- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 18, 2001

By Owen West
Simon and Schuster, $24, 316 pages

The U.S. Marine Corps had two periods of activity in Somalia during the United States/United Nations intervention between 1993 and 1995. The first was the hurried emergency humanitarian aid mission dubbed Operation Restore Hope from December, 1992, to May of 1993. The second was the mission to cover the U.N. withdrawal from Mogadishu in the winter of 1995. In both cases, the Marines left the African continent feeling that they had accomplished their mission. This is in sharp contrast to the experience of U.S. and U.N. soldiers who served in Operation Continue Hope, the U.N. led operation that the two Marine involvements straddled.
The Corps as an institution looks on Somalia as a success, but to the Marine infantry who carried out the day-to-day missions of protecting relief supplies and enforcing an uneasy truce between rival Somali factions, it could seem like a hellhole. "Sharkman Six" is Owen West's novel about the earliest phase of the Somali intervention. It is a grunt's-eye view that does a creditable job of capturing the sights, smells and feel of the mean streets of Mogadishu.
Mr. West's story is told from the viewpoint of the commander of a Marine Force Reconnaissance platoon which runs almost immediately into surreal reality of "operations other than war" in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the half-century long Cold War. As the platoon attempts to come ashore covertly to scout the Somali shoreline for a larger Marine amphibious landing during the initial Marine foray in December, 1992, they run into horde of reporters with lights blazing who have been tipped off as to the time and place of the landing by the Pentagon press office.
In the ensuing chaos, an armed Somali who has been hired by NBC as a bodyguard is killed by one of the Marines. The Somali was clearly where he wasn't supposed to be, but his press pass mysteriously disappears before the inevitable ensuing investigation. It should be noted that the incident with the reporters actually happened, the killing is fiction.
What follows is a story of moral dilemma wrapped in a fast paced and highly readable novel format. One of the reporters feels it her duty to reveal what she sees as the coverup of a murder, while the Marines view the disappearance of the press pass as protecting a buddy who they believe acted rightly in killing an armed individual who was approaching their position from an unauthorized direction.
Against this backdrop, the Marines begin to carry out their often confusing and always frustrating mission of feeding the Somalis and patrolling the city in the midst of Somali factions that clearly resent their intervention. The lieutenant and his charges deal with very restrictive rules of engagement, uncertain allies, and a Somali population that is volatile at best and vicious at any provocation real or imagined.
Mr. West has caught the feel of the Somali intervention and the clash of cultures between the Marines and the Somalis who prove to have much in common when the shooting starts. The Somalis are a cruel and ruthless people who reflect the bleak realities of the land that spawned them. The Marines have a well deserved 200-year plus reputation for being cruel and ruthless when the mission demands it. The Marines prove to be far better marksmen.
For a first novel, Mr. West has done a credible job of drawing complex characters who have virtues and flaws that make them very real. With the exception of the leaders of a Somali faction that inhabit the neighborhood where the Marines patrol and an Italian general, Mr. West resists the temptation to draw caricatures or create two-dimensional cardboard targets even among the "bad guys." The author is a Marine Corps veteran who has attempted Everest and is currently navigating the rough seas of Wall Street as a broker. He has packed a lot of living into a little over a quarter-century of existence.
The book is not perfect. The author gets the U.S.-U.N. chain of command wrong, but this will be transparent to the casual reader and will not likely unduly distract Somalia vets or students of the intervention. Some readers will be put off by the casual profanity of the young Marines in the platoon, as is their battalion commander who attempts to eradicate foul language from the ranks. He soon finds that trying to make infantrymen talk like schoolgirls is somewhat like teaching pigs to dance. Everybody gets frustrated and the pigs never get to the prom.
In the end, the lieutenant is asked to make a serious sacrifice for duty, honor and the Corps and there is an epic gunfight that will satisfy even the most hard-core readers of military literature.
"Sharkman Six" visits some of the more complex issues associated with the kind of small wars that American have found themselves involved in since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The novel is a welcome addition to the small body of retrospective literature on the Somalia intervention that began with the "Blackhawk Down."

Gary Anderson was seconded to the U.S. Liaison Office to Operation Continue Hope in Somalia during the summer of 1993 as a military advisor

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