Innovation is a double-edged sword
Throughout Ridley Scott’s gripping film Black Hawk Down, a background image screams volumes about how today’s wars are fought. American soldiers are trying to navigate through Mogadishu, Somalia, a dirt-poor, war-ravaged city in a third-world country, As they do, they drive past war-torn buildings that, paradoxically, have satellite dishes hanging from windows and roofs like wild mushrooms.
Atop those buildings, enemy scouts track the American invasion and report to Somali warlords repeatedly via cell phones.
These subtle, yet powerful, images portray a telecommunications revolution that has enveloped even the most remote corners of the world. It also has had an even more far-reaching effect on the people who fight wars and cover them, according to Black Hawk Down author Mark Bowden, a noted journalist and the keynote speaker at IWCE 2004 (March 24-26 in Las Vegas).
Much of Bowden’s book, which was written four years after the 1993 fight, uses the radio chatter between American soldiers, the omnipresent helicopters hovering overhead and the remote command center to capture the frenetic minute-to-minute urgency of U.S troops. The troops, returning to rescue fallen colleagues, become trapped in a spider’s web of citizens and rebel soldiers enraged by — among other things — the superior technology the U.S was putting into the field.
“The Somalis were dealing with the most sophisticated military force in the world; very sophisticated electronic surveillance-helicopters, radio communications, [satellite] imagery,” said Bowden, who will deliver his keynote on March 24.
Of course, as portrayed in the film, there were glitches.
“[The Americans troops] were in a big city with a lot of large structures; radio communications were difficult sometimes for the guys on the ground,” Bowden said.
Still, there was more good than bad, despite the difficulties, he said.
“I’ve listened to the radio traffic during that battle, and I’ve seen transcripts of it, and there was a lot of it [conversations] going on,” he said. “American soldiers were far better in tune with one another and the helicopters overhead than anybody they were fighting in the city.”
The lessons of Somalia — where an attempt to abduct several top lieutenants of warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid ended in the loss of 18 American lives and two high-tech Blackhawk attack helicopters — shaped future U.S. foreign policy.
Similarly, the communications technology used to eavesdrop on and pinpoint the location of the warlords and their minions — and to keep the pinned-down American soldiers informed — has affected the way today’s battles are fought.
Likewise, the media coverage of the battle, which brought the soldiers’ deaths into American homes in groundbreaking manner, has influenced how today’s reporters communicate from the world’s battlefields.
Even the less technologically sophisticated Somalis effectively used media images of dead, dying and abused American troops to shock and sicken the American public, which weakened its resolve for a continued presence in Somalia, Bowden said.
Even so, without such communications, most Americans — including many policymakers — wouldn’t have known that Somalia existed, much less been aware of the injustices that were unfolding there, according to Bowden.
“The very fact that the world and the United States took an interest in Somalia is a consequence of modern [communications] technology, because the kinds of things that were going on there would have just happened 50 years ago … without the world paying much attention,” Bowden said. “When there was famine in Somalia, it got covered by news reporters, … and in short order, there were 20,000 U.S. Marines there trying to distribute food.”
While the U.S. may have learned a variety of political lessons in Somalia, the battle reinforced what already was known: technologically advanced communications are crucial components of the modern military.
“Most of the [U.S.] military operations in Somalia involved targeting people, which means eavesdropping on their telephone calls, [and] using radio location. The Somalis were experiencing a level of technology that was far beyond anything they had themselves,” Bowden said.
More recently, the U.S. put far more sophisticated technology to effective use in Afghanistan, when Air Force pilots dropped JDAM [Joint Attack Direct Mission] bombs on Taliban positions in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“Communications from the air to the ground enabled combat controllers to steer pilots into targets that were even completely obscured by clouds,” he said. “That was very demoralizing to Taliban troops, because they figured, if there was heavy cloud cover, they were protected.”
The situation also has changed dramatically for enemy forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where sophisticated communications such as satellite technologies are employed today, Bowden said.
Bowden, who is not a war correspondent, marvels at front-line journalists covering the fight in Iraq using technology he could not have imagined as a young reporter.
“That kind of instant communications is new. It’s also problematic for the military,” Bowden said. In fact, some journalists are better equipped than the soldiers they’re covering, because over-the-counter communications gear is advancing more quickly than what’s being developed by the military, he added.
For instance, the media has cell phones with video cameras that instantly convey battlefield images. Such technology enables the media to bring the battlefield into the family room, which isn’t always a good thing for the military.
“The United States, for better or for worse, is extremely clued in, because of modern communications, to exactly what’s happening on the battlefield. The pain of the loss of even an individual solider is felt by the whole country,” Bowden said.
Nevertheless, Bowden stressed that the upside of communications technology far exceeds any downside. “A guy on the ground in Afghanistan could send photographs using radio waves to computers in control centers or to pilots,” he said.
Most importantly, it’s helping save lives.
“We had, in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, smaller and smaller numbers of so-called innocents who were hurt by American bombing campaigns, because they’re becoming more precise,” he said. “That’s critically important in a world where you have enemies who, instead of trying to protect their population, actually put the population in harm’s way.”