Heroes

10.09.13

Black Hawk Down’s Long Shadow

Twenty years later, the battle still echoes in America’s top policy circles. As the U.S. sets foot in Somalia again, men who fought in 1993 tell Daniel Klaidman what still haunts them.

Danny McKnight’s trip began in a tiny New England cemetery on Saturday, September 28, 2013—a crisp, clear fall morning. He kneeled by the gravestone of Corporal James Cavaco and placed a rock on top of it. McKnight’s wife, Linda, had painted the rock black, and on it, he had written with a silver Sharpie, “An American Hero” and “RLTW”—Rangers Lead the Way, the elite infantry unit’s motto.

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A child walks near the wreckage of an American helicopter in Mogadishu, Somalia on October 14, 1993. (Scott Peterson/Liaison, via Getty)

McKnight was at the outset of a pilgrimage to the gravesites of men who served under him in Somalia—his “kids,” as he calls them. They were part of Task Force Ranger, an American assault team assigned to capture Mohammad Farrah Aidid, an elusive Somali clan leader who held sway over the war-torn city of Mogadishu. On October 3, 1993, the team began what seemed at first to be a routine mission to detain two of Aidid’s top advisers. But after a Black Hawk helicopter was shot down, the operation shifted to a far more dangerous rescue mission—what would become the bloodiest U.S. combat engagement since the Vietnam war.

Cpl. Cavaco, “Vaco” to his friends, was a gunner in a convoy that McKnight led through the dusty, blood-stained streets of Mogadishu that day. Known for his devastating accuracy, Cavaco fired round after round into a second-story window from which the convoy was taking fire. But on the streets of “Mog,” Somali bullets and RPGs seemed to be coming from every direction at a terrifying volume. He was hit by a bullet in the back of the head and died instantly. In the end, the 18-hour fight left 18 American soldiers and airmen dead, and 73 wounded. As many as 1,000 Somalis were killed, by some estimates.

Today, thanks to Mark Bowden’s best-selling book Black Hawk Down, and a blockbuster movie of the same name, the battle is one of the best-known episodes in American military history. And like many pivotal historical events, it has, over time, acquired a number of meanings. To the public at large, the episode became synonymous with raw, almost inconceivably selfless battlefield bravery. The movie, coming right after 9/11, when Americans were rallying around their armed forces, was itself a cultural moment.

In the policy arena, the incident left a profound imprint on a generation of national security decision makers, making them skittish about sending small groups of soldiers into chaotic situations. “It was the policy equivalent of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder,” a recently retired U.S. general told me. (Just this past weekend, Navy Seals staged a daring raid on the seaside villa of a senior Islamist leader in Somalia. Yet the fact that the American Commandos retreated under fire without capturing their target—to avoid civilian casualties, officials say—suggests there is still trepidation about the possibility of another Black Hawk Down.)

For those who fought there, the legacy of Black Hawk Down is more complicated. Partly, it’s about the loss of their comrades and the traumatic experience of combat; it’s also about the pride of having faced the most extreme of human tests, and measuring up. Yet for many combatants, the battle’s legacy is about bigger questions as well. Had their friends died in vain? How could future Black Hawk Downs be prevented? And who gets to control the lessons of what happened on the battlefield?

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McKnight was a stoic presence for his troops, a seemingly fearless leader who pushed through the fire zone as if oblivious to danger. But he was crushed by the deaths of the six soldiers who served under his command. Later, he vowed that every five years he would visit their graves and spend time with their families.

After visiting Cavaco’s grave, he next traveled to the Sacred Heart Cemetery in Vineland, New Jersey, where he paid tribute to Dominick Pilla, beloved by his teammates for his Jersey sense of humor and the satirical skits he put on at the expense of their commanding officers. Pilla, like Cavaco, was a gunner; he too was shot in the head and killed early in the battle.

On Monday morning September 30, McKnight visited Arlington National Cemetery, where Sgt. Casey Joyce and Specialist Richard Kowalewski are laid to rest. The burial ground was empty except for the occasional horse-drawn caisson being pulled through its quiet lanes.

