US Gunmen to Leave Somalia?

Small Warlords-1; Big Warlords-0


Fifth Estate # 343, Fall-Winter, 1993

The murderous legions of the Empire shave suffered a reversal, this time in Somalia, at a cost measured in blood. Yet for every dead or wounded U.S. soldier, hundreds more Somalis have suffered the same fate as a result of American-initiated firefights launched in the middle of a huge city to apprehend “fugitive warlord” Mohammed Farah Aidid, whose “gunmen” have taken U.S. troops “hostage.”

The provocative language of the media defines the issue to turn an opposing general into a warlord, his soldiers into gunmen, and prisoners of war into hostages—all calculated to demonize the enemy and create a halo of righteousness for troops coming from 6,000 miles away to shoot up another country.

A reflection of the collapse of traditional society in Somalia under the pressures of colonialism and East/West rivalry, Aidid sees the state as a racket to be run for his clan’s benefit. This makes him the near mirror image, writ small, of the warlords and worklords in the advanced capitalist nation states trying to bring his little corner of the territory back into the fold. But Aidid and many other Somalis have plans of their own, and now the imperial legions of the “civilized” metropole find themselves in another “barbaric” quagmire.

Of course, a U.S./U.N. exit would solve none of the problems the troubled African nation faces, but its continued occupation only guarantees more bloodshed. And the bloodshed has already been considerable. Fearing they were being set up for a hit by none other than former U.S. ambassador to Kuwait, April Glaspie (now a senior advisor to the U.N. mission in Somalia), Aidid’s forces organized an attack on Pakistani U.N. troops in June, killing twenty-four.

As Alexander Cockburn writes in the October 18 issue of The Nation, “This was the opening round in a U.N. retaliatory escalation that led to the machine-gunning to death from U.S. Cobra gunships of up to seventy-five Somali elders, religious leaders, a pregnant woman and children at a political meeting on July 12, and the later, similar slaughter of over a hundred Somali men, women and children on September 9.”

Armed Somalis in T-Shirts

Massacres of Somalis were also reported carried out by Belgian U.N. troops, according to the London-based group African Rights (11 Marshalsea Road, London SE1 1 EP). According to Cockburn, U.S. soldiers have written to relatives that the military is keeping civilian casualty estimates down by demanding positive identification of all dead. U.S. Army engineers have also bulldozed Somali neighborhoods without warning to create military passages. Predictably, none of these humanitarian acts have done much to endear the U.S./U.N. troops to the locals.

Now, as U.S. Army Rangers have reached the limit of their range, the decision to withdraw by next March has been dictated to the Clinton clique by battlefield circumstance. As of late October, American soldiers were returning home from Somalia to a patriotic welcome from cheerleaders at military bases in the United States, but South Mogadishu remained the realm of armed Somalis in t-shirts and sandals, as it was when the elite U.S. troopers arrived. The battle flags and yellow ribbons could not blot out the sense of ignominy the Rangers carried back to their army posts.

The trip home for these GIs was expedited by a vicious Mogadishu street fight on October 3 that left eighteen Americans dead and seventy-five wounded, and (rarely mentioned) Somali casualties estimated at 300 dead and 700 wounded. A large proportion of the latter were civilians, as the fighting occurred in a crowded marketplace, and the Rangers were, in the words of the October 5 New York Times, “shooting at anything that moved.”

The “favorable kill ratio,” however, brought little solace to an American public that no longer accepts any military encounter that includes its gunmen among the dead. The June ambush in Mogadishu provoked cries for U.S. commandos who could kick ass and take names; the October de- bade, costing “precious” American lives, elicited only calls for withdrawal. Interestingly, it was television images of starving people that whipped up support for imperial intervention, and television images of dead and captured U.S. soldiers that induced a marked pacifism and isolationism in the viewing audience. Game Over.

In a sense, the centurions of the New World Order were fighting this one with the proverbial “one hand tied behind their backs.” The invasion of Somalia, besides being a useful practice for the troops and a demonstration of military might to potential Third World upstarts, was an opportunity for the Empire to display its velvet glove in acts of highly photogenic charity; when the show went sour it would hardly have worked to bring the entire weight of the iron fist to bear.

Continuing Vietnam Syndrome

The “Vietnam Syndrome,” declared defunct by President Bush in the wake of the Persian Gulf slaughter, obviously lives on. As Noam Chomsky has metaphorically stated, “Never again will we see American marines chasing Sandino around the jungles of Nicaragua for years on end; it is not even a policy option.” During the Fall 1990 American military buildup in Saudi Arabia, Saddam Hussein declared that Americans (unlike Iraqis) would not accept a battle costing 10,000 casualties; his arithmetic was overstated. It appears that even a skirmish is enough to wither public support for an imperial military expedition, at least when an adequate “national interest” has not been established.

