"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.
A new six-part Netflix documentary is a stunning dive into a utopian religious community in Oregon that descended into darkness.
To describe Wild Wild Country as jaw-dropping is to understate the number of times my mouth gaped while watching the series, a six-part Netflix documentary about a religious community in Oregon in the 1980s. It’s ostensibly the story of how a group led by the dynamic Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh purchased 64,000 acres of land in central Oregon in a bid to build its own utopian city. But, as the series immediately reveals, the narrative becomes darker and stranger than you might ever imagine. It’s a tale that mines the weirdness of the counterculture in the ’70s and ’80s, the age-old conflict between rural Americans and free love–preaching cityfolk, and the emotional vacuum that compels people to interpret a bearded mystic as something akin to a god.
This is no way for two grown humans to make a major life decision.
The marriage proposal is one of the most ritualized moments in modern American life. Growing up, many girls are instilled with a specific idea of how it should go: He’ll take us somewhere romantic—we’ll have no idea what’s happening—he’ll get down on one knee—we’ll start crying—he’ll pop the question—we’ll immediately say yes. It should be magical.
But for a lot of heterosexual couples, the proposal—as movies portray it, as many millennial women have internalized it—doesn’t reflect the kind of modern, egalitarian relationships many women want today. Whom to marry is among the most important decisions most people will ever make in their lives, and yet it’s not a choice made in the course of a conversation—the normal way two grown humans make big life decisions. Instead, it has to be a show, with a prefixed grand finale: “yes.”
Gigantic piles of impounded, abandoned, and broken bicycles have become a familiar sight in many Chinese cities, after a rush to build up its new bike-sharing industry vastly overreached.
Last year, bike sharing took off in China, with dozens of bike-share companies quickly flooding city streets with millions of brightly colored rental bicycles. However, the rapid growth vastly outpaced immediate demand and overwhelmed Chinese cities, where infrastructure and regulations were not prepared to handle a sudden flood of millions of shared bicycles. Riders would park bikes anywhere, or just abandon them, resulting in bicycles piling up and blocking already-crowded streets and pathways. As cities impounded derelict bikes by the thousands, they moved quickly to cap growth and regulate the industry. Vast piles of impounded, abandoned, and broken bicycles have become a familiar sight in many big cities. As some of the companies who jumped in too big and too early have begun to fold, their huge surplus of bicycles can be found collecting dust in vast vacant lots. Bike sharing remains very popular in China, and will likely continue to grow, just probably at a more sustainable rate. Meanwhile, we are left with these images of speculation gone wild—the piles of debris left behind after the bubble bursts.
Considering SpaceX accidentally blew up one of Mark Zuckerberg’s projects, this is a little awkward.
This week’s revelations about a British political consultancy’s use of data from 50 million Facebook users for potentially shady purposes has prompted many people to declare they will quit the social network in protest. One of the newest additions to the bandwagon is Elon Musk, the wealthy entrepreneur with companies like Tesla and Space X to his name—and he followed through in a very public way.
It happened, as these things do, on Twitter.
“It is time. #deletefacebook,” Brian Acton, the cofounder of the messaging service WhatsApp, tweeted on Tuesday, the day the Federal Trade Commission opened an investigation into how Cambridge Analytica accessed the Facebook data. For whatever reason, Musk decided to respond to Acton’s tweet on Friday. “What’s Facebook?” he replied. He appeared to be joking, but someone decided to call his bluff.
The original sitcom reveled in complexity. In the premiere of its highly anticipated reboot, though, it has simplified politics down to easy partisanship.
“We’re not going to talk about who the Conners are going to vote for. I think people would turn us off real quick.”
That was Roseanne Barr, talking with the Los Angeles Timesabout the politics of the original version of her hit ABC sitcom. It was 1992: The American presidential campaign, Bill Clinton versus George H. W. Bush versus Ross Perot, was being waged. Dan Quayle was arguing about family values with a fictional journalist. Roseanne, though—the producer, the character, the star—was insisting that her TV family transcended both the vagaries of political partisanship and the messiness of the culture wars themselves. The Conners are “somewhere in the middle of it all,” Barr said, “not knowing what anything stands for anymore. So really what they do is go to work and come home to be with their family, and try to make do.”
Data misuse is a feature, not a bug—and it’s plaguing our entire culture.
