The Junior Officer Reader – Black Hawk Down

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Today is the 19th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu (Day of the Rangers).

When I first joined the military in 2001, Black Hawk Down was the book du jour for young infantrymen. At 30th AG, where all infantrymen get their start, just about everyone had read the book or were currently reading it. For some, it was the inspiration to join. For others, it represented the high end possibility of life in the peacetime infantry.

I never heard of the book.

Sure, I knew about the events in Mogadishu in 1993. But I didn’t understand them. I was 11 years old at the time. What I knew was that there was a major firefight in some far-off African city. A lot of Americans soldiers were killed, and these were some of our best.

I remember being marched to chow and passing the placards featuring the Medal of Honor citations for SFOD-D snipers Randy Shugart and Gary Gordon. Gung ho recruits who were more familiar with the book and story told of their heroic attempt to protect downed Black Hawk pilot Mike Durant, dropping into the crash site and holding back a violent Somali mob until they were ultimately overrun. Shugarts’s body would be seen on television screens across the world as it was dragged and displayed through the streets of Mogadishu.

I finally dove into Black Hawk Down (1999) a few weeks ago and just finished it. It was a difficult book to read because the detail was so intricate that the action was hard to follow. Bowden painstakingly recreates the battle, telling the same story and meta-stories from different angles and perspectives, including the Somalis. The reader is rocked forward and backward through moments of time, sopping up every detail of a gruesome battle.

For the junior officer, the book offers a number of lessons, including the importance of careful preparation. Task Force Ranger decided not to bring their night visions devices on the raid since it was supposed to be an in-and-out mission during daylight hours. This left them stranded in the city during the night without the device that would have given them a significant tactical advantage. Some of the men chose not to wear their bullet proof armor plates, opting for speed over safety. At one point, the Ranger Commander regrets choosing to leave bayonets back at their base, as they were growing dangerously close to running out of ammunition. I don’t remember the last time I saw a bayonet.

Unity of command is another important issue found here. At times during the battle, Rangers found themselves intermixed with operators, and it was not clear who – if anyone – was in charge.

Something captured well by Bowden is the hierarchical structuring the military does to itself in terms of eliteness and professionalism. The Delta operators thought the Rangers were unprofessional who though that the 10th Mountain Division was a joke. It wasn’t just an acknowledgement of different mission sets and training, but a real animosity that often manifested itself in tactical decisions made out of spite or anger.

Before I read the book I already understood the cultural significance that Black Hawk Down has had on the Army. It is the battle in which all modern battles are compared to. It is the benchmark. It is constantly referenced as both a joke (“Irene,” “This is my safety”) and a lesson (night vision, armor plates).

I also found the descriptions of the Rangers interesting. Bowden writes that the “high and tight” was the haircut that marked the professional, high-speed Ranger. Today I think you would be more likely to see a more civilian-inspired hairstyle, emulating the guys on the next rung on the hooah ladder.

I’m not sure that any mission since then – including the Bin Laden mission – has had or will have more significance to the culture of the military than Black Hawk Down.

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These are books that I have discovered or had recommended to me and would be good to read as a junior officer. My goal is to get through all of them before I’m no longer junior. Any suggestions?

Just Another Soldier (Jason Hartley) 10/13/11
One Bullet Away (Nathaniel Fick) 5/13/12
The Unforgiving Minute (Craig Mullaney)
The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War (Brandon Friedman)
Chasing Ghosts (Paul Rieckhoff)
Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War (Matt Gallagher)
Love My Rifle More Than You (Kayla Williams)
Hesitation Kills (Jane Blair) 6/10/12
The Blog of War (Matthew Burden)
House to House (Davide Bellavia)
Afghan Journal (Jeffrey Coulter)
Once a Marine (Nick Popaditch)
Greetings From Afghanistan-Send More Ammo (Benjamin Tupper)
The Poor Bastards Club (Paul Mehlos)
Kill Bin Laden (Dalton Fury)
Horse Soldiers (Doug Stanton)
The Long Road Home (Martha Raddatz)
Once an Eagle (Anton Myrer)
The Good Soldiers (David Finkel) 9/19/12
Black Hawk Down (Mark Bowden) 10/1/12