"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.
About 10 years ago, after I’d graduated college but when I was still waitressing full-time, I attended an empowerment seminar. It was the kind of nebulous weekend-long event sold as helping people discover their dreams and unburden themselves from past trauma through honesty exercises and the encouragement to “be present.” But there was one moment I’ve never forgotten. The group leader, a man in his 40s, asked anyone in the room of 200 or so people who’d been sexually or physically abused to raise their hands. Six or seven hands tentatively went up. The leader instructed us to close our eyes, and asked the question again. Then he told us to open our eyes. Almost every hand in the room was raised.
Four decades ago Jimmy Carter was sworn in as the 39th president of the U.S., the original Star Wars movie was released in theaters, and much more.
Four decades ago Jimmy Carter was sworn in as the 39th president of the United States, the original Star Wars movie was released in theaters, the Trans-Alaska pipeline pumped its first barrels of oil, New York City suffered a massive blackout, Radio Shack introduced its new TRS-80 Micro Computer, Grace Jones was a disco queen, the Brazilian soccer star Pele played his “sayonara” game in Japan, and much more. Take a step into a visual time capsule now, for a brief look at the year 1977.
In the media world, as in so many other realms, there is a sharp discontinuity in the timeline: before the 2016 election, and after.
Things we thought we understood—narratives, data, software, news events—have had to be reinterpreted in light of Donald Trump’s surprising win as well as the continuing questions about the role that misinformation and disinformation played in his election.
Tech journalists covering Facebook had a duty to cover what was happening before, during, and after the election. Reporters tried to see past their often liberal political orientations and the unprecedented actions of Donald Trump to see how 2016 was playing out on the internet. Every component of the chaotic digital campaign has been reported on, here at The Atlantic, and elsewhere: Facebook’s enormous distribution power for political information, rapacious partisanship reinforced by distinct media information spheres, the increasing scourge of “viral” hoaxes and other kinds of misinformation that could propagate through those networks, and the Russian information ops agency.
More comfortable online than out partying, post-Millennials are safer, physically, than adolescents have ever been. But they’re on the brink of a mental-health crisis.
One day last summer, around noon, I called Athena, a 13-year-old who lives in Houston, Texas. She answered her phone—she’s had an iPhone since she was 11—sounding as if she’d just woken up. We chatted about her favorite songs and TV shows, and I asked her what she likes to do with her friends. “We go to the mall,” she said. “Do your parents drop you off?,” I asked, recalling my own middle-school days, in the 1980s, when I’d enjoy a few parent-free hours shopping with my friends. “No—I go with my family,” she replied. “We’ll go with my mom and brothers and walk a little behind them. I just have to tell my mom where we’re going. I have to check in every hour or every 30 minutes.”
Those mall trips are infrequent—about once a month. More often, Athena and her friends spend time together on their phones, unchaperoned. Unlike the teens of my generation, who might have spent an evening tying up the family landline with gossip, they talk on Snapchat, the smartphone app that allows users to send pictures and videos that quickly disappear. They make sure to keep up their Snapstreaks, which show how many days in a row they have Snapchatted with each other. Sometimes they save screenshots of particularly ridiculous pictures of friends. “It’s good blackmail,” Athena said. (Because she’s a minor, I’m not using her real name.) She told me she’d spent most of the summer hanging out alone in her room with her phone. That’s just the way her generation is, she said. “We didn’t have a choice to know any life without iPads or iPhones. I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.”
And there could be far-reaching consequences for the national economy too.
Four floors above a dull cinder-block lobby in a nondescript building at the Ohio State University, the doors of a slow-moving elevator open on an unexpectedly futuristic 10,000-square-foot laboratory bristling with technology. It’s a reveal reminiscent of a James Bond movie. In fact, the researchers who run this year-old, $750,000 lab at OSU’s Spine Research Institute resort often to Hollywood comparisons.
Thin beams of blue light shoot from 36 of the same kind of infrared motion cameras used to create lifelike characters for films like Avatar. In this case, the researchers are studying the movements of a volunteer fitted with sensors that track his skeleton and muscles as he bends and lifts. Among other things, they say, their work could lead to the kind of robotic exoskeletons imagined in the movie Aliens.
How a seemingly innocuous phrase became a metonym for the skewed sexual politics of show business
The chorus of condemnation against Harvey Weinstein, as dozens of women have come forward to accuse the producer of serial sexual assault and harassment, has often turned on a quaint-sounding show-business cliché: the “casting couch.” Glenn Close, for instance, expressed her anger that “the ‘casting couch’ phenomenon, so to speak, is still a reality in our business and in the world.”
The casting couch—where, as the story goes, aspiring actresses had to trade sexual favors in order to win roles—has been a familiar image in Hollywood since the advent of the studio system in the 1920s and ’30s. Over time, the phrase has become emblematic of the way that sexual aggression has been normalized in an industry dominated by powerful men.
A small group of programmers wants to change how we code—before catastrophe strikes.
There were six hours during the night of April 10, 2014, when the entire population of Washington State had no 911 service. People who called for help got a busy signal. One Seattle woman dialed 911 at least 37 times while a stranger was trying to break into her house. When he finally crawled into her living room through a window, she picked up a kitchen knife. The man fled.
The 911 outage, at the time the largest ever reported, was traced to software running on a server in Englewood, Colorado. Operated by a systems provider named Intrado, the server kept a running counter of how many calls it had routed to 911 dispatchers around the country. Intrado programmers had set a threshold for how high the counter could go. They picked a number in the millions.
For the first time, astronomers have detected visible light and gravitational waves from the same source, ushering in a new era in our attempt to understand the cosmos.
In September of 2015, astronomers detected, for the first time, gravitational waves, cosmic ripples that distort the very fabric of space and time. They came from a violent merger of two black holes somewhere in the universe, more than a billion light-years away from Earth. Astronomers observed the phenomenon again in December, and then again in November 2016, and then again in August of this year. The discoveries confirmed a century-old prediction by Albert Einstein, earned a Nobel prize, and ushered in a new field of astronomy.
But while astronomers could observe the effects of the waves in the sensitive instruments built to detect them, they couldn’t see the source. Black holes, as their name suggests, don’t emit any light. To directly observe the origin of gravitational waves, astronomers needed a different kind of collision to send the ripples Earth’s way. This summer, they finally got it.
The president managed to cause a brief firestorm by falsely accusing predecessors of neglecting slain soldiers, but real answers about why four men were killed are still elusive.
On October 4, four American Special Forces soldiers were killed during an operation in Niger. Since then, the White House has been notably tight-lipped about the incident. During a press conference Monday afternoon, 12 days after the deaths, President Trump finally made his first public comments, but the remarks—in which he admitted he had not yet spoken with the families and briefly attacked Barack Obama—did little to clarify what happened or why the soldiers were in Niger.
Trump spoke at the White House after a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and was asked why he hadn’t spoken about deaths of Sergeant La David Johnson and Staff Sergeants Bryan Black, Dustin Wright, and Jeremiah Johnson.
The foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy.
It is insufficient to statethe obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.