Guest Post: Somalia on my mind

| December 9, 2012

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.

Category: Military issues

Comments (16)

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  1. 68W58 says:

    This is an interesting piece-it leaves open the question how are Somalia and Adghanistan, where we failed and where success seems unlikely to say the least, different from Iraq where there is at least a semblance of success. The main thing I come up with is that he former are third-world shitholes while Iraq is at least a developing nation. Easy enough to occupy any of them, but you’ve got to have something to work with to leave them better than you found them. IOW-you can’t make chicken salad from chicken shit.

  2. NHSparky says:

    It absolutely kills me that the troops who do the fighting and dying are the ones who learn the lessons, but the idiots inside the five-sided funny farm and the civilian “leadership” in the Beltway remain as clueless as ever.

    Same as it ever was, same as it ever was.

  3. streetsweeper says:

    @ #2- AMEN! There it is! Very well done, Sparky. Hooah!

  4. Hondo says:

    NHSparky: place the “big suit” on the ground and move away from it slowly. (smile)

  5. 2-17 Air Cav says:

    The traditional American formula for success at achieving a goal–hard work, sacrifice, and perseverance–just doesn’t apply to some situations. But we think it should and we get frustrated and angered when it doesn’t. That’s the way I see our military’s dilemna. Given that we have people in uniform ready and willing to go tooth and nail to achieve a particular objective or goal, why are they undercut? Why is the success formula not permitted to work for them? So, we end up with too many people who consider the Fallen to have been wasted in this or that conflict. And that breeds anger and resentment. I’m not going to make a speech here but I will say that the measure of success and the value of the service of the Fallen and the wounded should not be taken by looking at the ultimate outcome of conflict in which their sacrifices were made. Instead, the gauge should be whether they did what was asked or required of them and whether they were there for their fellow soldiers, Marines, sailors, or airmen.

  6. Jabatam says:

    #1 what is your basis for the words “semblance of success”? I have maintained contact with two of my terps from Iraq and the one that still lived in Baghdad said shit went downhill real fast when the US pulled out.

    The other one moved to the US, enlisted in the Army, graduated from basic as the distinguished honor grad (or whatever they call it), and has become a US citizen!

    Very interesting read; thank you for sharing

  7. 68W58 says:

    Jabatam-what does “went downhill real fast” refer to? There have been a few bombings, but nothing like the unrest at the height of the war. We left in place a government that, despite it’s faults, is relatively stable and secure and the nation has the opportunity to grow and prosper (though they may not). Those conditions do not exist in Somalia and will not exist, to whatever extent they exist now, in Afghanistan within three months after we leave. Iraq might one day resemble Turkey (if we are very lucky). What’s the best we can hope for with Afghanistan or Somalia-Bangladesh?

  8. 68W58 says:

    If you don’t believe me BTW google “Iraq GDP growth” and you’ll see articles projecting GDP growth for Iraq near 10% per year until 2016. That, at the very least, is a semblance of success.

  9. FatCircles0311 says:

    Having served as a Marine grunt in Haiti(2004) this guy sadly is right on the money. We showed up to pure chaos, went out into, and brought order back. When we were training our U.N. replacements they’d literally run away when shots were fired and we knew everything would go to shit the second we left. Sure as shit, when we left the U.N. was killing civilians left and right, while all gains we made were erased.

    To my knowledge the U.N. is still there having accomplished nothing of value nearly a decade later.

  10. NHSparky says:

    AirCav–I’ll go one further–the ROE, disconnect between leadership and the troops, and safe havens given to our enemies in both Vietnam and Afghanistan show that at least inside DC, the politicians, et al, remain blissfully ignorant (or certainly as risk-averse), and completely content to make the same mistakes we made 40 years ago.

    After all, it’s not THEIR asses on the line.

  11. Living in Israel says:

    To be cynical, given how often Pakistan dedicates its troops to UN missions, I suppose it’s a good thing that they suck.

    Otherwise, imagine Pakistan sending fresh, prepared troops into Afghanistan to hit Americans like the Chinese did during Korea (with the noted difference that China’s horde was poorly trained. In both wars, the US government is/was in denial about the international support that the enemy receives. Good thing the enemy is incompetent.

  12. Devtun says:


    Pakistan is a considered a close “non-major” ally. Yeah we may have squabbles w/ the frenemy, and they may occasionally with a wink and a nod shelter a terrorist or two or several hundreds, but no way they cut their own throats with overt threats against US forces…they are heavily dependent on U.S. foreign aid, technical support, and military hardware such as early model F-16 fighter jets…they know which side their bread is buttered.

    Bigger worry for US/NATO is Pakistan’s nuclear weapon stockpiles falling into hands of terrorist elements – AQ comes to mind.

  13. CBSenior says:

    One of the big differences I noted was the year the manuals were written. Thank God you recieved the one where it was still ok to kill you enemy as much as possible. What ever we do to the next generation, do not let them be guided by that peice of crap that Patraues wrote. They threw that piece of shit out in Vietnam. All he did was put a shine on a sneaker and roll it out for troops to prove his theory. Force protection taking a back seat to hearts and minds will never work with zelots.

  14. NHSparky says:

    Personally, I might be a bit non-PC here, but I was taught (and believed) that when you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds would follow.

    Just sayin.

  15. Lucky says:

    Holy shit, has it really been 20 years??? My dad got orders and was gone within 36 hours for Pendleton and Mogadishu. He was the S-2, and the Sniper Employment Officer for TF Mogadishu, and Christmas 1992 was the toughest my family has ever had, even with my two deployments years later.

  16. Joe P says:

    Lost Boys,

    Thanks for the post. I was on the SLRP Team and there from that very first day. You captured “it” and my feelings about it as well as I have ever seen it written. For all my deployments, that one remains the hardest to shake. Unfortunately, I think you’re right about 30 days, and, I know you’re right about hoping for dreamless nights.

    Joe P.