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The War Nerd / October 28, 2008

A couple of years ago I mentioned that Ethiopian troops were occupying Mogadishu and said it was the perfect experimental setup for us. Now we could find out if anybody could pacify that place.

Well, the answer’s in, because the Ethiopian army just announced that it’s quitting Somalia as soon as it can sign a phony agreement with the nearest Somali faction. They’ve had it.

And I don’t blame them: two years in Somalia is like two years in Michael Vick’s kennel. No, worse. If dog years are human years times seven, then Somalia years are human years times infinity plus one. The motto of he Somali Tourist Board should be: “It’s never too soon to leave!” I don’t blame Clinton for running after that Black Hawk Down business; I blame him for not pulling American troops out the day he was sworn into office. You might as well try to turn Vick’s dogs into Quakers as teach the Somalis, the original dust devils, to be peaceable homebodies.

You might wonder how the Ethiopians ended up with the hopeless—no, just plain ridiculous—job of trying to make the Somalis play nice. The fast answer, and I know most people want the 30-second version, is that Ethiopia never saw a land grab it didn’t like, and Cheney greenlighted the move because Somalia had fallen into the hands of “Islamists.”

If you can stop fidgeting for a second, though, I’ll give you a more honest answer. First of all, saying that Mog had fallen into Islamist hands is like saying that Barstow fell into the hands of Baptists: it’s always been that way. Naturally Somalis go for that Islamic noise, because compared to the basic Somali ideology, which is “Every man for himself and eat the losers” Islamic law is bleeding-heart liberalism. It’s kind of funny, imagining Somalis begging the mullahs, “Please institute Sharia law! We’re ready for that soft, easygoing hippie ‘tude! This Somali macho stuff, it’s too harsh!” See, when Islam spread from Morocco to Jakarta it washed over all kinds of tribes. For some of them, soft city types, Sharia law was scary, hardcore stuff. But to the Somali, who were used to fighting over a few starved goats all day, and then getting up tomorrow to fight over the same lousy goats all over again, Sharia law was the Rapture. “Wait, you are telling me that Sharia forbids stealing? No stealing? So I can sleep, maybe, with both eyes closed, for the first time in my life? Bring it on, baby!”

By all accounts, Mogadishu was almost peaceful when the Islamists were in charge. It was a little like the early days of the Taleban in Kabul: nobody gave a shit whether the Taleban was “democratic” as long as they kept the random gunfire down to a steady patter. Democracy is for rich people. I guarantee if you had to live like they do in Kabul or Mog, you wouldn’t care about it either. Not after ducking warlord-vs.-warlord streetfights every time you want to get water from the neighborhood pump. It wears you out fast, that kind of living—having to check for snipers every time you cross a street. A few years of that and you kind of look forward to a little Islamic fanaticism, where nobody’s allowed to do nuthin’, make any noise or hum a tune or fly a kite or whatever. It’s “Shuttup and siddown!” to the whole neighborhood, including the warlords and their khat-chewing skinnies who’ve been zooming up and down the alleys in their technicals blowing up kids because they can’t handle their high.

So everybody in Mog was chilling, kickin’ it Sharia style, safe from random gunfire for the first time in forever. Well, we couldn’t have that, so the Ethiopian army slid downhill from its mountain bases and slithered across the desert to Mog. Looks like they didn’t enjoy the move much, though. Their occupation of Mog went just like everybody else’s. Not just trying to herd cats, more like trying to herd rabid cats. A few hundred Ethiopian soldiers got picked off, they shot back and killed a few thousand Somalis, stirring up all kinds of insane clan vendettas, sat around sweating for a while and said, “Fuck this,” and left just like the Rangers/Delta Force did fifteen years ago.

That answered the question I asked in that column a few years ago: could a black African army do a better job of occupying Mog than we did? And just like I guessed, the answer was, “Nope.” That’s because what we see as a bloody mess that needs charity is natural to most Somalis. Not all—the Somalis actually used to have a rep as the best office workers in the Horn, believe it or not, under the colonial regimes. They’re not stupid people. But they are nomads at heart, and nomads don’t really have the idea of a central government protecting everybody. They want to protect themselves. Somalis actually live the way these survivalist wackos up in the Idaho panhandle think they live: all on their own, protecting their families. The way the Idaho nuts do it is all wrong, which any Somali or Bedu could tell them: you don’t hole up in a log cabin with a bunch of motion sensors and polish your gun collection all day like a sitting duck. You move, you and your goats. You keep moving, keep watch, and don’t trust anybody outside the clan. If you’re really going to do it you can’t do that single-family stuff. Too easy to besiege and wipe out. You need a clan. So the Somalis are organized in clans for mutual defense, hitting each other and running. Used to do it on livestock, then they met their dream car, the Toyota pickup, and never looked back. Mount a Soviet heavy machine gun or AA cannon on that thing and you were living the dream.

Read more:, Gary Brecher, The War Nerd

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