Black Hawk Down - Book Review [2023]

Black Hawk Down Featured Image

Black Hawk Down (BHD) is a 1999 book, written by Mark Bowden. Written to be an overview of the events of Operation Gothic SerpentBHD primarily focuses on the Battle Of Mogadishu that took place on October 3rd & 4th of 1993. I had read the book in my youth, but returned to it as an adult. The events of BHD tell a story of modern combat in the pre-Global War On Terror (GWOT) era, so how has the book aged?

Operation Gothic Serpent

We've got to set the stage before we can dive into the story (SparkNotes style). It is late-1992, and the UN is attempting to perform humanitarian aide operations in post-civil war Somalia. The UN action was performed by the Unified Task Force, a multinational task force, spearheaded by the US Military. Factions have been warring for a while, and the centralized government is gone.

The UTF operated in Somalia from December of 1992 to May of 1993. It was generally unsuccessful in its goal to help stabilize Somalia. In June of 1993, 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in an ambush by Mohamed Farrah Aidid's troops. Later in the Summer, American soldiers would be killed by explosion, perpetrated by Aidid.

Aidid was the leader of the Somalia National Alliance, a military alliance that formed after the former political leader of Somalia had been displaced. A new mission was made: take down Aidid. For this task, Task Force Ranger, composed of the US Army Rangers, Delta Force, and 160th SOAR (and a few other groups) were sent to Somalia.

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75th Ranger Regiment in Somalia, 1993. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

From August 22nd to October 13th of 1993, Operation Gothic Serpent was underway. Covert operations were done to deal damage to Aidid's militia. High value target snatch missions, communication disruption missions, and supply destruction missions were conducted by TF Ranger. While most of these missions were performed at night, that would change on October 3rd.

Irene

The mission set for October 3rd, 1993 was different. While it was another snatch-and-grab mission, it was happening in daylight. This posed a few problems. TF Ranger had excellent night fighting capabilities, which were not going to be used in a daylight mission. The Somali Militias (Habr Gidir Militia) would be able to see the US forces coming, and would have time to prepare. On top of that, the Somalis were known for consumption of Khat, a chewed stimulant plant. This drug was popular among the Somali fighting men, however, it had the side effect of making them very tired in the evening. However, with the raid slated for mid-day, the Somalis would be jumped up rather than knocked out from the khat.

TF Ranger received intel about the location (Olympic Hotel), and number of HVTs for this mission. The intel was sound, so the mission was a go.

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Helicopters launch for the mission.

At 3:32pm, TF Ranger was given the order to take off, with the launch word "Irene". 19 Helicopters, 12 ground vehicles in a convoy, and 160 men left the TF Ranger base at Mogadishu International Airport, heading towards the Black Sea Area in downtown Mogadishu. Delta teams landed on rooftops and in the streets via Little Bird helicopters, while Rangers fast roped in from Black Hawks. The Ranger chalks began securing a perimeter around the target building, while Delta entered and cleared the target building.

During fast roping, PFC Todd Blackburn fell from a Black Hawk, and received severe injuries. At this point, the convoy had arrived at the target building, and Delta was rounding up hostages to be taken back. Blackburn was put into a Humvee, and a detachment from the convoy left to head back to base with this casualty.

Black Hawk Down

The convoy that headed back to base with Blackburn came under serious fire. During the drive, SGT Dominic Pilla was killed, and many members of the convoy were wounded. This convoy was getting stuck by roadblocks set by the Habr Gidir, and turning in the tight streets was extremely difficult. While this convoy was fighting to get to the safe zone, a Black Hawk was shot down.

Piloted by Cliff Wolcott, Super 61 was struck by an RPG, and crashed in a tight alleyway near the target building. Both Wolcott and his co-pilot were killed, and the remaining crew were struggling to stay in the fight. A combat search and rescue (CSAR) team was dropped on site, which began attempting to control the crash site. A detachment from Delta and Rangers began moving on foot to the crash site, while the convoy attempted to leave the city.