Along the way, McKnight spent time with the families, keeping alive the memories of their loved ones by telling stories. But there were also moments of personal soul searching—the resurfacing of questions that never fully go away. After the chopper went down, McKnight was redirected to the crash site where much of the fighting force was pinned down. Massive enemy fire, road blocks, and poor communications hampered his ability to reach them. Faced with the choice of trying to grind ahead toward the crash zone with a convoy full of prisoners and bloodied soldiers or return to the base, McKnight decided to return home. He calls it the toughest decision of his life.

At Fort Benning, Georgia he visited the gravesite of Corporal Jamie Smith, who had been shot in the thigh while closing in on the crash site. The bullet severed one of Smith’s femoral arteries and he bled to death several hours later. Even though doctors told McKnight that he’d never have been able to save Smith, he is still haunted by the memory. “If I could have gotten that convoy there that day, he would be here,” McKnight told me.

Following a trip to Fort Bliss in El Paso—where he visited the grave of Sgt. Lorenzo Ruiz—McKnight ended his pilgrimage on October 3 in north Texas, the site of one of several Black Hawk Down reunions taking place around the country for the battle’s 20th anniversary.

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A crowd of Somalis cheer in Mogadishu as the body of a U.S. soldier is dragged through the streets on October 4, 1993. (AFP/Getty)

The reunion weekend began at a VFW hall in a non-descript strip mall in Plano—the Casey Joyce All-America Post 4380. (Joyce was a Plano native.) When I arrived, around 5:00 pm, the room was thick with cigarette smoke and country rock music blared over the speakers. Veterans of old and more recent wars crowded around the bar downing shots of Regal Crown Black, chased by Shiner Bock.

A couple of vets of Task Force Ranger were already there, but around 6:00, more began filtering in—eventually numbering a few dozen. As they saw each other, in some cases for the first time since they’d left Somalia, their eyes lit up. They exchanged long hugs, kidded each other, teasingly pulled rank, and shouted “hooah,” the warrior expression of approval.

The weekend was filled with poignant moments, like when Mike Kurth told Sean Watson about an act of leadership he’d always admired but never acknowledged. When word reached the Rangers at the crash site that the convoy was headed back to base and would not be able to pick them up, Kurth’s instinctive reaction was, “We’re fucked!” But it was Watson who understood the need to sustain the morale of the troops. “We could be here for a little while,” he said calmly. “Everyone needs to preserve their ammo.”

There were bittersweet moments, too. One was when the widow of Casey Joyce embraced Todd Blackburn, the private who’d missed his rope as he leapt from the helicopter and fell 70 feet to the ground at the outset of the operation. It was Joyce who’d scurried for a medevac vehicle, an intrepid act that may well have saved Blackburn’s life. A few minutes later, Joyce was killed, shot in the back by a Somali militiaman.

“It’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.”

Some of the Rangers were staggered by the memories. At the VFW hall on that first night, a short movie was shown about two Rangers who’d recently returned to Mogadishu and drove through the very streets where they had witnessed and taken part in unspeakable carnage. One lanky Ranger, who’d had a few drinks, began to weep as he watched the scenes unfold on the screen. He’d been a cook and not part of the team assigned to go out on the mission. But when a convoy was spontaneously organized to rescue a second Black Hawk pilot who’d been shot down, he as well as others volunteered. Now, two decades later he was crumpled on the ground in front of his former teammates sobbing uncontrollably. His friend, a fellow Ranger cook who’d been on the same rescue convoy, picked him up and wrapped his arms around him. “Maintain yourself,” he told him firmly. Another overwhelmed Ranger watching the movie left the hall and vomited.

The psychological after-effects of battle are, of course, very different from soldier to soldier. One Ranger I spoke with, Christopher Atwater, seemed troubled by the fact that he didn’t know the answer to a question he’s been repeatedly asked over the years: had he killed anybody? “I don’t know,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “I fired my weapon and I did the best job I could.” The wife of another Ranger said her husband hadn’t sought much counseling after Mogadishu but early October is usually a difficult time for him. “He gets real withdrawn,” she said.

