READY FOR WHAT? -- Black Hawk Down:
A Story of Modern War vs. The Oracles in the Cave

March 5, 1999

Comment: #244

Discussion Thread:  #194, Attachment 3: "Lessons Learned from Russo-Chechen War."


[1] Jonathan Yardley, "A Forgotten Hell In Somalia," a Book Review of "Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War," by Mark Bowden, Atlantic Monthly. 386 pp. $25.

[2] William S. Lind, Colonel Keith Nightengale (USA), Captain John F. Schmitt (USMC), Colonel Joseph W. Sutton (USA), and Lieutenant Colonel Gary I. Wilson (USMCR), "The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation," Marine Corps Gazette, October 1989, Pages 22-26.

Like the ancient Oracle in the Cave, the courtiers in Versailles on the Potomac wax religiously about visions of the future, particularly how the coming Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) and the computerized battlefield will lift the fog of war. Warfare may indeed be evolving into a new generation, but it may be very different from the vision concocted by the Oracles. All of them ought to read the book reviewed below and then ask themselves how their computerized vision of a mechanistic predictable battle would fare in the kind of fighting described therein.

The review [Reference 1] describes the events in Mogadishu which, in my opinion, was one of the most significant military experiences since Vietnam. Indeed, along with Grozny [see Comment #194, Reference 3], Beirut, and the Intifada, Mogadishu may be a harbinger of irregular warfare in the 21st century. This particular example of close quarters urban combat illustrated how lightly armed, well-organized irregular troops, with good intelligence systems, are learning to neutralize the effects of US firepower and technology. Troops like these will only get smarter as they experiment with different ways of exploiting our weaknesses, including our openness to global communications.

Mark Bowden, of the Philadelphia Inquirer, one of the who writers wrote the Inquirer's award-winning series about this battle, has now expanded his reportage into a book. I have not read this book, but if it is anything like the series in the Inquirer, it is bound to be an important book.

No one can predict the future, particularly the nature of a future war. Warfare is an evolutionary interaction conditioned by culture, in this case, a struggle in which the interplay of chance and necessity, with goal-seeking initiative creates an endless variety of behavior patterns which are tested ruthlessly by a selection process that is governed by some sort of survival criteria. It is in the nature of combat, therefore, to be an ever-expanding, inherently-unpredictable, spiral of change. Nevertheless, like the tree of biological evolution, certain features of combat carry forward over time, albeit perhaps in mutated form.

Rather than making precise a prediction about the future, like the global vision of technological warfare painted by Joint Vision 2010 (which is really an extrapolation of cold war thinking), we need to study and learn from real world experiences, like Mogadishu, so that we can uncover, understand, and adapt those features of war that carry forward through time to the changing conditions of the present.

Attachment 2 provides an excellent example of how this kind of thinking works. It is an insightful, if little noticed, essay written almost ten years ago in the Marine Corps Gazette. Whether you agree with its arguments or not, this essay reveals a mode of thinking that is more relevant to dealing with the emerging conflicts of the 21st Century than the static nostalgic, cold-war mindset revealed in the arrogant techno-prognostications of the RMA Oracles in the Cave.

Chuck Spinney

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