The Secret Memo From the General Who Foresaw Black Hawk Down

The Battle of Mogadishu in early October 1993 shocked most Americans. U.S. forces had been deployed to Somalia to support a U.N. humanitarian mission, and had helped end a famine, saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Ten months later, there was pitched street-fighting in Mogadishu, 18 dead American soldiers, more than a thousand Somali casualties and the horror, replayed over and over on TV, of American bodies being dragged through the streets by angry mobs.

The United States had just emerged from victory in the Cold War and the swift triumph of Desert Storm, and had, perhaps, an unrealistic faith in its military potency. President Bill Clinton expressed this when he asked his staff, “How could this happen?” The battle ended the U.S. military mission and collapsed the U.N.’s effort. Somalia fell back into anarchy. It was a stunning reversal.

But not everyone was shocked. Maj. Gen. David Meade of the Army, whose command included the largest American component of the peacekeeping force in Mogadishu, had foreseen events clearly. Weeks before the battle, in a classified memo to the Army chief of staff, he warned that Somalia was about to erupt. “You’re likely to have a big fight over some period of time with considerable casualties,” he wrote. “And, in the end, you’re going to turn over the city to the Somalis.” General Meade urged immediate steps, which might have forestalled the incident we now call Black Hawk Down.

Why was he ignored?

After a long and distinguished career as an artillery commander, the general had assumed command of the Army’s 10th Mountain Division in August 1993. He traveled to Mogadishu in September to inspect his Second Battalion, which was then the backbone of the U.N. military presence. On Sept. 15, the day he sent his secret cable, he had only been there for two days and was disturbed by what he found.

“We have a war going on in Somalia,” he wrote. “From a tactical and maybe operational perspective it is not going well. Mogadishu is not under our control. Somalia is full of danger.”

The “momentum and boldness” of Mohamed Farrah Aidid, the leader of the city’s most powerful clan and the U.N. mission’s chief antagonist, he wrote, were his prime concern. “The trend lines are in the wrong direction. Thus the mission overall and the security of the U.S. force are threatened.”

General Meade considered his message so urgent that he contravened the chain of command, sending it directly to Gen. Gordon Sullivan, the Army chief of staff. This was a serious faux pas. Indeed, not long after, General Meade’s career stalled at age 53. He may have been right, but no further promotion came. He retired two years later.

General Meade had his prescient cable declassified shortly before he retired in 1995, and while he never made it public, he wanted history to know about it. He gave a sealed copy to his friend Charles Krohn, a retired lieutenant colonel, who locked it away with a sheaf of other professional papers. David Meade died in 2019. Recently, Colonel Krohn cleaned out his safe, read the memo for the first time and then gave me a call.

“It shows he did his best to prevent what was going to happen,” said Colonel Krohn. “He must have known the risk he was taking going directly to the chief of staff.”

But just because General Meade’s plea did not provoke immediate action may not mean that no one listened. It’s just as likely that it was considered and simply decided against. Prescience only shows in history’s review mirror.

The Somalia intervention started in 1992 at the behest of the United Nations to halt inter-clan fighting and to deliver food to the starving. The effort had been an unqualified success, an example of post-Cold War-American might doing good. But military missions have a way of creeping. Fearing that inter-clan conflict would reignite when the peacekeeping force withdrew, the U.N. mission morphed into a nation building exercise. It began brokering a deal to merge Mogadishu’s warring clans into a stable coalition government. When Mr. Aidid, the most powerful of the warlords, resisted violently, Mr. Clinton dispatched a Special Operations unit called Task Force Ranger, under the command of Maj. Gen. Bill Garrison. He was charged with removing the belligerent leader and his organization from the equation.

So when General Meade wrote his cable, he was one of two major generals commanding U.S. forces in Mogadishu. His was a conventional Army unit working alongside foreign partners. General Garrison’s smaller force worked independently. It was a nimble, highly specialized infantry unit that worked by locating Aidid clan targets and then arresting them in surprise raids. By early October they had conducted six raids, with mixed success. Mr. Aidid himself was still at large, but he had lost key people. The task force was making progress.

The veteran soldiers under General Garrison’s command were most likely more aware of the mounting danger than anyone. These were men who volunteered for the Army’s riskiest missions. With each outing in Mogadishu, their reception from local Somalis worsened. Mr. Aidid’s patchwork militia was responding faster and their volume of fire was increasing — small arms, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

This is what General Meade had observed. In his cable he described a big clash between his own peacekeepers and clan fighters in September. Three Americans had been wounded. The U.N. force only escaped by blowing a hole in the wall of its compound to avoid fighting its way to a gate.

