Delta Winds: A Magazine of Student
Somalia is on the easternmost tip of the African continent, a few degrees above the equatorial line. By February of 1992 the United States and the world had seen enough bloodshed in this country and had, some say reluctantly, decided to act. I was part of a U. S. Marine Corps detachment assigned to the United Nations. We were being sent to bring peace to this little sliver of inhumanity and to stop the death of the "innocents," if there ever was such a group. We were there to stymie the flow of blood created by the feuding factions. When we first arrived we were cheered and welcomed with open arms and applause by citizens of the country. That would all quickly change. I have no way of knowing what the powers that be were thinking when they sent us, America's sons and daughters, over there to that God-forsaken place. Perhaps the people in the United Nations thought that they could finally get one right. They had screwed up everywhere else thus far: Beirut, the Congo, and Iraq in the post-Gulf War times. We were told this time would be different, so they sent us in. I remember my friends and I sitting in the worst place we had ever been, wondering how long before the cheering and applause would be replaced by bullets and bloodshed. We would not have to wait too long to find out.
The climate was crippling to us. The very air we were breathing was thick and acrid. The humidity made us feel as though we had just stepped out of the sauna, or that someone was standing over us with a hose continuously dowsing us with water. A few weeks earlier we had been enjoying ourselves without a care in the world, a bunch of young Marines enjoying the tropic-like breeze on the beaches of San Diego. Now we were in this indescribable place.
If you've ever seen the movie Saving Private Ryan with Tom Hanks or Mad Max with Mel Gibson, you'll have a basis to form a mental picture of what I'm about to describe. If you have never seen a realistic war movie, then try to imagine a city in total anarchy. There are no laws or rules whatsoever. People kill one another for a spoonful of food. Parents sell their kids for a few dollars. As with any war or conflict, the very young and the very old or ill always pay a disproportionate price. This place was no different. The emaciated, starved bodies of the elderly and young littered the streets. A pickup truck from the United Nations went around town picking up bodies twice a day: nine in the morning and four in the afternoon. The driver did his job rather unceremoniously. With as much emotion and thought as you or I would put into taking out the trash or flushing the toilet, the driver would grab the bodies and throw them into the bed of the truck. The driver could grab most of the bodies with one hand. They were so light. He would grab the kids, infants or babies by an arm or a leg; sometimes the driver would just grab a handful of hair and with a flick of his wrist the bodies would go sailing in the air. I remember the bodies landing in a heap in the bed of the truck. When they started to cone at the top, the driver would grab a rake or shovel and level off the mound. Human beings had no value here, dead or alive. Any semblance of order, civility, or humanity was long gone.
Try to imagine your worst nightmares of how uncaring and uncompassionate mankind can sometimes be to one another. When you have this mental picture painted vividly in your mind, realize you haven't even come close to this reality. The strong and the powerful, without remorse, devour the weak, sometimes for their own gain and sometimes out of sheer boredom -- for nothing more than their own amusement. There is nothing else for them to do, these thugs with guns, many of whom are no older than fourteen or fifteen, so they torment the weak.
Every building and street, every corner and alley was torn apart by this civil war. Not one building remained wholly intact or untouched. The pavement in the streets had been dug up, and the water pipes ripped out from the ground. It was impossible to make a phone call because the telephone wires had been ripped down off of the phone poles; eventually the telephone poles themselves even disappeared. The fixtures, windows, doors, furnishings and even the carpeting and baseboards had been removed from virtually every building we walked into. Anything that was, or possibly could be, of any value had been taken away. This was the worst destruction I had ever seen in my life, even more devastating and destructive than the aftermath of the attacks on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. This is how I remember Somalia. It was a living nightmare. For some I'm sure it still is.
It was about noontime, and we were trudging through the streets of Mogadishu on yet another fruitless and time-consuming "sweep" of the city's ghettos. We all had to wear our flak jackets, vest-type contraptions that are worn in the same fashion as a normal shirt. The flak jacket fastens in the front with a long Velcro strap that runs down the middle of the chest. The vest weighs about 35 pounds and is painted military camouflage green. There we were in the middle of the dessert, sand and dust and mud huts all around us, and we were totally dressed in green. It was par for the course. On this patrol Sergeant Washington was on point. Usually, I would have been, but since this was new territory for us and we didn't quite have our routine down, patrol Sergeant Washington took point, guiding us through the maze of the ghetto.
