U.S. War Crimes in Somalia
Published on: Feb 28, 2007

Brutality and Resistance

The death toll is tragic. But the reasons for it, and the total lack of accountability on the part of the U.S. military command, are just as significant. The accounts by DeLong and Tuckey, and Bowden are full of glimpses into the savagery of the fighting, and the readiness of the U.S. forces to use excessive force. The U.S. soldiers did not always use excessive force, it is true—there are many clear examples of restraint and the careful targeting of gunmen amid crowds of civilians. But there are just as many cases in which soldiers fired without identifying their targets, or loosed off great barrages of missiles, or even shot down people in cold blood who presented no threat to them at all. There were times when they shot at everything that moved, took hostages, gunned their way through crowds of men and women, finished off any wounded who were showing signs of life. Many people died in their homes, their tin roofs ripped to shreds by high-velocity bullets and rockets. Accounts of the fighting frequently contain such statements as this: ‘One moment there was a crowd, and the next instant it was just a bleeding heap of dead and injured.32 Even with a degree of restraint on the part of the gunners, the technology deployed by the U.S. Army was such that carnage was inevitable.

One thing that the U.S. and UN never appreciated was that, as they escalated the level of murder and mayhem, they increased the determination of Somalis to resist and fight back. By the time of the 3 October battle, literally every inhabitant of large areas of Mogadishu considered the UN and U.S. as enemies, and were ready to take up arms against them. People who ten months before had welcomed the U.S. Marines with open arms were now ready to risk death to drive them out. The Americans’ inability to tolerate casualties, especially when televised, and their even greater inability to tolerate captive American soldiers, meant that the Somalis had leverage over the U.S. disproportionate to their military capabilities.

When pilot Michael Durant was captured, General Aidid turned the tables on his adversaries. The U.S. forces called a truce, and called Ambassador Robert Oakley, whose policy had been to appease Aidid, back to Somalia. He told the cautiously triumphant General what would happen if Michael Durant was not released:

This is not a threat. I have no plan for this and I’ll do everything I can to prevent it, but what will happen if a few weeks go by and Mr. Durant is not released? Not only will you lose any credit you may get now, but we will decide that we have to rescue him. I guarantee you that we are not going to pay or trade for him in any way, shape or form…

So what we’ll decide is we have to rescue him, and whether we have the right place or the wrong place, there’s going to be fight with your people. The minute the guns start again, all restraint on the U.S. side goes. Just look at the stuff coming in here now. An aircraft carrier, tanks, gunships…. This whole part of the city will be destroyed, men, women, children, camels, cats, dogs, goats, donkeys, everything…. That would be really tragic for all of us, but that’s what will happen.

What the U.S. forces did on 3 October is an interesting example of ‘restraint’, and it is truly alarming to think about what lack of ‘restraint’ might entail.

Justifying why the U.S. would send troops to Somalia but not Bosnia, General Colin Powell said, ‘We do deserts, we don’t do mountains’. Responding to the launch of Operation Restore Hope, the U.S. Ambassador to Kenya, Smith Hempstone, remarked, ‘If you liked Beirut, you’ll love Mogadishu’. His was the more prescient remark. The U.S. army doesn’t ‘do cities’ either.

The U.S. military operations in Mogadishu raise questions about U.S. military ethos and doctrine that are not only unanswered but rarely aired at all. Who is to be called to account for clear breaches of the Geneva Conventions? Some individual soldiers are doubtless guilty of excesses, but it would be a shame if they were scapegoated: it was senior commanders who made the key decisions. A serious inquiry into U.S. military conduct in Somalia—comparable to the Canadian investigation—might well lead rapidly to the Pentagon and the White House. This possibility was no doubt in the minds of the U.S. negotiators to the Rome conference on the creation of the International Criminal Court. ‘Malicious prosecutions’ against a few front-line Marine privates is probably something the U.S. Administration could live with. Following the chain of command to its zenith is not.

Mogadishu also compels us to ask, is U.S. military doctrine itself compatible with fighting a determined enemy without inflicting wholly disproportionate casualties on the surrounding population? It appears that the U.S. Army may have become so dedicated to the myth of a painless victory that it cannot cope with adversity, and at the same time retain the essential minimum of humanity in warfare. Or, to put the matter more bluntly, does the U.S. Army no longer fight but rather massacre?


