Students ponder harsh lessons of history and our global role

SOMALIA 101

October 18, 1993|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Staff Writer

They were born during Gerald Ford's administration, circa 1974. They are yesterday's children and today's college students. For them, the Vietnam War has been covered by textbooks and movies. Somalia is current events.

Somalia is not another Vietnam, of course. But images and events from Somalia have roused the passions and opinions of some draft-age Americans. They've read about the 18 U.S. soldiers who died and the 77 who were wounded in a Mogadishu firefight. They've seen the battered, much-publicized face of captured U.S. Army pilot Michael Durant, who was freed last week.

At Johns Hopkins University, three political science students stayed after class last week to talk about U.S. involvement in Somalia, America as "Globo-Cop," lasting battle images and what a reality check the military business can be.

Meet the crew. Ajoy Reddi is a 19-year-old sophomore and a political science major. Randy Turkel, 19, is considering a major in political science. Rebecca Freeman, 20, says she's somewhere between being a sophomore and junior.

This is no scientific poll. They're just three young people, thinking out loud.

These three students had just attended their Contemporary International Politics class, where the professor questioned why the Europeans didn't know what to expect in World War 1. After class, they hung around for a casual question-and-answer session:

So, what did we expect to happen in Somalia?

Ajoy: "I thought we'd just be there to ensure the food doesn't get stolen. I thought there might be a few collateral casualties. I didn't think they'd be firing weapons against us and we'd be responding."

Collateral casualties, firefights, Charlie Company, guerrilla warfare, underestimating the enemy, not knowing the enemy. Sound familiar? The buzz words and criticisms of the Vietnam War can be found in accounts of so-called Bloody Sunday, when U.S. soldiers were ambushed outside Mogadishu's Olympic Hotel on Oct. 3. Eighteen American soldiers died.

Captured U.S. helicopter pilot Michael Durant was beaten by his Somali captors. His picture was everywhere. Durant's blank and trapped stare could well be the defining image of America's stay in Somalia.

What did you think when you saw Durant's picture? (We showed them the Newsweek cover of the injured pilot. No one flinched.)

Randy: "It made me think how pathetic it is that the U.S. let itself get the Army into a position where this occurs. They should have gone in quickly, got what they wanted and gotten out. This is just going to drag on."

Ajoy: "It strikes me as us getting too involved in something that doesn't concern us."

Rebecca: "I looked at him being trapped in Somalia and not me."

What is the U.S. role in Somalia?

Rebecca: "I don't know what we're doing there. I think humanitarianism has become a new form of colonialism. If we were on a humanitarian mission, why were we going in there with machine guns?"

Randy: "I think it's obvious the Somalis don't want us there. They just don't want our help. The U.S. should just see that. Let them feed themselves. If they can't do it, I think it's their problem. The U.S. has too many problems of its own.

Rebecca: "I'm just so sick of this thing."

Sick of what?

"I'm sick of the U.S. being conceived as a pre-eminent nation."

Ajoy: "But when we have interests at stake we should go out and . . ."

Rebecca: "What interests do we have at stake?"

Ajoy: "Well, we don't have any in Somalia."

Is it America's job to be the world's "Globo-Cop" and Humanitarian?

Ajoy: "I think so. It's against anyone's interest to let people starve when you have the power to alleviate that suffering. In terms of giving them a government, let them sort it out themselves."

Randy: "We don't have the power to feed our own people."

Ajoy: "I don't agree with that. We don't have people starving . . . there's no massive famine in our country."

Rebecca: "Who gave us that role anyway?"

Randy: "The parallels between Vietnam and Somalia are scary. We live up to that false perception that the U.S., because it is a leading economic player, that we should take the initiative and solve everybody's problems. It's kind of a shell -- very strong on the outside but it's hollow."

You mention Vietnam . . .

Randy: "It's just like in Vietnam. We really don't understand their culture and politics in Somalia, so we really can't help them in the way they need to be helped."

Do you think most people your age care about U.S. military involvement in Somalia?

Ajoy: I don't think so. It doesn't really affect them unless there was a draft."

L Randy: "I'd go, if I was drafted. I wouldn't run to Canada."

Ajoy: "I wouldn't want to, but if I was drafted I'd go."

Although duty-bound, these students are not starry-eyed patriots. They support the U.S. troops, but do so out of cool pragmatism -- not passionate obligation.

They don't romanticize battle. The trio seemed unflinching and emotionally detached about death tolls and pictures of the captured American. Maybe those in-your-face Vietnam movies, such as "Platoon," have padded their nerve endings. This generation didn't grow up reading Hemingway's macho war stories or watching John Wayne's clean-cut war movies.

Ajoy: "We should just stop fighting their clans and concentrate on getting the food to the people who are starving."

Randy: "I don't think you can separate the two. Whatever food they have given them, just leave it. Just load up those planes and get everybody back."

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