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The War Nerd / October 28, 2008
By Gary Brecher

Meanwhile there were a few Somalis in suits and ties, trying to live the Western life in Mog. But the desert won, the old ways won. Somalia voted for the epic life, blasting away on your technical, not shuffling papers. Not good news if you were, say, a woman with three kids, but GREAT news if you were a khat-blasted eighth grader ready to pull that trigger.

So the chaos, famine, etc. that the do-gooders whine about is just the Somalis’ version of like the Reagan revolution: back to the roots! Live like your forefathers! Only with Toyotas instead of camels. Faster, less smell, don’t bite. Works for me.

And once you’re living that way, war is just a fact, like the sun coming up in the morning. Rise and shine, rise and shoot! Rise and stab! Give me goats or give me death, like the Somali Patrick Henry probably said.
Don’t act so shocked, either. If you’ve looked at the Iliad you know this tune. This is what those professors teach, even if the bastards won’t admit they’re teaching it: livestock raids, slave raids, raids for the sheer killing fun of it.

Naturally you need a partner for the dance, for those times when the clans stop killing each other and look over the horizon for bigger targets they can take down together. That’s how nomads think. That’s how the Mongols turned into a red tide: stopped stealing each others’ yaks and realized there were better pickings down in China or over in Central Asia.

That’s where Ethiopia comes in. When the Somalis scooted inland, they ran into the Ethiopian empire pushing eastward, out of the mountains onto the Ogaden Desert. The Somalis were natural raiders; the Amhara, the dominant tribe in Ethiopia, were farmers, land-hungry like all farmers, so they were old hands at land-grabbing. When two tribes like that overlap on the map, war is just the norm.

The Amhara were mountain people originally, from up there where it actually gets cold at the equator and even the baboons have long fur. But they’d been sending settlers down onto the hot dry flatlands of Somalia for generations. Those settlers ended up in the middle of a classic African turf war in the Ogaden desert from 1976-1978, when the Somali Army advanced all the way to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. This was one of those magnificent horn-of-Africa conventional wars that nobody had the good sense to film, damn it, so we’ll never get to see it the way we should. It must have been a thing of beauty, because the Somalis specialized in armored attacks across open desert. They had a big, well-maintained force of Russian tanks, old but solid T-34s (THE tank of the 20th century) and T-54/5s. When you consider that the population of Ethiopia is about six times bigger than Somalia’s, it’s pretty impressive the Somali tank columns pushed that far into the enemy’s homeland. But then Somalis had one big advantage: every Somali is a born killer. It’s all they know.

They also had the advantage of fighting a country that was dissolving by the day. Ethiopia has never been the most organized place on earth. It’s famous for a lot of weird stuff, like the nastiest fleas in the world, and the oldest, weirdest version of Christianity around, but it’s never been confused with a German train schedule for precision. Ethiopia was one of those places where the army was the only part of the government that actually worked. Then in 1974 a few up-and-coming Commies in the officer corps declared that Ethiopia was nothing but a crumbling, unjust, feudal mess. Which was absolutely true. Unfortunately—and you’ve probably guessed this already—what they had in mind was even worse. A lot of these officers had been educated in Moscow and come away with the impression that the Russians were communist, so like good little exchange students they wanted to bring home what they’d learned. It’s kind of funny now that we all know there were no actual commies left in Russia by that time. The Russians must have wanted to faint when they heard their Abyssinian friends chirping about the glories of communism. I bet they wanted to yell, “Dude, no! That’s just—it’s my pinchy job to tell you that shit, ese, you not s’pose ta b’lieve it!”

To be fair here, if you were a proud Ethiopian officer you had reason to be pissed off. Half the population were sharecroppers, working Amharic lords’ land for a starvation share of the crop. The population was zooming out of control, and the land was eroding. More people, less land, and an insane bunch of lords, ladies and monks running the show. It was like medieval England, only with a population explosion and a pissed-off officer corps.

So at the start of the Ethiopian revolution you’ve got an incredible beautiful mess. Check out a map of Ethiopia and you’ll see it’s like a profile of a rhino’s head (if the rhino was looking east, say—probably thinking, “God I wish I could just swim to Diego Garcia and bum a few beers from the squids, get out of this ghetto….)

Read more:, Gary Brecher, The War Nerd

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