Randall Shughart, had been killed in Somalia. I hadn’t known him well or really what his job was; a kind, quiet, and often mustachioed man, he occasionally brought my brother and me gifts from his travels—a stuffed cat from Korea, a toy parrot from Panama. But after October 3, 1993, I soon learned that he was an elite Delta Force sniper who, along with Master Sergeant Gary Gordon, would be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroic actions during the Battle of Mogadishu.
On the thirtieth anniversary of that battle, I would like to honor Uncle Randy’s memory by reflecting on how and why we arrived at that grim day, as those lessons remain salient to our approach to foreign intervention today. Fitting the pattern of post–World War II conflicts, our intervention in Somalia, which began as a humanitarian relief effort, glided almost imperceptibly into full-fledged conflict with Somali warlords on the basis of executive decree.
“You’re not fit to be president. You killed my son,” my grandfather told President Bill Clinton as they met in the receiving line at the Medal of Honor ceremony reception. While certainly lacking diplomacy, my grandfather was on to something. He intuited, with his eighth-grade education, something that many scholars, so deep in the weeds of foreign policy, often forget or willfully ignore: that the chief executive should not be the sole, or even primary, arbiter of sending our troops into combat. Yet, as the military’s historical records of the Somalia intervention indicate, President George H.W. Bush and Clinton after him were just that.
Though we’ve ignored it in every conflict since the end of World War II, our Constitution says that “Congress shall have Power…to declare War.” Even Alexander Hamilton, perhaps the founding era’s staunchest advocate of executive power, granted that Congress “can alone actually transfer the nation from a state of Peace to a state of War.” That’s because the representative and deliberative nature of Congress tempers the emotionalism that might draw us hastily into conflict.
The president, on the other hand, being one man rather than a representative body, is far more subject to knee-jerk public sentiment or pressure from “the international community,” and is therefore less likely to act with the American public’s best interests squarely in mind. Plus, as every executive has known since ancient times, military victory adds glory to one’s legacy.
President Bush deployed forces to Somalia on December 4, 1992 to secure the delivery of humanitarian relief. A drought had brought widespread famine to the African country, which was already devastated by years of societal breakdown and clan warfare. Gangs intercepted the food aid, depriving the population of much-needed relief, and the press inundated the U.S. airwaves with images of anarchy and starvation. Both the Pentagon’s Joint History Office and the Army’s historical accounts of the Somalia intervention repeatedly highlight the strong effect these broadcasts had on American public opinion and, consequently, on President Bush’s resolve to make the U.S. a visible leader in the U.N.’s humanitarian relief efforts.
Conversely, Congress’s influence over the matter was almost laughable. During a press conference on December 3, 1992, Rep. John Murtha, a Pennsylvanian Democrat, earnestly promised that he and a bipartisan group of twelve lawmakers would meet with Bush to express their disagreement. But the mobilization of troops was well underway. On the very day of Murtha’s meeting, Bush announced to the public his decision to execute Operation RESTORE HOPE. Within a week, Marines and Navy SEALs landed on the beaches of Mogadishu. President Bush, perhaps with an eye toward burnishing his humanitarian record, perceived public sentiment to be on the side of action—and into Somalia we went.
The U.N. also helped draw the U.S. into the Somali crisis. And much like President Truman’s sending U.S. soldiers to fight in Korea, President Bush showed far too much deference to that politically unaccountable international body. Until December 1992, the U.S. was only providing airlift capabilities to the relief mission, but as the situation in Somalia deteriorated, the U.N. passed Resolution 794, authorizing members to perform security functions to protect humanitarian relief operations. Even before the U.N. resolution had been passed, Bush administration officials informed Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali that the U.S. was prepared to organize and command such operations. The heady mix of victory in DESERT STORM and the collapse of the Soviet Union bolstered the executive’s confidence in the possibilities for military intervention and in the prospects for U.N. leadership in the post-Cold War international system.