1 Kent Delong and Steven Tuckey, Mogadishu!: Heroism and Tragedy, Westport, Conn. 1994, p. x.

2 Ibid., pp. 90, 93, 99–100.

3 Refugee Policy Group, ‘Hope Restored? Humanitarian Aid in Somalia 1990–1994’, Washington, DC 1994, p. 118. Since most of the deaths between December 1992 and February 1993 were caused by malaria, and since the U.S. troops and international relief agencies had no anti-malaria programmes, even the lower figures may be an over-estimate.

4 James L. Woods, ‘U.S. Decision Making During Humanitarian Operations in Somalia’, in W. Clarke and J. Herbst, eds., Learning from Somalia: The Lessons of Armed Intervention, Boulder 1997, p. 157.

5 The currency exchanges continued during the war against Aidid, so that the U.S.-UN forces were bankrolling their opponent.

6 General Morgan, known as the ‘butcher of Hargeisa’ for his destruction of that city in 1988 when serving as a senior commander for his father-in-law, President Mohamed Siad Barré, was trained in the U.S. and in 1992–93 received many arms from Kenya.

7 This episode is markedly absent from Oakley’s own account of his role in Somalia. See Robert Oakley and John Hirsch, Somalia and Operation Restore Hope: Reflections on Peacekeeping and Peacemaking, U.S. Institute of Peace, Washington, DC 1995.

8 See John Drysdale, Whatever Happened to Somalia? A Tale of Tragic Blunders, London 1994, pp. 170–9.

9 Jonathan T. Howe, ‘Relations between the United States and the United Nations in Dealing with Somalia’, in Clarke and Herbst, Learning from Somalia.

10 African Rights, ‘Somalia: Human Rights Abuses by the UN Forces’, London, July 1993.

11 Interview on BRT, Belgian Radio, 25 August 1995.

12 Commission d’enquête Somalie, ‘Rapport’, Brussels, 14 November 1993.

13 AFP, ‘UN Para has Sentence Increased for Somalia Stripshow’, 7 May 1998.

14 Commission of Inquiry, ‘Report’, 3 July 1997, p. 20.

15 On 6 April 1993, Gunnery Sergeant Harry Conde was convicted of using excessive force in an incident on 2 February when he shot and killed a Somali youth who tried to steal his sunglasses. Conde was demoted in rank and fined one month’s pay.

16 However, on 12 and 13 June Pakistani troops had fired into demonstrating crowds in Mogadishu, killing civilians.

17 African Rights, ‘UN Abuses’, pp. 7–10.

18 Interview with the author, 9 July 1993.

19 Interview, 10 July 1993.

20 Reuters, ‘Italian Commander says Attack on Hospital Imminent’, 17 June 1993.

21 Interview with the author, 8 July 1993.

22 Major Frank Fountain, interviewed by the author.

23 UNOSOM Military Information Office, UNOSOM FHQ Morning Briefing Notes for 11 July 1993, p. 2.

24 Liz Sly, ‘UN Raises the Ante in Somalia Attacks’, Chicago Tribune, 20 June 1993.

25 Drysdale, Whatever Happened to Somalia?, pp. 203–4.

26 Keith Richburg, ‘U.S. Raid Reportedly Killed Aidid Aides’, The Washington Post, 16 July 1993.

27 UNOSOM, Second informal consultation with donor representatives on Somalia’s relief and rehabilitation programme, summary report, Nairobi, 27 July 1993, pp. 9–10.

28 Ann Wright, ‘Legal and Human Rights Aspects of UNOSOM Military Operations’, Memorandum to the Special Representative of the Secretary General from UNOSOM Justice Division, 13 July 1993.

29 Mark Huband, ‘UN Forces Deny Somali Detainees Legal Rights’, The Guardian, 25 September 1993.

30 Keith Richburg, ‘UN Defends Firing on Somali Crowd’, The Washington Post, 11 September 1993.

31 Interview with the author, 5 March 1994.

32 Mark Bowden, ‘Helicopter Provides Support’, The Arizona Republic, 24 December 1997.

33 U.S. News and World Report, 14 December 1992.