Sergeant Washington and I had both served in the Gulf War and took part in the battle of Khafji. I was older than he was, but he was my superior. He earned his position as well as my respect; we worked very well together. We knew each other's body language and moods. It was like we could almost read each other's minds. There were seven other Marines in our unit, nine in all. It might seem like a small element given our location and mission, but we were well trained, motivated, battle-tested, and ready. Most of the weight on our backs was comprised of Claymore mines, grenades, ammunition for our rifles and a host of other goodies. It was late February, 1992. My perception of why we were here and what I thought of these people and this place was about to change.
The ghetto we were patrolling was about three hundred meters behind a former five star hotel, the Al-Sahafi. We were about a quarter mile from the nearest American unit, which was patrolling on a parallel course to our northeast. The ghetto was the most unimaginable and unbelievable living environment I had ever seen. No running water or toilets. People relieved themselves in cans or buckets; sometimes they did their business right where they stood. We were walking in human waste, nothing less than an open sewer, and the smell was indescribable. There was no electricity, which meant no refrigeration of any kind. That didn't matter much because no one had any food. Everybody was starving to death. The average shelter was nothing more than cardboard and tin siding slapped together haphazardly with bailing wire or rolls and rolls of tape. I recall thinking that the poorest in America would be millionaires here.
As we were walking, a fight broke out between two Somali men. They were about sixty feet in front of us. One man looked fifty years old. He was wearing a torn and frayed white dress shirt that had huge butterfly collars, lime green corduroy pants, and tennis shoes. His shirt was buttoned all the way to the top. The second man seemed to be about twenty years old. He had on a white Nike T-shirt with a silhouette of Michael Jordan in mid-air, just about to dunk a basketball. He was wearing a pair of red slacks and brown sandals. Something about the situation put me on edge: it just didn't seem right. I couldn't quite figure out what it was.
Sergeant Washington was in the front; I was directly behind him, and the rest of the patrol was behind me. Corporal Kruger was in the back. Corporal Kruger was new to the unit, so I didn't know him well. He was also a Gulf war veteran and had seen some action in Kuwait. He was a big strapping jock-type from Nebraska, the kind of guy you just knew played football. He had no neck, and his arms were the size of an average man's thighs. An intimidating looking fellow in jeans and a T-shirt, let alone in full combat gear with grenades tied to his body.
I was on the radio trying to relay our current position and situation to our sister unit a few hundred meters away. I looked back at Corporal Kruger and the rest of my unit and realized we were in trouble. The reason I had that uneasy, gnawing feeling about the fight in front of us became frighteningly clear. The two men seemed to be fighting but were really not. There was no bloodshed, no telltale signs of a struggle, no angry crowd gathered around the two, taking sides and cheering on a favorite. The two Somali men were putting on a show. They were trying to draw us in and set us up; they had succeeded. We had walked straight into an ambush.
Try to imagine a huge "V" shape that is about 75 yards long from end to end. We had walked in from the open end and were about three-quarters of the way through. This is what's described in the military as the "fatal funnel." Anyone caught in the position we were currently in would usually suffer fatal results. The "V" shape creates a situation similar to that of a bottleneck, and it's probably one of the best ambush techniques known. It is simple to do and hard to detect. If we were to get pinned down, it would be extremely difficult for us to fight our
As I turned back towards Sergeant Washington, I could tell that he also had just realized we were walking into an ambush. He had turned his head to look back at me, and I could see it in his eyes and body language. At that instant, the wall of the hut in front of us was ripped to shreds by machine gun fire. Someone on the inside had let loose with a large burst and the bullets had torn apart the wall. Simultaneously, we yelled "Ambush" and dropped down flat on our bellies. The other seven Marines did the same, and we all were rolling around in human waste. Corporal Kruger was facing the direction we had just come from. He was trying to prevent some Somali gunmen from taking up positions against us.
In a situation like this everything slows down and speeds up at the same time. Everyone reacts without thinking or being told. It's reflex. Whole sentences or even paragraphs of communication are reduced to one or two words and a gesture or body posture. "Ammo," "Como," "Rear Flank," phrases that probably mean nothing to the uninitiated mean everything to those who know and have been tested.
