"Anatomy of the disaster in Somalia," screamed the Time headline in October 1993. "Trapped in Somalia," read the Newsweek front page.
Eighteen Americans had just died in the infamous Black Hawk Down battle in Mogadishu. Images of a captured U.S. pilot and American bodies being dragged through the streets were all over the networks.
The mission in Somalia became widely seen as one of the greatest military disasters since Vietnam. In October 1993, 66 percent of Americans thought the operation to "provide humanitarian relief" in Somalia was a failure. Congressmen angrily demanded U.S. withdrawal.
Hollywood later reinforced the impression of Somalia as a debacle. The 2001 movie Black Hawk Down focused in harrowing detail on a single event--the eighteen-hour shoot-out in Mogadishu. You can watch a clip from the movie here:
But the popular view of Somalia as a catastrophe is mistaken. Errors were made and there were very real costs. But, overall, it was a heroic mission that saved thousands of lives. Skewed perceptions proved disastrous, searing humanitarian intervention with the mark of Cain, and sapping the will to fight genocide the following year in Rwanda.
To understand the true story, we need to turn the clock back almost a year before the events of Black Hawk Down. After the Cold War ended, the East African state of Somalia disintegrated into clan-based warfare and widespread famine. In response, President George H. W. Bush announced that the United States would intervene to secure the delivery of humanitarian relief.
On December 9, 1992, U.S. naval commandos slipped ashore as an advance guard in Somalia. But a small army was waiting for them on the beach, employing bright lights that blinded the commandos. Fortunately, it was an army of journalists and cameramen. In a bid to win the public relations battle in Somalia, officials had tipped off the press. The result was a cross between Omaha Beach and Oscar night.
The U.S. intervention achieved impressive results. By helping to end the famine, American forces saved around 100,000 lives (some estimates put the figure in the low tens of thousands, others at over one million). The number of refugees was cut in half. Soldiers built or repaired roads and schools, and trained several thousand police.
In 1993, without sufficient planning, the operation became fixated on tracking down one particular warlord--General Aideed--who was blamed for attacks on international forces.
This was the road that led to Black Hawk Down on October 3-4, 1993. The United States actually achieved its core objective that day, by capturing several Somalis linked to Aideed--but American casualties were far higher than expected. Still, in his definitive account, The Atlantic's Mark Bowden wrote that the Special Forces who fought in Mogadishu were "proud of successfully completing their mission."
Overall, 43 Americans died in Somalia, or one for every 2,500 Somali lives saved. But in the American mind, Somalia became synonymous with a single word: failure.
In part, the mission suffered from overblown expectations. Early efforts to provide food and security in Somalia went so well that the project looked deceptively easy. Americans lost interest until October 1993, when they were suddenly awakened by news of 18 dead soldiers.
And it was also the manner of the deaths. Press coverage was dominated by visceral images of mutilated American corpses. Journalists sometimes ignored the bigger picture, including pro-American demonstrations in Somalia, and successful efforts to save lives and restore order outside of the capital.
In the wake of Black Hawk Down, Washington ended the mission. Somalia became a haven for Islamic extremists and pirates. And America's enemies learned their own lessons. In his 1996 fatwa against the United States, Osama bin Laden announced that after a few minor battles in Somalia: "You left the area carrying disappointment, humiliation, defeat and your dead with you."
Tragically, memories of Somalia deterred the United States from intervening to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. As an editorial in The New York Timesput it, "Somalia provides ample warning against plunging open-endedly into a 'humanitarian' mission."
Somalia does provide warnings. But it also shows the potential of a determined and well-resourced mission to dramatically stabilize a humanitarian crisis. Canadian General Roméo Dallaire, who commanded a small UN force in Rwanda during the genocide, claimed that with just 5,000 well equipped troops he could have ended the slaughter and saved hundreds of thousands of lives. But the troops weren't available. The ghosts of Somalia helped conjure up the ghosts of Rwanda.
“Don’t underestimate me,” declared newly announced presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to George Stephanopoulos on Sunday. That may be good advice.
By conventional standards, Sanders’s candidacy is absurd: He’s not well known, he doesn’t have big money donors, he’s not charismatic, and by Beltway standards, he’s ideologically extreme. But candidates with these liabilities have caught fire before. Think of Jerry Brown, who despite little funding and an oddball reputation outlasted a series of more conventional candidates to emerge as Bill Clinton’s most serious challenger in 1992. Or Pat Buchanan, who struck terror in the GOP establishment by winning the New Hampshire primary in 1996. Or Howard Dean, who began 2003 in obscurity and ended it as the Democratic frontrunner (before collapsing in the run-up to the Iowa Caucuses). Or Ron Paul, who in 2012 finished second in New Hampshire and came within three points of winning Iowa.
The Nobel Prize winner and author of The Grapes of Wrath on the importance of waiting for love
Nobel laureate John Steinbeck (1902-1968) might be best-known as the author of East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice and Men, but he was also a prolific letter-writer. Steinbeck: A Life in Letters constructs an alternative biography of the iconic author through some 850 of his most thoughtful, witty, honest, opinionated, vulnerable, and revealing letters to family, friends, his editor, and a circle of equally well-known and influential public figures.
