In his foreword to Mogadishu! Heroism and Tragedy, Ross Perot wrote: ‘Read this book carefully. Never forget its contents as you watch the tv docu-dramas of smart bombs going down air shafts, where war is presented in a sterile, sanitized environment. Remember, war is fighting and dying.’footnote1 Notable by its absence from the final sentence is the verb ‘killing’. Careful readers will find, for example, that us helicopters fired off no fewer than 50,000 Alpha 165 and 63 rockets on 3 October 1993 in the course of the battle near the Olympic Hotel in Mogadishu, in which eighteen us soldiers died and one was captured. The book lauds ‘the world’s most highly trained and effective military “extraction unit”’, that gained more decorations than any other American flying unit in us military history for a comparable size of operation.footnote2 But there are only hints at the carnage among the Somali civilians who lived—and all too commonly died—in this closely packed residential quarter of the city.

The importance of this inglorious episode in American military history lies not only in the as-yet-undocumented carnage among the residents of Somalia’s capital city, but in what it tells us about us military doctrine. It also casts light on some of the reasons behind the us Administration’s efforts to block the creation of an independent International Criminal Court with universal jurisdiction to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity. The us’s stated objection, voiced in the negotiations leading up to the vote in Rome to create the Court on 17 July this year, was that universal jurisdiction would open the door to malicious prosecutions against American peacekeepers. An analysis of the evidence from the Mogadishu war suggests that the reasons may be rather deeper.

Operation Restore Hope was launched in December 1992 amid shocking—and carefully orchestrated—images of anarchy and starvation in Somalia, with the mandate of ‘creating a secure environment for the delivery of humanitarian relief’. Eight months later it turned into the greatest us military humiliation since Vietman. In three months of urban counter-guerilla warfare against the unpaid, irregular but resourceful militia of General Mohamed Farah Aidid in Mogadishu city, us military doctrines of overwhelming force and near-zero American casualties came unstuck. The culmination was the 3 October battle, after which pictures of a dead us pilot being dragged through the streets by a jeering crowd and the plight of another taken prisoner of war—‘hostage’ in the White House’s preferred terminology—forced a truce and us withdrawal.

The humanitarian garb of Operation Restore Hope was superficial from the start. Launched in December 1992 just as the famine was waning, the despatch of troops had more to do with testing the newly emerging doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’ than saving Somalis. An independent review by the us Refugee Policy Group concluded that the operation saved between 10,000 and 25,000 lives rather than the two million initially advertised.footnote3 This sober reality was noted at the time, though few chose to listen amidst the hype generated among the media, the un and the Pentagon. Much more modest forms of relief aid could have achieved exactly the same result.

The relief specialist, Fred Cuny, had proposed a smaller, more flexible and better targeted operation in the ‘famine triangle’ which would have avoided the perilous vortex of Mogadishu. The plan was the subject of serious discussion in Washington. But, in the words of the then assistant deputy secretary for defence for African Affairs, this option ‘died because it failed to meet the us military’s new insistence on the application of massive, overwhelming force’.footnote4 So a huge logistical operation was mounted through Mogadishu, and the us had to grapple with the political ambitions of General Aidid, the faction leader who controlled the airport, the main routes out of the city, and most of the heavy weapons.

In the early days, given the prestige and sheer number of the us forces, they could have begun the hard work of disarming the Somali factions and negotiating an inclusive peace deal, but the prime task of us Special Envoy Robert Oakley was to get the boys back home safely—and that entailed leaving the tough issues for later. So Oakley cosied up to General Aidid. For example, Oakley chose to rent his house from Aidid’s chief financier, Osman ‘Ato’, use Aidid’s moneychangers for the lucrative business of converting us dollars to Somali shillings, and gave the General a series of public relations coups by heralding ‘breakthroughs’ in peace talks that had in fact been negotiated by un diplomats some months earlier.footnote5

Worse, when the intervention faced its first major challenge in mid-February 1993, the us decided on the soft course of doing nothing. Militia forces loyal to faction leader General Mohamed Hersi Morgan attacked and overran the city of Kismayo, until then controlled by Aidid’s Somali National Alliance (sna) forces.footnote6 The un forces supposedly controlling the city, mostly us and Belgian troops, sat in their sandbagged emplacements, doing nothing. True, intervention would have meant killing or wounding Somali fighters and taking casualties, but us inaction was hardly an encouraging precedent. When the attack was announced on the bbc, crowds in Mogadishu spontaneously demonstrated against the us and un, and peacekeepers opened fire, inflicting some casualties. Oakley stayed in his headquarters, making no attempt to reassure the crowds who interpreted us inaction as support for Morgan.footnote7