Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gaza versus Somalia

On his Atlantic blog, Jeffrey Goldberg notes a similarity between the Israeli operation in Gaza and the American one, years ago, in Somalia ("Does 'Black Hawk Down' Portray an American War Crime"):

At least nine hundred people, maybe half of them civilians, have been killed in Gaza so far, the overwhelming majority presumably killed by Israel


This number, nine hundred, is large, and it brought to mind another conflict between a Western army and a Muslim insurgency, the one portrayed in the book and movie "Black Hawk Down." Roughly one thousand Somalis were killed by American forces over the twenty hours or so of the First Battle of Mogadishu (eighteen American soldiers, of course, were also killed).

I couldn't get an accurate read on how many of those Somalis were civilians, so I called my colleague, Mark Bowden, who wrote the book ["Black Hawk Down"1, 2]. He said that eighty percent of the Somali deaths were of civilians.

Goldberg goes on to quote Bowden directly. Here's an excerpt of Bowden on the nature of the sort of asymmetric warfare conducted in Somalia in the early 1990s and in Gaza now:

"If you feel the need to go to war against an enemy that is not as powerful as you are, one of the tactics of the weaker party is to hide among civilians, and use the global media to advertise the horror of the onslaught. People on the receiving end of the bombs greatly exaggerate the casualties and get photographers to take the most gruesome of pictures, and at the same time, the people in charge of the stronger power try to minimize the number of casualties. If you live in a democracy, then public opinion really matters, and reports of dead children swells the criticism of the war. If you live in a dictatorship, then you don't care what the people think."


"The parallel with Mogadishu is that gunmen in that battle hid behind walls of civilians and were aware of the restraint of the (Army) Rangers. These gunmen literally shot over the heads of civilians, or between their legs. They used women and children for this. It's mind-boggling. Some of the Rangers shot civilians, some of them inadvertently and some of them advertently. They made the choice to shoot at crowds. When a ten-year-old is running at your vehicle with an AK-47, do you shoot the kid? Yes, you shoot the kid. You have to survive. When push comes to shove, faced with the horrible dilemma with a gunman facing you, yes, you shoot. It's not just a choice about your own life. If you don't shoot, you're saying that your mission isn't important, and the lives of your fellow soldiers aren't important."

One might point out that the U.S. involvement in Somalia started out as a humanitarian one, but, as Bowden noted in his book, the mission evolved into a war against one of Somalia's main clans.

1Mark Bowden's book "Blackhawk Down" was masterly. He gathered information from essentially every available source (e.g., transcripts of U.S. military radio traffic, interviews with local Somalis, etc.) and reconstructed the battle, the events leading up to it, its aftermath. Bowden also placed the events in their larger context, all the while making "Blackhawk Down" a page-turner. He's a first rate journalist.

2Ridley Scott's 2001 movie adapted from Bowden's book, "Blackhawk Down", featured a number of actors who went on to become much more prominent over the next several years: Ewan McGregor, Josh Hartnett, Eric Bana, Jeremy Piven, Jason Isaacs, and Orlando Bloom.

1 comment:

DaveinHackensack said...

The name in that list of actors that I realize may be unfamiliar to some of you is Jason Isaacs. I had no idea he played Captain Steele in Blackhawk Down until I looked up the cast on IMDB yesterday, but Isaacs is familiar to me from his starring role as the Rhode Island mob boss in the great Showtime series Brotherhood. Isaacs also played a gay fashion photographer in the last season of HBO's series Entourage.