Images of U.S. prisoners may fix ire on Somalia

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Suddenly, U.S. intervention in Somalia has a face.

It is the battered, wide-eyed face of Michael Durant, 32, an Army helicopter pilot held prisoner by the same Somali warlord whose followers on Monday victoriously dragged the body of a dead U.S. soldier through the streets of Mogadishu.


For many Americans, it's impossible at a time like this not to remember other faces: Terry Anderson in Beirut, Jeffrey Zaun in Iraq, James B. Stockdale in Vietnam.

Just as in those cases, the capture of Mr. Durant and possibly seven more U.S. soldiers is almost certain to galvanize U.S. anger, turn attention away from domestic issues such as health care and turn attention back to the U.S. mission in Somalia.


The horrific images could help change the course of events, even delaying withdrawal while Mr. Durant and possibly others are held hostage.

"We're dealing with a prisoner-of-war situation that could be more nasty than any we've seen, a vicious hostage-taking," says Robert Kupperman, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

H. Bruce Franklin, a Rutgers University professor who has examined the issue of unaccounted-for soldiers in Vietnam, says: "The image of the prisoner of war has become a central psycho-cultural symbol in American society. . . . Any person who couldn't have cared less about what we were doing in Somalia is now going to get very agitated about an American being held hostage."

The fates of Mr. Durant and other missing U.S. soldiers remained unknown yesterday. President Clinton called the dragging of two soldiers' bodies through the streets "reprehensible." A Defense Department spokeswoman referred to Mr. Durant as a "detainee," not a POW, and refused to outline what U.S. troops are doing to win his release.

But Ann Mills Griffiths, executive director of the National League of Families, a POW-MIA advocacy group in Washington, says the capture of Mr. Durant, the father of a 1-year-old boy from Clarksville, Tenn., is sure to have an impact on debate about the U.S. role in Somalia, a mission originally initiated in response to countrywide starvation but more recently focused on the capture of faction leader Mohamed Farah Aidid.

"You'll see an inclination to go one way or the other," Ms. Griffiths says. "Go in and get it done and get out or just get out."

Indeed, that debate escalated yesterday as members of Congress began demanding a firm date for a withdrawal. Gary Sick, a former national security aide to President Jimmy Carter, says pressure to leave Somalia was already building before the footage was released. But the scenes of a soldier's body dragged by ropes may become the image that cements opinion, he says. "People had questions to begin with, and now they may focus on such a graphic and powerful picture," he said.