Among the anxieties experienced by Black Hawk Down veterans is a sense that their stories might be forgotten. Andrew Flores, a member of the 10th Mountain Division, part of the quick reaction force that was brought in late to the battle to mount an armored rescue, lamented that his fellow Mountaineers were overshadowed by the Rangers, Delta Force, and other elite operators depicted in Bowden’s book. Pulling me away from the crowd at the VFW, Flores said, “We suffered, we lost men, we bled that day.” (Two members of his division died in the battle.) And he pleaded that we not forget their sacrifice. “Don’t let ours be another forgotten war.”

Mike Kurth retired in 1996, but after the attacks of 9/11 he had a powerful urge to reenlist. By then in his 30s, he felt he still had something to contribute. But in retrospect he also thinks the impulse may have stemmed from survivor’s guilt. He sought some counseling, talked to some of his Ranger buddies, and eventually concluded, “It’s ok to be happy.”

Kurth was hardly alone in finding a way to move on: Bowden says most of the men emerged from Black Hawk Down emotionally and psychologically intact. They were proud to have served in a fight that will stand in the pantheon of American battles for its acts of valor and sacrifice. “If they believed in what they were doing and they acquitted themselves well and didn’t betray their cause, then they came out of it well,” Bowden says. “Some come out of combat deeply troubled and wounded,” he adds. “But most don’t.”

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The U.S. involvement in Somalia began in 1992 as a humanitarian operation aimed at ending a devastating famine. These were heady days for America. The Cold War had recently ended and the country’s sense of hegemony was only heightened by its crushing defeat of Saddam Hussein’s army in the first Gulf War. The Somalia intervention was an expression of what George H.W. Bush dubbed “The New World Order”: the United States, the world’s remaining superpower, would be in the vanguard of a muscular multilateralism that would seek to prevent humanitarian catastrophes and human rights abuses.

But following Black Hawk Down, it became clear that international altruism could be costly. The Clinton White House, under heavy congressional pressure, pulled out of Somalia, and the episode spawned a whole new lexicon for policymakers spooked by the prospect of the United States getting ensnared in future military debacles. It was during the Somalia operation that a Washington Post columnist coined the term “mission creep” to characterize ill-defined ventures that could easily spin out of control. Meanwhile, “we don’t want another Black Hawk Down” became a reflexive catchphrase for policymakers wary of American intervention.

Just days after Clinton called off Task Force Ranger’s mission in Somalia, a U.S. Navy vessel anchored in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. U.S. and Canadian peacekeepers were deploying to train Haitian security forces for the return of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But when the U.S.S. Harlan County was greeted by a throng of angry anti-Aristide protestors—some of whom fired shots in the air while others shouted “Somalia! Aidid!”—the ship weighed anchor and steamed out of port. A few months later, Clinton chose not to intervene in Rwanda where hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were being slaughtered by rival Hutus. His decision came after Hutu militia members killed and mutilated 10 Belgian U.N. peacekeepers in an echo of what Aidid’s forces had done in Somalia.

Throughout the 1990s, a profound risk aversion settled over civilian policymakers and, to a lesser extent, the military. When the U.S. did intervene militarily, such as in the Balkans, air power was the only real approach considered palatable. “No boots on the ground” became the mantra—a very different American way of war. Some have argued that the Bush administration’s aggressive response to 9/11 laid to rest the ghosts of Black Hawk Down, heralding a new dawn for America’s lethal Special Operations Forces. But even as the Bush administration launched major ground wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was still true that there was a deep reluctance to order commando operations in chaotic, out-of-the-way places.

One former top special operations commander recalls what transpired when a mission would be proposed that was “stealthy, surgical, and light,” the bread and butter of special ops: “We’d start with a recommendation of 50 men, but by the time it got briefed all the way up the chain, it would involve 10,000 men” and massive amounts of equipment and armor. Everyone wanted to make sure they’d be able to fight their way out of a Black Hawk Down situation. But then the plan would be cancelled because the Pentagon didn’t want to expend that level of resources.

