'Black Hawk Down' Author Mark Bowden on the Battle's 25th Anniversary

Many of the 120 soldiers who set out for the heart of Mogadishu 25 years ago were among the best the nation had to offer.

They were operators from Fort Bragg's 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, better known as Delta Force, along with Rangers from the 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, and pilots and crewmen from the elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

None of them could have predicted what would happen on that daring daytime mission to capture high-ranking lieutenants of a Somali warlord, Mohammed Farrah Aidid, who had been keeping humanitarian relief from starving Somalis.

Intended to be a brief mission, lasting about an hour, it would become the Battle of Mogadishu, now commonly remembered as "Black Hawk Down."

The mission became an overnight standoff and rescue operation when Aidid's supporters shot down two U.S. Army helicopters and attacked those sent to the rescue.

Nineteen soldiers were killed in the battle, including six from Fort Bragg's Delta Force.

Two of those soldiers, Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Sgt. 1st Class Randall Shughart, posthumously received the nation's highest award for valor in combat, the Medal of Honor. The men were killed while selflessly defending the crew of one of the crashed helicopters.

At Fort Bragg, Gordon and Shughart are honored as the namesakes of two schools. Another tribute to the battle, a piece of one of the downed aircraft, is on display at the Airborne & Special Operations Museum.

In the years following the battle on Oct. 3, 1993, author Mark Bowden introduced much of the nation to the heroes of the battle through his best-selling 1999 book, "Black Hawk Down." Two years later, it the basis for the Academy Award-winning movie.

The Fayetteville Observer caught up with Bowden to look back on how he came to write the definitive account of the battle and what he believes has become the legacy of "Black Hawk Down." The conversation below has been edited for length.

I'd like to start at the very beginning. Can you tell me why you chose to write about the Battle of Mogadishu?

I was a longtime newspaper reporter, even back as far as 1993. And what you do, you know, is you look for stories.

When I saw bodies of dead American soldiers being dragged through the streets by angry mobs of Somalis, I was shocked, like most people, and also confused.

I knew we had intervened in Somalia on a humanitarian mission. And the reports that I had read and heard in the months later indicated it had been very successful that literally hundreds of thousands of Somalis lives were saved by that intervention.

And so to see, some months later, angry mobs of Somalis dragging soldiers through the streets was really both shocking and confusing to me.

So, as a reporter, and as someone who had done a great deal of international reporting, i felt fully qualified to find answers to the questions I had.

And I think, too, I had always been interested, as a writer, in the drama inherent in conflict and combat.

Since the Vietnam war -- and I started working as a reporter in 1973 -- in the long years since then there hadn't been any pitched combat by American forces anywhere in the world.

This was an opportunity to write the kind of story I had long envisioned about battle.

How much did you know about the battle before you started working on "Black Hawk Down"?

I was surprised by just about everything. I knew nothing to be honest and I think most Americans knew very little other than the men and maybe families in the military units directly involved.

There had been so little combat and therefore little combat reporting in a generation.

Everything about the Battle of Mogadishu was new, from the particulars of soldiers equipment, weaponry, tactics to the larger story of what we were trying to accomplish in Somalia and Mogadishu and why things went so badly toward end.

The whole story to me was mysterious, to be honest, when I started. Part of that was owing to my own ignorance of the military but part of it was owing to the fact there had been very little reporting and very little said about what exactly we were doing in Mogadishu.

When did you start working on the book? And how did the story come together?

I started thinking about it fairly early on, as early as 1993.

I remember calling the Pentagon -- being a complete rookie I had no idea how to do this story. I called someone in media affairs and asked if I could be put in touch with some of the men who fought in the battle.

This was maybe seven to eight months after. I was told if I could give them a list of the men that I wanted to interview and what units they were in they would arrange for me to interview them.

For me that was like a brick wall.

I was really stuck. And I was for some time until I was assigned to write a profile of President Clinton, who was running for reelection. I guess that was in 1996.

I sought out some of the family members of soldiers who had been killed in the Battle of Mogadishu who had met with President Clinton in the White House.

In the process of doing that I met Jim Smith, who was the father of Jamie Smith, one of the Rangers who was killed in the battle. And Jim subsequently invited me to a ceremony in Northern New Jersey, at a military base, where they were dedicating a building to the memory of his son.