So there we were, nine Marines, all of us covered in human feces, urine, and mud. Bullets were flying at us from every direction, and we were returning fire in every direction. I remember thinking, "Why are we here trying to help these people?" This wasn't Vietnam. We had the support and backing of the American people, the United Nations and the world. We were the good guys patrolling this ghetto to keep its inhabitants safe from the armed thugs who had been terrorizing this country. The same hoodlums who had pillaged, raped and destroyed this city and the whole country were now being helped by their former "victims." The people we were trying to protect had turned on us and were trying to kill us. I was getting mad.
Sergeant Washington grabbed my arm and yelled in my ear, "We gotta move now or we are dead!" I looked back at Corporal Kruger's position and saw four other Marines helping him. I also saw something that made me freeze for a few seconds. The Somalis shooting at us were not men but boys -- eight, nine or ten years old maximum. Sure, there were men in the crowd, but most of the shooters looked no older than twelve. There were even a few women. All told I estimated a crowd of about one hundred people to our rear and about thirty to our front. We were badly outnumbered.
Over the radio I heard that our sister unit was on the way, helicopters were in the air heading towards us, and fighter jets had been scrambled to come help us. I yelled at Sergeant Washington, "Give me your two Claymores!"
Sergeant Washington and the two remaining Marines were firing off rounds as fast as they could pull the trigger on their rifles. The smell of cordite and gunpowder was in the air. Sometimes when I take a deep breath I still have a sense of the intoxicating feeling I got from the combination of cordite, human feces, and fear. It is a memory burned in my mind.
I remember trying to make an improvised high explosive charge with Sergeant Washington's two Claymores as well as two of my own. I remember the tape kept slipping out of my hands as I was straining to wrap all four Claymores into one big bundle. I kept fumbling with the roll for what seemed like an eternity. The same way the drunken prom king fumbles with the zipper on the dress of the prom queen: nervous and anxious and excited all at the same time. If I could only make my device work. When I finally got it situated the way I wanted, I ended up with what looked like four VCR tapes stacked together.
Each Claymore has the equivalent of about two sticks of dynamite and over 900 bullets. Each bullet is just a bit smaller than a marble. I had just created an explosive device with a total combined power of over eight sticks of dynamite and more than 3600 bullets in a single punch. All I had to do was get it close enough to the crowd.
I sloshed through the mud and the muck to where Sergeant Washington was positioned. He and the other two Marines with him were putting out an enormous amount of firepower. I yelled at him, "Watch the bouncing ball!" while holding up my little creation, and then handed him the detonator.
The crowd at Corporal Kruger's end was being held off, but just barely. They were my greatest concern. As I stood up and started running towards them, I heard Sergeant Washington's booming voice yell, "Covering fire!" He was trying to give me some protection.
I ran about ten or fifteen yards and threw my "baby" into the air with all my might. It landed with a thud and flipped end over end a few times and stopped about thirty yards from the crowd. Close enough considering each Claymore had a front kill radius of about sixty-five yards. As soon as the Claymore stopped rolling, Sergeant Washington pressed the button on the detonator.
The sound was deafening. It was as if someone had tied my head to the engine of a 747 Jumbo Jet as it struggled to break the bonds of gravity on take-off. The shock wave knocked me on my back, and I almost dropped my rifle. I remember the crowd simply disappearing, as if they had been vaporized. At least half of them lay there dead.
It was like watching a movie where a real suspenseful part is played in slow motion. Every detail, no matter how small, is forever caught in my mind. I can still see the plastic covering of the Claymores flying through the air. I can see the projectiles, the bullets, as they fly in the air. I see the bodies being lifted up off the ground from the force of half a dozen bullets tearing into their flesh all at once: they look like rag dolls being tossed around. Some bodies drop to the ground like sacks of potatoes.
The rest of the people shooting at us stopped. They dropped their weapons and took off running in different directions with their hands in the air. This would be the strongest show of force the Marines would ever have to display while in Somalia. The Army did not learn this lesson, and you can watch their failure in the movie Black Hawk Down.
The whole thing from start to finish lasted less than ninety seconds. I have no regrets or remorse for my actions or of those of my fellow Marines that afternoon. We did what we had to. We suffered two wounded Marines and killed fifty-eight enemy. We were able to come home and keep on living.
The lesson I learned during my time in Somalia was to be appreciative for what I have. I do not take it for granted. America's not heaven, but I think it's the closest thing on Earth.