It's no longer just about Somalis, now it's about us

MIKE LITTWIN

October 06, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

Somalia has finally come home to America. Somalia is no longer starving children with distended stomachs who live half a world away. Somalia is the bodies of U.S. soldiers -- our boys -- being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu.

The image won't go away.

The miracle of television brings us the image and stamps it in our brains. How do you wipe away the sight of fallen soldiers being displayed by celebrating Somalis, who look like sports fans whose team had just won a championship?

We watch in horror at the naked blood lust. The soldiers, we come to understand, are trophies. Human trophies. We see the bodies -- the photographers, in a stab at decency, try to obscure the faces -- and think immediately of the parents who first see their boy this way.

Horror turns to anger, settling hard in the gut, and the gut says one of two things: Bomb 'em back to the Stone Age or just get out and let them solve their own problems.

And then we see the captured U.S. helicopter pilot, displayed on TV. Everything now is on TV, almost as soon as it happens. The pilot is just a scared kid who's probably been mistreated and maybe even tortured.

We want to turn our heads, but we can't. We watch and we understand that seeing the living is worse somehow than seeing the dead.

There are perhaps as many as eight Americans held by this man Aidid, whom we call a warlord, or we call him a thug, or maybe he's simply leader of a faction of a country we barely understand. It hardly matters now. We read that he's keeping the soldiers close to him as protection against an American assault.

Any captured American would become -- and it is now the scariest word in our language -- a hostage.

And we know, as we know nothing else, that we can't simply leave them there. Cutting and running is no longer an option. At the least, we must get back our soldiers.

Then, what do we do? More important, how'd we get in this fix?

We basically went to Somalia to keep people from starving. Some want to say there were contributing geopolitical motives. I don't know. In any case, people were fed.

Most of our soldiers went home. But some stayed, as part of a United Nations force. The idea was to establish something resembling stability so that the starving wouldn't resume.

Then it turned ugly, soldiers began dying, and some politicians demanded a quick withdrawal. These politicians are pursuing a policy that says, in effect, we end all military ventures as soon as Americans start getting killed.

Is that a foreign policy? Nobody can quite say. What's clear from Somalia -- and also from our struggle in figuring a proper role, if any, to play in Bosnia -- is that nothing in the post-Cold War era is clear.

We hear a lot about the lessons of Vietnam, which can be reduced to these: Never get into a war without popular support and also without clear military goals.

But the lessons of Somalia are slightly different. Should we have gone to Somalia? If not, does that mean we're willing to watch as innocent people starve? If we do belong, how long should we stay? Do the Somalis want us there? How do we know? And how important is that?

Of course, Somalia was supposed to be the easy case. Bosnia is the quagmire, the war out of our history books. We've done a lot of talking there. And meanwhile, the Bosnian Muslims continue to be, in the neat and surgical term, ethnically cleansed. In other words, people kill them because of their religion.

How many American lives are we willing to risk to solve the problem? Is it even possible to solve the problem?

We get our consciences tugged on this one, as some would compare our inaction to the indifference the world showed to the plight of the Jews before World War II. There's a famous story of the Danes who risked their lives, virtually alone among Europeans nations, to help the country's Jews escape the Germans.

It is a wonderful story of bravery and principle, and especially, selflessness. Does it apply to America today?

We are, we keep hearing, the world's remaining superpower. What does that mean? Where do our responsibilities begin and end?

These are questions we have to start asking ourselves and not simply leave to the politicians. We don't need a policy; we need a philosophy. That's the true lesson of Somalia.

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