While U.N. credibility was of secondary concern to the Bush administration, it was central to the Clinton administration’s approach. Arguably, the U.S. was not at war in Somalia in December 1992, under U.N. Resolution 794, when the objective was to secure the delivery of humanitarian aid. But by June 1993, the mission morphed with the passage of U.N. Resolution 837, which authorized “all necessary measures” to pursue and capture the warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed and his lieutenants.
The U.N. coalition couldn’t succeed without U.S. military might. In fact, the Secretary General of the U.N. was lobbying just as hard as administration officials to deploy U.S. Special Operations Forces to nab Aideed, over the resistance and warnings of “mission creep” from military leadership like General Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Les Aspin, and others. By September 1993, Congress had wearied of the protracted engagement and escalating violence, but having had practically no role in authorizing the use of force to begin with, was ignored. As from the start, various inter- and intra-agency working groups across the executive branch, often acting at the behest of the U.N., incrementally drew the U.S. deeper into the Somali morass.
So, by the time my uncle arrived in Mogadishu, the U.S. was very much at war with Aideed and his militiamen. On October 3, 1993, Army Rangers and Delta Force operators were conducting a mission to capture Aideed’s lieutenants in Mogadishu, but nothing went as planned. An 18-hour firefight ensued. Insurgents downed two American Black Hawk helicopters. One of those crash sites was set to be overtaken by a throng of guerillas before a rescue team could ever reach it. Randy and MSG Gordon were assigned to provide sniper cover for that downed helicopter from the air, but observing the proximity of the mob, they believed they would be far more effective on the ground. Their superiors twice denied their request to be inserted—the two Delta operators would likely be meeting their deaths—but eventually yielded to Randy and Gary’s persistent requests.
Though I can only speculate as to their thoughts at that decisive moment, I imagine that Randy, Gary, and their leadership believed they had a chance of holding off that mob, and that to forsake that helicopter crew when there was still a hope would be dishonor worse than death. Because of their bravery, the helicopter pilot, CWO Michael Durant, survived. Unfortunately, Randy, Gary, and sixteen other American soldiers lost their lives that day in the Battle of Mogadishu.
When Americans were confronted with graphic television footage of dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets, it became apparent that the public’s sympathy for the Somali cause was not all that deeply felt. The press corps had played a significant role in bringing the U.S. into Somalia; thus, it is unsurprising that it also precipitated our exit. A marked reversal in public support, combined with congressional pressure, finally prompted a hastily delivered announcement from the Clinton administration to withdraw. The Joint History Office report succinctly states that less than a year later “Somalia had reverted to a political state not far from the anarchy of 1992.”
Reading those words in the Pentagon’s report, I could understand the bitterness that my grandfather felt toward the Clinton administration. But it was not all for naught. The U.S. intervention in Somalia was an unfortunate failure, but Uncle Randy’s and Gary Gordon’s heroic actions continue to resonate. To a large extent, they redeemed the debacle.
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Countless young men have been inspired to serve our country because of Randy and Gary’s sacrifice. Mark Bowdon’s wrenching book Black Hawk Down and Ridley Scott’s movie of the same name have helped to memorialize their legacy. There is also something of an Alamo-effect—affinity for the noble mingling of tragedy and bravery.
This spring, I randomly met a senior at Texas A&M in the Corps of Cadets, Jordan Regalado, who wears a dog tag with my Uncle Randy’s name engraved on the back. It serves as a reminder of the values and standards that Jordan strives to uphold. When I asked this young man why he picked Randy as his Medal of Honor exemplar, he said that he was struck “by his determination to protect the downed aircrew in the face of almost certain death.”
Randy and Gary’s exceptional heroism forces our gaze back, not only to admire these brave men and their deeds, but to scrutinize the folly that led to that fateful day. Taiwan looms large on the horizon. Defending it would cost tremendous blood and treasure. Will we allow one man to decide whether to stay or go? If we are seeking strategic ambiguity, what better way than to leave the question to Congress, whose answer can’t be known in advance and whose determination would ultimately reflect whether the American citizenry truly thinks it is a cause worth fighting for.