David H. Hackworth
March 22, 1994


With the mission in Somalia over, we can expect the White House and Pentagon to start beating the PR drums. Probably Clinton will once again seize the Somali spotlight, pinning on medals on the South Lawn and singing the tired "Job well done" refrain backed up by the Pentagon General's chorus. It will be the same "Peace with Honor" tune we heard when the USA backed out of Vietnam in 1973, accompanied by a similar rewriting of history.

Somalia, as Vietnam, was a mistake from circus beginning -- when our Marines assaulted the beaches through platoons of U.S. press corps armed with klieg lights and cameras -- to Clinton's mid life crisis changing the mission from feeding to fighting to this week's inglorious pull out.

That chunk of desert, inhabited by the meanest, greediest, most angry human beings I've seen, was not worth the life of one American warrior. Yet 43 died, many men were wounded and the USA wasted over $1.5 billion on a burning hole that will soon be hotter and bloodier than before we went in. What could Dallas, Denver or Detroit and every other needy city in the USA have done with $1.5 billion to help their hungry, their down-trodden and their homeless?

Our warriors -- who did their duty under the harshest and most bitter conditions -- were hardcore, and, as usual, paid the price for the witless decisions of politicians and neglectful, self-serving brass who didn't have the guts to tell the commander-in-chief that "God's work" was not doable in "Hell on Earth" or that 900 U.S. grunts without tanks couldn't whip thousands of fanatic dope chewing, well armed clansmen.

George Bush's inability to focus on the real world cost him the presidency, and no doubt that same uncentered fumbling compelled him to send our troops to feed the starving Somalis in the first place. Just before he was forced to exit the national scene, he must have concluded he'd done such a fine job feeding the poor in the USA that he could start on Africa.

Bill Clinton inherited "mission impossible," but instead of being smart and pulling out, he got in deeper. He proved he was just as out of touch as Bush by employing the military solution when he didn't have enough combat warriors in that clan-trashed land to protect his service troops, let alone tangle with General Mohamad Aidid's 20,000 zealots. It boggles the mind that a man who refused to serve in Vietnam, as a matter of conscience, would consciously choose fighting over pow-wows when Aidid had signaled through President Carter that he wanted to smoke the peace pipe.

The history of Somalia must be studied, not covered up, so the mistakes are not repeated. We must understand that Somalia was the first post cold war test -- and we flunked. Bush and Clinton didn't think out the consequences of their actions, while the Pentagon brass, like the U.S. generals in Vietnam, figured firepower and technology would win over a war lord who didn't give a damn about conventional rules of war-fighting.

Somalia was a mini-revisit to the Vietnam War: high tech intelligence against a low tech foe who had the people on his side; generals, too eager to rush into the fray, who didn't employ patience, the most important weapon when fighting insurgents; U.S. commanders who arrogantly underestimated their opponents strength, firepower, fighting skill and reacted, rather than acted; and politics placed over soldier protection.

Had the Vietnam War been honestly examined these mistakes might not have been repeated. Certainly, one of the two presidents responsible would have remembered the main lesson: don't get involved in someone's else's civil war when it doesn't involve your own national security.

Aidid won on the field, and our military needs to find out why. Sam Nunn has promised a hearing -- which would identify the mistakes and pin down those responsible -- but so far there's not one in sight. A hearing wouldn't bring back the dead or remove the scars from the disfigured, but it might cause the replacements of those found guilty to think real hard the next time the winds of war blow.