Map of AO BHD
A map of Mogadishu, with combat areas marked. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

The convoy would be under intense fire as it tried to flee the target building. Between gun and rocket fire, many casualties occurred. However, the situation would only be getting worse.

A Second Black Hawk Down

A second Black Hawk was struck by an RPG. Super 64, piloted by Mike Durant, was hit while hovering near the Super 61 crash site. 64 Crashed a ways away, with most of the crew gravely injured. The situation had gone from very bad, to much, much worse. Delta Snipers MSG Gary Gordon and SFC Randy Shughart requested to be inserted near the crash site, as to look for survivors and cordon off the area. A convoy from the 10th Mountain Division was sent out to try and assist at the crash sites, however, they were ambushed heavily en route. Due to this, Gordon and Shughart were eventually inserted, and made their way to the Super 64 crash site.

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The crew of Super 64, a month prior to the fateful day. Image courtesy of Phil Lepre.

When the two arrived at the site, they pulled the crew from the Black Hawk, and began defending the site. Gordon and Shughart were armed with only their carbines, rifles, and handguns. They were holding off the Somali militia to the best of their ability, with the bird they departed from providing fire too. Super 62 was covering as best as it could, until it was hit by an RPG. While the helicopter wasn't destroyed, it took massive damage. The crew on board was severely injured, with Delta operator Brad Halling losing a leg in the process.

Eventually, the crash site was overrun by militiamen. Gordon and Shughart were killed, and Durant was the only member of the crew to survive. Durant would be taken into captivity, to be held as a bargaining chip.

The Alamo

The convoy that left the target building was still under immense fire as it tried to return home. They would not be able to route to either crash, which meant that the men on the ground would be fending for themselves.

At the Super 61 crash site, the Rangers and Delta Force operators were attempting to set up a perimeter. Many casualties occurred, with some minor, and some fatal. Daylight began to fade, and night would set in.

The Americans set up a two block perimeter, with anything that came into it taking fire. The Somalia militia sent in sappers to test for holes in the perimeter, and engaged the zone with 60mm mortars. The combat was so close, that some fighting was happening from room to room, and doorway to doorway. Throughout the course of the night, AH-6 Little Birds were doing gun runs on Somali positions, providing valuable support to the besieged soldiers on the ground.

Calls for help would go on throughout the night, with a convoy being dispatched eventually. It would take time for the convoy to route to the crash site, and provide assistance.

The phrase "The Alamo" was coined by Delta operator Paul Howe, as the Super 61 crash site would be the point that they had to hold onto if they planned to survive.  Eventually, relief would come, after hours and hours of combat.

Relief, & The Mogadishu Mile

After nearly 10 hours of fighting, the relief convoy would arrive. Comprised of US troops and Pakistani and Malaysian UN forces, the convoy would get to the Super 61 around 2:00AM local time. The convoy was massive, with armored personnel carriers, tanks, and trucks. While it was large, it would take damage, with some causalities to be had. However, despite the size of the convoy, there wasn't enough space for everyone.

Wounded soldiers and fatal causalities got priority in the vehicles, but it would take hours to pull the deceased crew out of Super 61. It wasn't until 5:40AM that the convoy would be ready to move. However, there wasn't space for everyone to cram into the vehicles, so some had to hoof it on foot. Known as the "Mogadishu Mile", elements of the Rangers, Delta Force, and 10th Mountain would move on foot to a rendezvous point at which they would be picked up by additional vehicles. During the movement, the soldiers were attacked by militiamen, with small arms, technicals, and RPGs.

By 6:30AM, those that had completed the trek on foot had reached a spot where they could be picked up by vehicles. Troops either were taken to the Pakistani controlled stadium, or the TF Ranger base at the airport. The battle had ended, but the US involvement in Somalia was not.

Aftermath

By the end of the battle, and the ensuing days, 19 Americans, a Pakistani, and a Malaysian were dead. Somalian casualties are contested, but many hundreds died, and upwards of a few thousand were wounded during the events. Gordan and Shughart would be the first two men to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War had ended. After 11 days in captivity, Mike Durant was released. The US would pull military forces entirely out of Somalia in 1995.