During his first term, Obama repeatedly resisted putting “boots on the ground” in Somalia and personally invoked Black Hawk Down on more than one occasion, according to one of his closest military advisers. In September 2009, Obama and his advisers debated options for going after Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, a top Al Qaeda operative whom U.S. intelligence had identified in Somalia. The military wanted to capture him, but that would have required a potentially risky ground operation. Obama opted for a targeted killing, in which Little Bird attack helicopters strafed his car while he was traveling on an isolated road.

He did allow commandos to touch down in order to collect DNA samples so the military could prove Nabhan had died. But for most of the first term, Obama generally resisted the military’s requests to allow special operations forces to land on the ground—denying them, for instance, the ability to collect a target’s “pocket litter,” valuable intelligence they would likely find on his body or vehicle after the kill.

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But what about those who fought in Black Hawk Down? On the surface it might appear that, for them, all these policy implications are very much beside the point. It’s an ancient warrior creed that the human experience of combat transcends politics. That attitude is typified by Hoot, the composite character played by Eric Bana in Ridley Scott’s movie version of the battle. “You know what I think,” he says when asked if it was a worthwhile mission. “Don’t really matter what I think. Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window.” Toward the end of the movie, Hoot reduces war to its most elemental quality: “It’s about the men next to you, and that’s it. That’s all it is.”

But that’s not exactly right. The warriors who fought in Mogadishu in some ways care about the politics in a more profound and visceral way than anyone else. If the most emotionally searing experience in combat is the death of a comrade in arms, then the most human impulse of the warrior is to ask: why? For all their expressions of pride in how they fought, some members of Task Force Ranger still are tormented by the belief that their brothers died in vain. They point to President Clinton’s decision to call off the mission after October 4, even though the objective of capturing Aidid had not been achieved.

“We had 18 lives committed to that mission,” says retired Col. Thomas Matthews, the air mission commander who guided the pilots of the 160th Nightstalkers in Mogadishu. “Once they decided to commit us, they needed to let us finish the job.”

Nothing seems to stir more ire than the fact that a few weeks after the battle, the Clinton administration entered into negotiations with Aidid, transporting him on a U.S. plane. Some members of Task Force Ranger were even assigned to provide security for the negotiations. “Don’t ask us to guard him,” says Mike Kurth, his lip quivering with anger at the thought of it all these years later.

Kurth and most of the veterans of Task Force Ranger are in no way trapped by Black Hawk Down. Still, many of the paths they’ve chosen have kept them connected to that formative experience. A number of them, like McKnight and Matt Eversmann—the Ranger played by Josh Hartnett in the movie—became motivational and public speakers, drawing on the experience to impart lessons about leadership and sacrifice and commitment.

All these years later, there isn’t a day that Black Hawk Down doesn’t flash through his mind.

Other veterans of Black Hawk Down have become preachers and have drawn spiritual meaning from the experience. One former Ranger, Keni Thomas, became a popular country singer. His songs are filled with themes of war and patriotism. “Some say a hero is born to be brave,” read the lyrics of his song “Hero.” “But I’m here to tell you that a hero is a scared man that don’t walk away.”

Some Task Force Ranger vets left the military relatively soon after Black Hawk Down. William F. Garrison, the general who commanded the operation and was played by Sam Shepherd in the film, took full responsibility for the episode’s tactical failings. Shortly after the event, he hand-wrote a letter to President Clinton, Defense Secretary Les Aspin, and members of Congress explaining his actions but not making any excuses. His career was short-circuited and he retired two years later.

Garrison now lives on a farm in Hico, Texas, and has never given an interview about Black Hawk Down. He is revered by most of the troops who served under him in Somalia. During the reunion weekend, he attended a barbeque held at Ross Perot’s house in Texas. He apparently mingled easily with the members of Task Force Ranger and seemed happy to be there.

Many others who participated in Black Hawk Down stayed in the military and are just beginning to retire now. Eversmann, who served a 15-month tour in Iraq and retired in 2008, says that, before deployment, he obsessively tried to meet as many of the family members of the soldiers who served under him as he could. He never again wanted to have to meet them for the first time at their child’s funeral, as he had after Black Hawk Down.