I went to that ceremony and there was a whole slew of Jamie's former comrades there and Jim went around and introduced me and told these men what I was trying to do.

I think under most circumstances none of these people would have agreed to talk to a reporter but because Jim asked them, one after another, I was able to do it.

I was able to go back to the Pentagon and say 'Here's the list' ... and good to their word they started setting things up.

How long did it take you to piece together the full picture of the battle?

It just continually widened.

Frankly, I was delighted and surprised by how much information there was.

Initially, I began interviewing individual soldiers and started piecing together an incomplete idea of what happened.

Each of those individuals then gave me the names and phone numbers of four or five other men who were there with them.

I gradually did hundreds of interviews and I had a very detailed mosaic but what I lacked was a real overview of the timeline of the battle, of the tactics of the battle.

Late in the game, I gained access to the detailed official timelines of the battle, to ultimately audio tapes of all of the radio traffic from the battle which was just invaluable... I was able to watch a video shot from overhead so I could see things like helicopters being hit and spiraling into the city and watching the convoy wander through the streets getting attacked at every intersection.

I ultimately felt like I had more information to write the story of a battle than any writer in history... because in modern times there are things like audiotape and videotape. The record keeping was extraordinary.

It's been 25 years since the Battle of Mogadishu. Looking back, what do you see as the lasting legacy of the battle, and what do you hope the legacy is of your work?

One of the lasting legacies, I believe, is that the book may have helped put to rest the idea that the U.S. could intervene militarily without placing our soldiers at risk.

I think there was a kind of myth of invincibility that grew out of the relative ease of the Persian Gulf War that led most Americans to believe that our military forces were so superior that we could impose our will around the world without paying a price.

I think that "Black Hawk Down" illustrated that even when the most powerful military in the world confronts one of the poorest, most backwards societies on earth the risks are huge for the soldiers that we deploy.

I subtitled the book 'A Story of Modern War' in part ironically.

It was very much a modern battle in that it had just happened and the men and weaponry and equipment and technology employed were new to most people.

But in a larger sense it reflected the nature of battle going back to the beginnings of combat. The experiences, the traumas, the fears, the heroism that are captured in the street fighting in Mogadishu were very similar to what you read about in the "Red Badge of Courage" or accounts of the Spartans fighting on the bridge of Thermopylae.

War is war and battle is battle. You can change the window dressing. You can change the way it looks and feels but the experience is universal. And will always be that way I think.

When you were writing the book, did you have any notion that it would become as well received as it was?

No. To be honest, I thought maybe I would be lucky if 10,000 people ever read that book.

For one thing, every major publisher in New York turned it down. So I had no expectation this would ever reach a wide audience or have the kind of impact that its had.

It's been a life-changing experience for me and one that I'm very proud of. But it's certainly something that I never anticipated.

The success of the book alone I didn't anticipate and then the fact that it would made into an Academy Award-winning film that has reached hundreds of millions of people was certainly beyond my wildest imagination.

You mentioned before that a lot of these soldiers came from special operations units that pride themselves on being "Quiet Professionals." What has their reactions been towards the book?

I've been nothing but gratified and surprised by the warmth with which this book and ultimately the film were received, particularly by the units directly involved.

Given the military's need for secrecy. I had a sense when I wrote "Black Hawk Down" that I was going to incur the anger of the U.S. military and in particular the units who function in a clandestine way.

In fact the very opposite is true.

I think very few people were in a position to help me when I wrote "Black Hawk Down" but they seem to be universally pleased that story was told.

Fort Bragg and the surrounding communities are still home to many of the soldiers and families of soldiers involved in the Battle of Mogadishu. Do you have any message for them?

I couldn't have written "Black Hawk Down" without the help of veterans and their families who were so supportive.

And I'm gratified to this day that I was able to elevate the tragedy that so many of them experienced and the triumph that so many of them experienced to a level where most Americans are aware of it, where I think they are justly honored and celebrated for what they were able to do.

I've very grateful to them both for their service and their help.

This article is written by Drew Brooks from The Fayetteville Observer, N.C. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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