Among his correspondence is this beautiful response to his eldest son Thom's 1958 letter, in which the teenage boy confesses to have fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan while at boarding school. Steinbeck's words of wisdom—tender, optimistic, timeless, infinitely sagacious—should be etched onto the heart and mind of every living, breathing human being.
After viewing news photographs from China for years, one of my favorite visual themes is "large crowd formations." Whether the subject is military parades or world-record attempts, mass exercises or enormous performances, the images are frequently remarkable. The masses of people can look beautiful or intimidating, projecting a sense of strength and abundance. Individuals can become pixels in a huge painting, or points on a grid, or echoes of each other in identical uniforms or costumes. I've gathered some of these images below, taken around China over the past several years. (Note: a few of these images can create a dizzying effect when viewed while scrolling, which is fun, but could be surprising.)
What is the appropriate penalty for having sex on the beach? This is a story about how that offense, like so many others, allows a penalty far longer than is just.
Were I a cop who stumbled on a couple hooking up beneath a blanket at night I'd look away. Confronted with people going at it during daylight hours in view of passersby, I'd think, "The abrasiveness of sand dissuades most people from doing this and the best outcome would be for Fark.com to mock their breach of community standards, but I suppose I'm obligated to make them stop and issue a ticket."As a prosecutor, I'd seek a sentence of community service plus one weekend of house arrest with the Jimmy Buffett song "Who's the Blond Stranger?" played on repeat over and over and over. A person never forgets that.
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Two years ago, a Dutch creative agency opened a concept restaurant in Amsterdam that would be, in the words of its founder, “the perfect place to dine in pleasant solitude.” The restaurant is called Eenmaal—this name has been translated into English as “dinner for one”—and was launched in an attempt to start dissolving the stigma attached to going out alone. Apparently picking up on the same cultural drift, a new fast-casual restaurant in Washington, D.C., has tiered, bench-like seating with individual trays, an arrangement that caters to solo diners.
As antisocial as those ideas may sound, it’s surprising that the world hasn’t seen more of them. Today, more than a quarter of American households are home to just one person—a figure that has tripled since 1970. Also, the median age at which Americans get married has recently reached a record high. Given these demographic shifts, one would think that by now, going out to the movies or to dinner alone wouldn’t be the radical acts they still are.
Last week, Atlantic coverage was dominated by the dramatic events in Baltimore. Ta-Nehisi Coates lit up the Internet with his controversial take on the rioting in his hometown, followed by a forum at Johns Hopkins University about the broader meaning of the unrest. Conor Friedersdorf frowned at conservatives' response to Baltimore and police brutality in general—though he didn't fail to condemn the rioting as well. Conor also recognized the role that cameras played in the Freddie Gray story, as did Rob Meyer, who offered sound advice on recording cops. David Graham, who has been all over the Gray story, examined how the rioting arose and explored the impact of Twitter. Adam Chandler chased the breaking news while Alan Taylor illustrated the drama with imagery.
The simplest way to reduce the number of Americans who are abused by police officers is not to retrain cops or to reform their subculture. It is to significantly reduce the number of adversarial interactions people have with police.
Questions about how frequently Americans ought to interact with law enforcement are often associated with the debate over Broken Windows theory. Its proponents champion a model of policing where foot patrolmen are a regular presence in high-crime neighborhoods, vigilantly guarding against the sorts of low-level disorder that ostensibly leads to more serious crime if left unchecked.
For now, let's defer debate about Broken Windows theory.
Even if it is correct, there are still a number of reforms that would reduce adversarial contacts with police officers without increasing disorder on the streets.
Marilyn Mosby's press conference Friday shocked residents of Baltimore and everyone else watching protests over Freddie Gray's death. Barely 24 hours after police had completed their investigation into the death of the 25-year-old black man in police custody, the Baltimore City state's attorney announced a strong slate of charges against the six officers involved. It wasn't just the speed (Mosby said her office had begun investigations the day after Gray's arrest, and six days before his death) but the charges: second-degree depraved-heart murder against one officer, with the others facing a mix of manslaughter, assault, misconduct, and false imprisonment.
The decision was met with jubilation in West Baltimore, where protestors had rioted just four nights before. But almost immediately, critics began to second-guess Mosby, who's been on the job for just a few months. Were her charges politically motivated, or perhaps calculated to calm protests? Had she overcharged the officers, picking unfair charges, or ones she couldn't win? Did she move too fast to charge the officers?
The recent Bridal Fashion Week in New York, which previewed wedding gowns for the Spring 2016 season, featured all the things you'd expect: lace, crystals, tulle. (So much tulle!) It also featured, however, something you wouldn't, necessarily, expect: skin. (So much skin!) Skin not just of traditionally exposed bridal body parts—arms and shoulders and calves—but also of stomachs and sides and backs.
There was the Marchesa gown that leaves its wearer's back bare save for a line of covered buttons. There was Theia's pants-based ensemble, the focal point of which is a bra worn under an iridescent blouse. There was the spate of dresses that, taking their cue from ready-to-wear trends, featured cutouts—at the waist (Reem Acra), in the back (Monique Lhuillier), between the breasts (Angel Sanchez). There were the many two-piece affairs, with fits both boxy and snug, showing flirty flashes of midriff. There were the nearly invisible nettings—draped, wantonly, over shoulders and backs and necklines—that offered, in everything but the most up-close of views, the illusion of bareness. There were the many dresses that took their plunging necklines to their logical conclusions: their wearers' waists.