As the Times reported on October 25, “Judging from its early political fallout, the firefight [in Mogadishu] may well be one of those searing battlefield experiences whose memory shapes public opinion and sharply influences what the United States will and will not do in the world…It forced the Clinton Administration to rethink, and possibly scrap, plans to use American troops for UN peacekeeping operations in Bosnia, Haiti, and other trouble spots—plans that were central to its whole conception of foreign policy.”

This reluctance to engage in combat entailing significant casualties is an important development in the post-World War II historical trajectory of the American Empire. During the 1950s and ’60s, U.S. involvement in Asian land wars caused hundreds of American deaths per month, and continued for years. Those days are gone forever, “not even a policy option,” as Chomsky said.

Committing large numbers of troops has become difficult for American politicians since the 1970s, even for brief “brushfire” wars on the imperial frontiers. Compared to Korea and Vietnam, the troop levels involved in Grenada and Beirut were very small, indeed. The Panama invasion and Somalia entanglement represent somewhat larger operations, but neither of these adventures was even one-tenth the size of the American armies sent overseas in the earlier ground clashes.

The display of military power over the Gulf oil fields remains the exception, permitted partly by successful propaganda (convincing the populace of a “national interest”), but more importantly by geography that allowed effective use of air power. As Pentagon planners knew, the open desert provided no cover for Iraqi troops huddling defenseless under forty days and forty nights of cluster bombs, napalm, daisy cutters, fuel-air explosives, etc.

Empire Found its Waterloo

Stunned and decimated Iraqi divisions crumbled after this incredible concentration of technological destruction, as would any army in such a situation. The low (American) casualty prerequisite for post-Vietnam military involvement was satisfied. At a low cost in American lives, the Empire not only maintained hegemony over Gulf petrodollars, but availed itself of the opportunity to test and demonstrate its ferocious weaponry.

An interesting question to ponder is how domestic support would have weathered a costly war of attrition rather than technoslaughter for the economic goals of Gulf dominance. Suppose all that oil was under the triple canopy jungle of Vietnam where the New Frontier found its Waterloo, or in the mountains of Bosnia that six German divisions were unable to pacify during World War II?

Had this been the case, higher prices at the gas pumps would have been preferable to risking the kind of imperial crisis brought on by a defeat similar to that suffered in the Vietnam War. The memory of widespread unrest and insurrection at home, and near collapse of a gigantic field army in Southeast Asia, is branded onto the consciousness of the ruling class in this country. The hubris that led to such a blunder still exists, but for now remains in check. In historical time, the defeat is fresh and the crisis recent.

Turning the Guns Around

As opponents of nation states, we must know history to learn from it. A critical element in any revolutionary situation is whether the army will massacre the populace when their leaders command, or instead go over to “the people” and turn their guns around.

Examples of both these possibilities have occurred in this century. During the Empire’s Vietnam crisis, it took years of involvement in a meat grinder war for an American army to reach even the possibility for this type of disobedience. The potential was never tested. Though the withdrawing army of 1969-71 engaged in widespread avoidance of battle and murder of its own officers (“fragging”), its pullout in 1972 dissipated the political movement on the homefront.

However, the frequency in South Vietnam of what the army called “combat refusals” necessitated the formation of entire companies of men who would no longer go on patrols. (This situation compares to the more famous Nivelle mutinies on the Western Front in 1917, where French soldiers agreed to hold their own trenches, but refused to attack.) By 1971, high ranking U.S. officers were writing in military journals back home of their concern that a general collapse of the occupation army in Indochina was possible, a worry that accelerated the American disengagement. (See “The Lessons of Vietnam,” FE #335, Winter 1990-91.)

Such times may seem remote now, but history shows us that inevitably this empire, as all others before it, will again be caught up by institutional forces that will lead it on a disastrous course. Military defeat has been one such path to the critical mass of revolution; economic collapse is another. The dreadful and historical possibility of regional or global ecological catastrophe must now also be considered.

What then is the relevance of a relatively minor spanking taken by a U.S. Ranger unit in Somalia to the profound demoralization and defeat of an imperial army of half a million troops mentioned above? The American military machine is the single most powerful armed force in the world today and, if politically feasible, would surely be brought to bear upon any movement having real success at disempowering nation states and empowering human beings.

Anti-authoritarians who dismiss this as unimportant delude themselves. The significance of the firefight in Mogadishu is its continuation of the Vietnam Syndrome; the urban guerrilla environment there has created a situation like that of Beirut in 1983, where for the American politicians and generals the game is no longer worth the candle.

The men (and women) who dispatch soldiers to kill and terrorize are criminals, and one must applaud any disgrace or discrediting that befalls the formidable murder machine they command.