Even historical amnesiacs will have no difficulty remembering the terrible images of American soldiers dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia, killed and mutilated by a rampaging mob that they had originally been sent to feed. The Battle of the Black Sea (as the events of October 3-4, 1993, came to be known) began as a simple Special Forces kidnapping scheme and ended in a desperate bloody retreat which left 18 Americans and at least 500 Somalis dead. Between the time the assault force (an airborne and motorized medley of Delta Force operators supported by U.

S. Army Rangers) broke into the house of their quarry (local warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid) and the time the force was pulled out in tatters by an international rescue team, something went terribly wrong. Mr. Bowden does a commendable job of showing just what went wrong, and how.

The book came about nearly four years after the event, but the author has done his homework. His list of interviewees is impressive, as is the extent of his research, which includes material which has only recently been declassified. What comes through is a no-holds-barred glimpse into the hell of desperate battle, of men (closer to boys, many of them) killing each other in order just to stay alive. Mr. Bowden describes the fighting through the eyes of several of the battle's veterans, including Somalis whom he had to bribe his weight in khat (the indigenous drug of choice) to interview, and the result is a searing illustration of vicious urban warfare. In a frank and even-handed epilogue, the author discusses the pros and cons of the mission and its objectives, and shifts the focus from depiction of battle to a discussion of U.

S. foreign policy. The commitment of American forces to back UN famine-relief workers can be seen as President Bush's parting shot to his successor Bill Clinton, and the difference between their military views became painfully clear in this and subsequent conflicts. Black Hawk Down is a savage reminder that real lives hang in the balance of such changeovers in administrative policy, particularly when heads of state have decided that might makes right.

Adam Dunn writes reviews and features for Current Diversions and Speak magazine.

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