The following was written by Lost Boys;
When Operation Restore Hope launched 20-years ago today, the military was stilling basking in the afterglow of Desert Storm. Finally, despite the fact that the Berlin Wall had fallen, we’d had the battle against Soviet formations and Soviet equipment that we’d prepared for all our lives, but those battles were the death throes of a military model that had reached its sell-by date. What the servicemen and women who served in Somalia encountered in this footnote in history books has much more in common with Fallujah and Marjah than it does with the Fulda Gap.
My Marines and I were fortunate to be led by a CO who had been a teenager at Khe Sahn. He knew the kind of place the post-Cold War world had become, or become again, and he gave all of us young captains our own copy of the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual-1940 shortly after assuming command. In this compendium of lessons learned from the Banana Wars, we discovered a new world of unsupported infantry operations where ambushes and firefights were mixed with negotiating with tribal chieftains or haggling for a donkey to haul your gear. Sound familiar?
I left for Mogadishu in late December 1992, the CO of an artillery battalion headquarters battery configured as a rifle company (-) (rein). We brought no cannons and all of the firing batteries were configured as line infantry companies. We spent little time setting up our battalion CP at the Mogadishu International Airport before quickly move out into the city to establish company and platoon positions at known or perceived friction points. Our simple orders from the boss were to establish such a presence that “No shithead can turn a corner without bumping into a Marine patrol.”
We all learned a lot, for which none our formal schooling had prepared us. We patrolled, built schools, guarded feeding points and food convoys and shot bad guys. Company grade officers and NCOs met with tribal, clan and sub-clan leaders with mixed results. We hired translator for cash and worked with coalition forces. We scraped up the remains of Somalia’s National Police, armed and uniformed them and put them to work.
Within a few months, markets, businesses and schools reopened and you’d go days without hearing a shot fired. The last of the signature ’technicals’, the ubiquitous Toyota pickup mounting a machinegun, that had roamed the city had met a violent end foolishly trying one of our strongpoints and didn’t reappear during our tour.
If there was one sure sign that we were successful, the lines grew steadily shorter at food distribution sites and almost no one showed up on the days cornmeal (cattle feed, they said) was distributed; not too bad for a nation where we’d seen people fall dead of starvation in front of us only a few months before.
As we prepared to leave at the end of six months, my Marines and I were interviewed by a captain from the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned (MCCLL) who skillfully picked our brains for whatever knowledge we’d accumulated during the deployment. First and foremost was the lesson that we must live up to the saying, ‘Every Marine, a rifleman.’
Five years before Restore Hope, General Al Gray was elevated to Commandant of the Marine Corps in a move that shocked the establishment. Gray, as if to thumb his nose at the business as usual crowd, had his official photograph taken in a set of mismatched, sun-bleached cammies instead of the traditional Alphas or Dress Blues of all his predecessors. By fiat, he created two Marine Combat Training centers on the opposing coasts where EVERY Marine went after graduation for more small arms and crew-served weapons training and at least the basics of patrolling and infantry tactics. When my group of ‘cooks, bakers and candlestick makers’ hit the streets I saw a level of tactical competence that I hadn’t seen a decade before when I joined the Corps.
The MCCLL interviewer told me at the end of our session that every company commander he had interviewed had said the exact same thing.
We learned our lessons on the cheap. My unit only suffered on KIA and a handful of wounded, but now we know that two decades ago, a nascent Al-Qaeda was there watching and learning too. If they’d turned IEDs and VBIEDs on our vinyl clad HMMVs it would have been a different ballgame.
When we had turned over our positions to blue-helmeted Pakistanis, my young lieutenants and NCOs were distraught; the UN forces couldn’t have been less interested in our bunkers, patrol routes and hardened positions. They were putting on a show and intended to fall back to the airport as soon as we left. As we flew out in May of 1993, a buddy in the seat next to me looked out the window and said, “Phhht, 30 days.” And he was right, almost to the day.
Though I read Mark Bowden’s account of the Black Hawk Down tragedy in its original serialized format, I avoided watching the movie. I’d seen the trailers and couldn’t help thinking to myself, “No fucking way! No fucking way were there that many weapons, that many bad guys and that much command and control. And no way could they have let this place get so fucked up in only four months.”
I believe it now; I’ve met too many who fought in that two-day running gun battle to doubt their tales. I even tried watching the movie once and I had to turn it off; under different leadership and a different philosophy, that could have been us minus the close air support.
I write to you on the 20th anniversary of my small war from Afghanistan and I’m happy to report, that at least at the tactical level, the lessons we learned in Mogadishu two decades ago are being put to good use. The soldiers, airmen and Marines I’ve met here are top-notch and up to the fight. I guess I should read the new counterinsurgency manual, but it probably doesn’t hold much more for the guy on the street than my 70-year old edition of the Small Wars Manual.
Above the tactical level, I hold no hope. Marines and soldiers will keep killing bad guys until they are pulled out, but unless someone real smart does something real quick, some young grunt will look out an airplane window sometime in 2014 and say, “Phhht, 30 days.”
To all my brother and sister Somalia veterans on our 20th Anniversary, I wish you dreamless nights.