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The War Nerd / October 28, 2008
By Gary Brecher

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.

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….)

The horn is sticking up into the Somali deserts. Now take it in ethnic terms: the Amhara, the dominant, Christian tribe, only control the highlands, about where the rhino’s ear would be. The top of the head is rebel territory, Eritrea and Tigre. East of there along the desert coast are the Afar, just possibly the scariest people of all the tribes of the Horn—when Amhara hear “Afar” they say “Not Afar enough!” A little tribal humor there, folks, ahem. Anyway, moving right along in this whole rhino-head thing that I’m already starting to regret getting started on, the rhino’s horn is all Somalis, and back along the jawline you’re getting into more Bantu, Central African people who speak Omoro.

OK? Enough rhino head? Me too. So OK, in 1974, right into the middle of this house of cards, or maybe bones held together with Elmer’s Glue—no, I’m not starting another rhino, damn it—into this mess steps the Derg, a secret conspiracy of 120 Ethiopian Commie army officers, mostly Tigrayan and Amharic, who are determined to mess up the one relatively stable part of the country, the Amharic highlands, by stomping the aristocracy, freeing the serfs and handing the land over to them. Surprise, surprise, it got ugly.
Tomorrow I’m going to continue this story and talk about a book I found that tells you what went on from the view of a kid who actually lived through it—worth a medal right there—and belonged to two different rebel factions, one Somali and one Amharic/Commie. It’s one of the best stories I know, and one of the best ways to understand what it’s like to grow up in a place a lot farther from where you live than Pluto.

Gary Brecher is the author of the War Nerd. Send your comments to

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