After five days of silence, Mark Zuckerberg finally acknowledged the massive data compromise that allowed Cambridge Analytica to obtain extensive psychographic information about 50 million Facebook users. His statement, which acknowledged that Facebook had made mistakes in responding to the situation, wasn’t much of an apology—Zuckerberg and Facebook have repeatedly demonstrated they seem to have a hard time saying they’re sorry.
For me, Zuckerberg’s statement fell short in a very specific way: He’s treating the Cambridge Analytica breach as a bad-actor problem when it’s actually a known bug.
In the 17-months-long conversation Americans have been having about social media’s effects on democracy, two distinct sets of problems have emerged. The ones getting the most attention are bad-actor problems—where someone breaks the rules and manipulates a social-media system for their own nefarious ends. Macedonian teenagers create sensational and false content to profit from online ad sales. Disinformation experts plan rallies and counterrallies, calling Americans into the streets to scream at each other. Botnets amplify posts and hashtags, building the appearance of momentum behind online campaigns like #releasethememo. Such problems are the charismatic megafauna of social-media dysfunction. They’re fascinating to watch and fun to study—who wouldn’t be intrigued by the team of Russians in St. Petersburg who pretended to be Black Lives Matter activists and anti-Clinton fanatics in order to add chaos to the presidential election in the United States? Charismatic megafauna may be the things that attract all the attention—when really there are smaller organisms, some invisible to the naked eye, that can dramatically shift the health of an entire ecosystem.
The president is surrounding himself with familiar faces from his favorite cable-news network—but may not find in them what he seeks.
Remember “bring in the grown-ups”? They have all now been carried off, with the sole exception of Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
Instead, Trump is staffing his administration and his legal team with familiar personalities from his preferred cable-news channel—much like an imperious child demanding that his crib be stuffed with his TV-cartoon favorites.
Now perhaps the most important West Wing job of them all is to be filled by John Bolton, a figure with an authentic background in government, yes—he held a recess appointment as ambassador to the United Nations from August 2005 until December 2006—but whose achievements over the past dozen years have been posted principally in the field of television punditry.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal is drawing attention to malicious data thieves and brokers. But every Facebook app—even the dumb, innocent ones—collected users’ personal data without even trying.
For a spell during 2010 and 2011, I was a virtual rancher of clickable cattle on Facebook.
It feels like a long time ago. Obama was serving his first term as president. Google+ hadn’t arrived, let alone vanished again. Steve Jobs was still alive, as was Kim Jong Il. Facebook’s IPO hadn’t yet taken place, and its service was still fun to use—although it was littered with requests and demands from social games, like FarmVille and Pet Society.
I’d had enough of it—the click-farming games, for one, but also Facebook itself. Already in 2010, it felt like a malicious attention market where people treated friends as latent resources to be optimized. Compulsion rather than choice devoured people’s time. Apps like FarmVille sold relief for the artificial inconveniences they themselves had imposed.
The president’s new national-security adviser doesn’t seem to think the current strategy is likely to work.
The Trump administration’s plan for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program currently consists of two main components: an international campaign of economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure against the Kim regime, plus direct nuclear talks this spring between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un. The president’s new national-security adviser, John Bolton, doesn’t seem to believe that either of these approaches is likely to work.
Bolton is instead one of the most prominent proponents of a radical idea, which some hardline U.S. officials in Congress and the White House have refused to rule out but have not recommended with Bolton-like conviction: striking North Korea now, and risking the most destructive war in living memory, to prevent it from threatening the United States with nuclear weapons later.
Before he was the national-security adviser, he wrote a lacerating account of generals who failed in advising Lyndon Johnson. What will he say now that he is free to talk about Trump?
“They have their exits and their entrances,” wrote Shakespeare, and so it is, as we see some actors deliver frantic speeches while others leap, slide, or crawl on and off the foreign-policy stage.
Rex Tillerson said farewell to the Department of State much as he entered it: clueless about government service, clueless about his department, and clueless about his boss. He invoked the cliché of Washington as a “mean-spirited town”—as though executive suites in Houston were foreign to nastiness, and as though the capital were demonstrably short of the amiability that characterizes Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, or Las Vegas. He could not accept the true diagnosis of his failure: that he had chosen to work for an immoral egomaniac who predictably treats his subordinates—and treated him—as shabbily as he has betrayed his wives and allegedly attempted to buy his sex partners.