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Can We Fight?

BLACK HAWK DOWN: A Story of Modern War;\o7 By Mark Bowden; (Atlantic Monthly Press: 386 pp., $24)\f7

May 02, 1999|EDWARD LUTTWAK | Edward Luttwak is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and author of "Turbo-Capitalism: Winners and Losers in the Global Economy."

The armed forces of the United States are rich in both firepower and mobility but poor in the essential fuel of war: the willingness to sustain casualties. Thus their real military potential in all imaginable situations is a mere fraction of their apparent strength. The Kosovo war proves this beyond a doubt: No attempt was made to protect the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo on whose behalf the war is ostensibly being fought because aircraft would have to fly low and slow to shoot up the Serb army and police units that were attacking their villages. Some planes might be shot down, some pilots might be killed. Along with the rest of NATO, the U.S. Air Force therefore prefers to bomb from 15,000 feet or above, safely beyond the reach of most Yugoslav antiaircraft weapons. The U.S. Army, whose Apache helicopters were ordered from Germany to Albania on the fifth day of the war, cannot seek refuge at those altitudes and have instead been protected by being kept on the ground. They have yet to fly their first mission in a blatant display of bureaucratic foot-dragging. This kind of institutional cowardice is bound to demoralize our troops in the long-run, while to plead logistical difficulties after demanding, obtaining and spending vast sums for "readiness" is unpersuasive.

The refusal to accept casualties, which has severely inhibited the air campaign in the Kosovo war (only fixed targets and warships can be attacked from 15,000 feet), helps to explain the current debate over deploying ground forces whose exposure to casualties is far greater. That was not much of a problem in the 1991 Gulf War. Worn down by three weeks of bombing, the Iraqis were smashed by tank and artillery fire at long range before they could even try to fire back. The wide-open desert terrain was ideal for U.S. forces: It left the Iraqis fully exposed to every form of firepower--even fragile helicopters could overfly Iraqi forces by laying down suppressive fires all around.

Less than three years later, on Oct. 3, 1993, U.S. forces were fighting in the streets, alleys and courtyards of Mogadishu, where one man's rifle is as good as another and old Soviet RPG rocket-propelled grenades are as good as the best artillery. The resulting debacle has had an enduring effect, most recently manifest in the debates over the use of ground forces in Kosovo. What had started as a multinational U.N. famine-relief effort in Somalia's endless civil war (itself misguided because the food was feeding the warriors first of all) had become an entirely hopeless "nation-building" exercise. That in turn became an American mini-war against the Habr Gidr clan of Mohammed Farrah Aidid, briefly advertised by the White House as Somalia's No. 1 monster, who was in fact a perfectly ordinary African warlord naturally opposed to peace and nation-building because it would stop him from continuing his trade. A mixed force of U.S. Army Rangers and Delta commandos with a few Navy SEALs thrown in had gone in by helicopter to snatch some Habr Gidr leaders meeting in the heart of ruined Mogadishu. When a high-tech special-operations helicopter was shot down, an even more high-tech rescue helicopter arrived to save the crew, but it too was shot down (owing to Aidid's good management, the Habr Gidr warriors had plenty of RPGs even when their families were starving). That left some 150 highly trained Delta "operators" and less experienced Rangers stranded in the urban landscape amid thousands of Somali gunmen. They had to fight them off all night long until the infantry of the 10th Mountain Division rode in to rescue them in borrowed Malaysian armored carriers supported by a few Pakistani tanks. The Somalis ranged in skill from the "Beirut standard" (full automatic fire, eyes shut) to the almost competent, but it was their sheer number and the complicated urban terrain that turned a commando raid into a desperate fight for survival in which 18 Americans were killed. The entire television-watching world saw frenzied Somalis celebrating victory on the bodies of dead Americans.

Les Aspin, the secretary of defense, was unfairly blamed for the lack of U.S. armor in Somalia (which the commander on the scene had not requested). Undermined by leaks from the Clinton White House, which accepted no responsibility for having turned a humanitarian intervention into a war against Aidid's clan, Aspin resigned, soon to die of a heart attack. The Joint Chiefs escaped without consequence, after the commander of the 450-man Special Operations contingent of Deltas, Rangers, SEALs and helicopter crewmen honorably took the blame for what went wrong.

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