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General Garrison of Task Force Ranger leading a remembrance for the fallen after the battle. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

In regards to the October 3 raid, there are a lot of things that people have blamed, that lead to the mission going the way it did. The time of day that the raid took place, the lack of armor or heavy air support, poor communication between assets, and a failure of good preparation all play a part. Some believe that a better political support for the mission in Somalia would have lead to a better outcome, but I'm not here to make a judgement on that.

The battle (and book) have entered the cultural zeitgeist, as many know of this battle. Ridley Scott's 2001 film of the same name was a massive box office hit, and while not extremely historically correct, carries the theme and general overview of the events that occurred in reality.

What are my takeaways for the book itself?

The Actual Book Review

Mark Bowden does a great job at capturing the emotions, motivations, and thoughts of those who participated at the battle. We've got the perspective of Rangers, Delta Force operators, generals, politicians, and local Somalis in the book, and it really helps to paint a picture of what happened at the battle. We get vignettes that show how specific men took action during the battle, and it really makes you feel like you can get a clear view of the events.

Paul Howe 1993
Paul Howe with other Delta operators, 1993. Image courtesy of WikiCommons.

Specifically, the book gives us Paul Howe's perspective a bit. Howe is someone that I've followed for a while, as his Panteo training vids had been a part of my "video" learning when I first got into shooting. We see his perspective numerous times throughout the course of the book, as he went from the raid, into the move to the first crash site, to the Alamo, to the eventual return to the TF Ranger base. Scenes of Howe describing his frustration of the Rangers shooting at his team during the initial raid, to Paul scavenging ammo and grenades from the US casualties, to his fighting at the Alamo all seem extremely sincere, and real. A lot of books that desire to show what happened often fail to give us the actual perspective of those who were there, but Black Hawk Down does not.

The book is well written, and is something that was hard to put down. I initially read this book in my youth, but wanted to return to it as an adult. The Battle of Mogadishu is still relevant thirty years later, as people want to "clone" gear from the era. However, I think there is more to it than that.

Lasting Effects

The subtitle to my 2010 edition of Black Hawk Down is quite fitting. A Story of Modern War really hits home, especially after the GWOT, with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the (relatively) recent end of US combat in Afghanistan. A lot of what occurred during the US involvement in Somalia ended up turning up again in the more recent conflicts. Urban combat where civilians were involved, paramilitary/militia forces, and a political investment that hurt the forces in theater. This book originally came out pre-9/11, but a lot of it still holds true in 2023.

In addition, we can gain some 'tactical" knowledge from the book. One of the glaring things I noticed was the overconfidence that many of the Rangers had prior to the October 3rd raid. We see this primarily in the form of failure to prepare equipment for the raid. Due to the raid supposedly being a short mission, many did not pack extra water, armor, or night vision devices. While not meant to sound disrespectful, we can use this folly to try and plan properly for our missions, whatever they may be.

Black Hawk Down Closing Image
You could say that the Battle of Mogadishu impacted me a little.

For me, the book, the film, and the surrounding media certainly impacted me in my youth. While the film isn't the most accurate to real life, it does portray violence of action, and the sounds of the conflict. The videogame was a part of my childhood that I enjoyed, even though it was incredibly hard.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the prominent members of the shooting community that were at the battle. Both Kyle Lamb of VTAC, and Paul Howe of CSAT took part in the battle. I'd recommend watching Paul's account of the battle.

Book Recommendations

If it isn't obvious, I'd easily recommend reading Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down. A used copy will set you back a few bucks, which is a steal for the content held in the pages.

Check out the following previously reviewed books:

 

About Paul Whaley 183 Articles
Paul Whaley is a guy with an interest in practical and defensive pistol shooting techniques with an eye for quality gear. He has received training from Holistic Solutions Group, John Johnston of Citizens Defense Research, Darryl Bolke, Cecil Birch, and Chuck Haggard. When not trying to become a better shooter, he can be found enjoying a zombie videogame or listening to Warren Zevon.

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