We're outta there

Anna Quindlen

October 08, 1993|By Anna Quindlen

IT BEGAN with the pictures. And now it will end with them.

A year ago there was the news footage of children, skeletons with black-hole eyes, starving in the villages of Somalia, dying and being buried where they had fallen because there were so many dead. It touched the heart.

Days ago there was the news footage of jubilant Somalis dragging the body of an American soldier through the street, his naked torso dusky with the dust of the roads. It fueled a fury.

After all the deja vu analyses of the conflict in the Persian Gulf, it is the military action in Somalia that has overnight become the true child of Vietnam. And that is why the president now needs a concrete short-term plan for withdrawing from a place we entered with the very best intentions.

"The people who are dragging American bodies don't look very hungry to the people of Texas," said Sen. Phil Gramm, riding a tsunami of public opinion.

Food -- that was how we began. U.S. intervention saved thousands of Somalis from death by making sure that supplies got past warring warlords. But the next step was to make sure the country would not relapse into clan warfare and famine, and to do that we needed to "secure" the region for future relief efforts.

Secure the region is, of course, not a humanitarian term. It is a military term. Food shipments turned to fierce fighting with supporters of Gen. Mohamed Farah Aidid.

We were as naive as we were in Vietnam, where we expected people whose language the soldiers did not speak and whose customs they did not understand to be universally grateful for salvation from communism.

At first it seemed we were slow to act in Somalia because we were less moved by starving black children than we might have been by white ones; maybe it was another kind of affront to stay after the food had arrived, the American bwana telling the natives how to run their nation. "Colonialism," General Aidid called it. That has a familiar ring.

We were as naive about Aidid as we were about his ancestor, Ho Chi Minh. We learned a quarter-century ago that people can be inspired to fight tooth and nail for the sovereignty of their own small country, where they know the turf and we do not.

Then we forgot it until U.S. officials had to admit this week that they had underestimated the ferocity of -- what? We can't even call them the enemy, because we are not at war.

To the contrary: we came in peace, to bring aid and comfort, and we did. But the military has never been comfortable in the comfort business. It is in the business of getting the job done.

As Somalis in Mogadishu peered at the wreckage of a fallen copter and some advisers called for increased troop strength, that job began to sound dangerously close to one articulated in Vietnam in 1968: "It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it."

The job now is to get out as quickly as we can. If the president does not do it himself, the Congress will do it for him. It is not just that public opinion is fiercely against our involvement, that American empathy has shriveled in the face of domestic deprivation, that the new mantras of international relations are "We have enough problems in our own country" and "We can't police the world."

I favored sending U.S. troops to Somalia. But I was naive, too, about what would happen after the starving were fed. Just as we were flummoxed, flipping and flopping like a fish with a hook in its mouth, faced with that ignominious war in which we were to destroy Vietnam in order to save it, we are flummoxed by how to be humanitarian in tanks.

The Cold War over, we embarked on a warm one, and we were not ready for its particular demands. There are organizations that feed people, and organizations that do battle with them. Together they make an uneasy, perhaps impossible marriage.

We won't be sending U.S. troops to Bosnia any time soon after this, that's for certain, no matter what the pictures tell us about the horrendous plight of those poor people.

And we'll be bringing them home from Somalia. Not because we were wrong to go there in the beginning. But because we didn't really understand how it would end.

Anna Quindlen, a columnist for the New York Times, has returned from a leave of absence.

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