"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 Times put 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.
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Dominic Tierney is a former contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is the author of The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts.