Sunday, August 16, 2009

My Crime Beat Column: Black Hawk Down Revisited

A friend told me he has finally seen the film Black Hawk Down on DVD and that he liked the film very much.

I liked the Ridley Scott film as well. I believe it is one of the best war films made in recent times.

The 2001 film, based on Mark Bowden’s book of the same title, portrays American soldiers at their best, despite overwhelming odds, during the 1993 mission to capture key lieutenants to the top warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid in Mogadishu, Somalia.

Bowden, then a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer, first serialized the story in the newspaper. Bowden tells the dramatic story of what he calls the biggest single gunfight since the Vietnam War.

“The battle in Mogadishu was a 15-hour-long gunfight pitting 120 American soldiers against thousands of Somali irregulars,” Bowden wrote in response to a question asked on the newspaper’s website.

The Philadelphia Inquirer still has the series and additional material on their web page at

After interviewing the father of a soldier who died in Somali, Bowden became interested in the battle. He was later surprised to learn that there was so little coverage of the amazing battle.

Although he did not have a military background and he was not a seasoned military journalist, he set out to report on the battle.

He said his first interviews were with Rangers from Fort Benning and pilots from Fort Campbell. As many of the active duty troops kept in touch with former servicemen, Bowden learned the names and telephone numbers of former servicemen and he interviewed many of them as well.

“Eventually my list of men who had fought that day in Mogadishu was too long for me to keep up,” Bowden stated.

Bowden went on to state that he interviewed more than 70 soldiers and airmen and he also interviewed the brass from General Colin Powell (who was then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) on down. He also read official battle accounts and timelines and he was able to watch videotapes and listen to audiotapes of the battle.

One notable person Bowden did not interview was Lieutenant General William G. Boykin, who was then the commanding officer of Delta Force.

When I interviewed the retired general for Counterterrorism, I asked him why his role had been omitted from the book and film.

“When Mark Bowden was writing that book he started out by writing in The Philadelphia Inquirer. I knew where he was getting his information and at that time everything was still classified,” Boykin told me. “He was getting his information from a former Delta noncommissioned officer who had a personal axe to grind with Captain Mike Steele, who was the Ranger company commander.”

Boykin went on to say that the soldier’s personal vendetta against Captain Steele was quite a problem for him.

“When I realized that he was the one who was providing the information to Mark Bowden, I decided that I would have nothing to do with Bowden’s effort to write this book. Bowden called me. I didn’t talk to him. I had my lawyer and public affairs officer talk to him,” Boykin said.

“He wanted me to help him write the book. Number one, I’m not going to help you, and I don’t want you to indicate that I did help you. And Number two, I do not want to be mentioned in your book. He honored that,” Boykin said. “Mark Bowden later wrote about operations against Pablo Escabar and he liberally used my name and never checked with me or talked to me about how I felt about it.”

I asked the general if he read Black Hawk Down or saw the film and he replied that he hadn’t read the book, but he went to the preview of the film when it was shown to the troops who fought in the battle.

“I thought that the movie was surprisingly accurate,” Boykin said. “But there were a number of things that were not correct, starting in the beginning of the movie when Osmon Atto was smoking cigars and talking.”

In the film the captured Somali is seen smoking a good cigar defiantly and making rude remarks about the cheaper cigar General Harrison, the commanding officer of Task Force Ranger, was smoking as the two were in an interrogation room.

Boykin explained that the captured Somali was the number one financier and closest ally of Adid, the Somali warlord. Without Osmon Atto, Boykin said, Aidid was in serious trouble. Boykin said that they knew that if they captured him they would deal Aidid a severe blow. So they went out and captured him.

“After we captured him, it was not like it was portrayed in the film,” Boykin told me. “There was only one person guarding him and that was Captain Steele himself. There were no discussions with Osmon Atto. There were no cigars being smoked. None of that nonsense. He was scared to death.”

Boykin recounted how he walked in and asked the Somali if he were Osmon Atto and he said yes. Boykin thought that Atto figured he was going to kill him.