“Aidid was able to round up and organize an effective fighting force in about two hours,” General Meade noted. Only a quick reaction force of reinforcements prevented the engineers and tankers under attack from being overwhelmed and killed, he wrote. The attack was “troublesome because of the boldness and commitment of the Aidid forces and the apparent planning that went into it.” General Meade estimated that 300 to 500 Somali fighters had assembled, bringing the peacekeepers under fire from all directions. “Aidid showed that in the urban environment he can own the ground,” he wrote.

At the time, the Army’s prevailing combat doctrine, famously enunciated by Gen. Colin Powell, called for committing U.S. troops only with clear, achievable goals and with enough force to overwhelm any resistance. The situation in Somalia was contravening that idea, and to General Meade, the historical echoes were clear: “All this, then, has much more the smell and feel of Vietnam, Waco, and Lebanon, than of Panama and Desert Storm.”

General Meade urged General Sullivan, the chief of staff, to immediately reinforce his battalion, impose a mandatory curfew and to change the rules of engagement to allow, among other things, any Somali with a weapon to be shot on sight. Without those measures, he argued, a major clash would occur with many casualties on both sides — leading to a U.N. withdrawal and mission failure.

A few weeks later that prediction came true. General Garrison launched his seventh raid, which was the subject of my book “Black Hawk Down.” Two of Mr. Aidid’s top lieutenants were arrested, but the raiders soon came under withering assault from all directions. Massed rocket-propelled grenade fire brought down four Black Hawk helicopters, only two of which managed to limp safely to the task force’s base. The other two crashed in the city, requiring immediate rescue, splashing the firefight across the city. The battle raged for 18 hours until a large, armored U.N. convoy, including General Meade’s men and Pakistani and Malaysian armored vehicles, fought its way to the surrounded Americans.

It is easy to conclude, in retrospect, that none of this should have happened. How could General Sullivan have ignored General Meade’s advice?

History affords many examples of such unheeded warnings, so many that it illustrates a significant point: Few tragedies are ever wholly unforeseen. In early 1941, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, Joseph Grew, cabled Washington, D.C., to warn of “a surprise mass attack on Pearl Harbor.” Economist Roger Babson famously predicted an imminent stock market crash in September 1929, just weeks before Black Tuesday.

Such predictions only stand out in retrospect. They were, at the time, outliers. Most experts thought an attack on Pearl Harbor was improbable — if not impossible — in 1941, and plenty of economists foresaw easy sailing for the stock market in 1929. That’s why the events themselves came as a surprise, not because no one could see them coming, but because men like Mr. Grew and Mr. Babson were outnumbered by equally qualified forecasters. In his best-selling book, “The Big Short,” the author Michael Lewis profiles a handful of investors who foresaw the collapse of the U.S. housing market in 2008, shifted their portfolios accordingly, and cashed out with billions when it occurred. Most people didn’t.

In September 1993, General Meade’s outlook was competing with General Garrison’s, and, even in hindsight, it is not obvious that his judgment was superior. General Garrison had more combat experience. He believed his men were succeeding and continued believing it even after the Oct. 3-4 battle had happened.

In fact, General Meade’s idea of defeating Mr. Aidid’s local insurgency by applying more force, introducing still more American troops into a hostile environment, sounded a lot more like Vietnam that what Task Force Ranger was attempting. General Garrison’s strategy was more artful, using small units to conduct pinpoint raids on selected targets. It is the way most American fighting has been done in the subsequent 30 years.

General Sullivan stuck with General Garrison’s view of the situation. He chose one two-star’s experience and daring over another’s cautious alarm. He lost that bet. General Garrison’s fatal mission apprehended its targets successfully and was within minutes of a clean withdrawal, but fate intervened, and General Meade had the grim satisfaction of being proven right.

That doesn’t mean the rest of his prophesy had to follow.

In the aftermath of the battle, Mr. Clinton might have redoubled Task Force Ranger’s mission against Aidid. It would have been politically difficult to stick with General Garrison, but the battle had decimated Mr. Aidid’s forces — some of his key associates had fled the city. The men of Task Force Ranger were eager to carry on, and believed they were closer to success.

Instead, Mr. Clinton pulled the plug. General Garrison resigned.

We will never know how things might have turned out if General Meade’s letter had been heeded, or if General Garrison’s mission had been allowed to proceed. We do know that pulling the plug on the larger mission doomed Somalia to 30 years more of civil war, terrorism, and international piracy.

Mark Bowden is a journalist and author of many books including “Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War.”

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