A number rose thorough the ranks to become senior commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan. Captain Mike Steele was a company commander whose Ranger and Delta operators provided security around the crash site of one of the downed Black Hawks. They fought off thousands of militants throughout the night, but several of Steele’s men were killed. Later, according to a profile in The New Yorker, Steele was haunted by questions about whether his troops had been adequately prepared for the battle. The story suggested he would never let that happen again. As a result, some allege that in Iraq he created a culture of aggressive soldiering—one that may have gone too far. He was investigated for his role in the killing, by soldiers under his command, of four unarmed Iraqis. Though Steele was never charged, he was given a career-ending reprimand.

Chris Faris, a Delta Force operator in Mogadishu, rose to the pinnacle of the military’s elite forces. He is Command Sergeant Major to the Special Operations Command and, thus, the top enlisted adviser to Admiral William McRaven. In Somalia, Faris was part of the initial Delta assault team assigned to capture Aidid’s aides. After the first Black Hawk went down, Faris and his team moved toward the helicopter to secure the crash site.

On the way, they encountered a ferocious ambush. Earl Fillmore, a Delta operator two or three men up from Faris, took a round in the head, or, as Faris puts it, was “drilled in his brain housing group.” Seconds later, a soldier standing directly in front of him was shot. As Faris tended to his wound, he was shot in the back. The bullet didn’t penetrate his armor, but the kinetic force of the round caused hydrostatic shock and some internal bleeding. He was able to function, but he believed he was going to die. In a house the team had occupied, Faris held up his wedding band and said goodbye to his wife and his two small daughters. By now a calm had settled over him, a kind of primordial survival instinct, he believes. The only thing he feared was that if he died, his family would see his mutilated corpse dragged through the streets.

Faris survived and went on to have a storied career in America’s shadow wars, participating in or supervising thousands of classified missions in the world’s most dangerous places. Still, all these years later, Faris says there isn’t a day that Black Hawk Down doesn’t flash through his mind.

For him, the legacy of the mission is complicated. He appears troubled by those who weren’t there yet seem to have appropriated the legacy of the battle for their own political purposes. In 2009, he was part of a Pentagon team that proposed a secret counterterrorism mission in Somalia. At a planning session with senior Obama aides, a high-ranking State Department official said he was uncomfortable with the plan because he was worried it would lead to “another Black Hawk Down.” According to Faris, the official went on to say, “I’m the guy who had to fly into Mogadishu afterwards to clean up your mess.” (The official apparently did not know that Faris had been in Mogadishu.)

Faris began to sense the anger rising up through his body. As he started to get up, he felt Admiral McRaven’s hand squeezing his thigh. He got the message and sat back down. But he still boils when he thinks about it. What would he have told him, I asked Faris? “This guy didn’t know that when Earl Fillmore was killed his blood and brains were seeping out of his helmet,” says Faris. “Or that five hours later, moving his cold body to another position, rigor mortis has set in and his arms are sticking straight up into the air. He doesn’t know what a mess is.”

At the same time, Faris also knows that there are political lessons to be learned from Black Hawk Down: he speaks with conviction about never sending people into battle without a clear, attainable objective and without fully considering the consequences of those actions, something he says was not done before the battle in Mogadishu. “I thought the larger mission was bullshit,” he says. “Everyone died for absolutely no reason. It was wasted lives, wasted blood, and wasted treasure, and I’m angry about it.” Faris says that he vowed as a commander that he would never send a man or woman into battle unless he could tell their mother or father that their child did not die in vain.

In the end, the human toll of war cannot be separated from the larger political questions. They are intertwined and co-dependent. There was enormous heroism, valor, and tragedy in Mogadishu. “But,” says Andrew Bacevich, a professor at Boston University and retired Army colonel, “if you reduce war simply to a human story, you rob it of its political significance.”

“And war,” adds Bacevich, who lost a son in Iraq, “is ultimately a political act that has to be judged on that basis.” Many veterans of Task Force Ranger intuitively seem to understand that.