In response to a public comment Atto made earlier about God being on the Somalia side, Boykin told him “Mr. Atto, you underestimated our God.”

“That was the entire discussion,” Boykin said. “So none of that stuff in the movie was true.”

I told General Boykin that I liked actor Sam Shepard’s portrayal as General Garrison. Did he nail the general?
Boykin said that Shepard was close, although there is no other General Garrison.

“Garrison is a great American and sadly, he took the fall for the whole thing,” Boykin said.

I mentioned that Mark Bowden has written other books about Delta Force and that General Boykin was mentioned in those books.

“Bowden obviously has some pretty good sources there that are giving him some very detailed information,” Boykin said. “When he wrote Killing Pablo he has some direct quotes from conversations I had with people like Ambassador Busby and the commander of the Southern Command at that time, so obviously he talked to them. I think he does a very good job.”

In General Boykin’s memoir Never Surrender: A Soldier's Journey to the Crossroads of Faith and Freedom (FaithWords, Hachette Book Group, USA), he tells of his meeting with the Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and their discussion of the battle in Mogadishu.

Rumsfeld questioned why people believed the battle was a U.S. failure, when U.S. troops killed and wounded 1, 100 and lost 18 Americans and 76 were wounded. In my Q & A with the general for the journal I asked him about this conversation.

“It was a great media event and they turned it into a failure rather than acknowledging that we had succeeded in our mission and we had done a lot of damage to the Habr Gidr clan,” General Boykin replied.

“The second thing was we had an administration of neophytes," Bokin said. "Bill Clinton had a bunch of folks in there that had no idea of what that environment was like, the difficulty of the task, and they were totally unprepared to accept any kind of casualties. I blame that administration largely for the perception of failure there. If you are going to commit the military into an environment that is as hostile as that was, then you got to be prepared to deal with the issue of casualties and you got to be sure that it’s worth the cost.”

The perception of failure was also no doubt cast by the television images of slain American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The same was true of the TV scenes of the Viet Cong Tet Offensive in 1968. Although American and South Vietnamese forces quickly defeated the Viet Cong, the TV images of Viet Cong attacks made a great and lasting impression on the American public.

Walter Cronkite, the popular TV news anchor famously declared that the war was lost, although in truth, the resounding defeat of the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive eliminated them as a major fighting force in the following years of the Viet Nam War.

American troops entered Somalia in 1992 to deliver humanitarian aid to a country that Boykin describes as torn by civil war and drought. In his memoir, Boykin explains that U.S. forces landed with 19 other nations as part of Operation Restore Hope, a mission to provide secure distribution of food and relief supplies.

Aidid not only hindered the peace talks between more than a dozen warring factions, his Habr Gidr militia ambushed and killed 24 Pakistani peacekeepers in June 0f 1993. A week later the United Nations issued a warrant for his arrest.

In my view, had the Pentagon given Task Force Ranger the armored vehicles, Spectre gunships and the other equipment they requested, we might not have lost the 18 men to the “Sammies,” which is what our guys called the hostile Somalis.

But Boykin said the Clinton administration did not want to look “provocative.” And although General Colin Powell advocated “overwhelming force” as a military war-fighting philosophy, he allowed Task Force Ranger to go to Africa with a total force of only 450 men.

Yet what those few men did was truly amazing. In Black Hawk Down we were made aware of the bravery and camaraderie of the American Rangers, the Army Delta and Navy SEAL operators, the Air Force parajunpers and the pilots, and for that we should thank author Mark Bowden and film producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Ridley Scott.

We should also be thankful that we have the high caliber of military people like General Boykin and the troops of Task Force Ranger who fought in Mogadishu, as well as the troops who fight today in the ongoing war on terrorism.


  1. Excellent commentary. I had the distinct privilege of meeting General Boykin this evening until so Oklahoma. All I can say is this man is one of the most classiest, intelligent, and dedicated American war years this country has ever seen.