on February 10, 2010
When I started to read this book I wasn't sure if I would like what i was about to read. But being in bravo during this deployment i had to know what really happened and most importantly, how it happened. I wondered if my memories of the deployment would differ from what was in the book. i was so relieved to see the truth, however horrible it was. i literally couldn't put it down. I think this book will help people to understand what everyone in battalion had to endure throughout the deployment, especially Bco.
To extend the conversation of comments:
Todd J. Harmon says:
so you agree with the facts of the book?
Yes, completely. It's funny when I was reading the book, I could have sworn that the guy who wrote this had to have been there with us, because it was the only way he could have been so dead on with everything. It is really a testament to how well he did his research. I haven't heard anything negative about the book from anyone who has read it and was actually there. I've read several books on Iraq and none go as far into the dynamics of the unit as much as this book does.
To explain one part of my initial review that said "But being in bravo during this deployment I had to know what really happened and most importantly, how it happened." I wanted to give some context. I was in Bravo company the entire deployment and in June of 2006 was moved to first platoon, two weeks before the attack on the Alamo and before the information about the crimes that were committed came out. We had such a high tempo in our company for meeting battalion's demands that the platoons rarely spoke to each other more than when we would pass guard at the TCP's and at the JSB. The only things that were on the minds for the lower enlisted (second to operations) were about down time, when we could shower, get on the internet, etc. I was a team-leader when I was transferred and these things were always the second thought. Being an outsider (initially) and watching the events that are in the book unfold, I was completely beside myself. I thought, "how could things have gone so completely wrong without the rest of us even suspecting." I looked back in my memories to think of things that would implicate the downward spiral, but the almost complete isolation because of the high tempo made it impossible to make any connections...
His ability to do the research and make the connections even though he wasn't there, when many of us were, makes this book that much more important.
on April 14, 2010
I was assigned to MiTT Team 4 (2nd BCT, 101st ABN) and lived/worked/fought with all the men in this book from 2005-2006; I knew them well enough to know they wouldn't pull any punches and Jim Frederick did a great job of capturing the madness of the 2005-2006 deployment. What matters to me more than anything is that the fight that those guys fought was recorded for posterity while it was still fresh; their sacrifices and their risks and their love for each other were overshadowed by the awful events of a few, and all of their hard work was overshadowed by what followed. We hear Fallujah and Tal Afar talked about as household names but no one knows about Rusdi Mullah, the JSB and Route Sportster-- no one who wasn't there and suffered through it...except those who read this book.
Well written, and no pulled punches. Everyone takes their lumps equally-- Ebel, Kunk, Goodwin, Norton, Fenalson-- all of them are part of this and no one gets off scot free. Even so, no one is painted as the only bad leader or the only good apple in the bunch. He captures the aspects of all of them-- Kunk's personality, Captain Goodwin sleeping in his plaid flannel pajama pants in his folding chair in the TOC, Fenalson's demeanor, the frustration of the platoon sergeants, the anger of the men, the sense of hopelessness...it is as real as it gets. I could almost hear the crackle of the radios, hear Sergeant Loper on the mic in the TOC or SFC Laskoski telling someone they were stupid or hear Biggers laugh as someone was caught doing something stupid on the J-Lens.
The criminals who raped and killed are portrayed accurately, too-- shown for all that they were and were not and the leadership decisions that were made or failed to be made that directly led to the events of February 2006. The author does a great job of humanizing an inhuman act. It was all right there, in the book.
I had to put the book down several times and take a break. I would have loved to read it cover to cover but it was like drinking from an emotional firehose. So much came rushing back. I've been to the house where the rape occurred and seen the burn marks; I've sat on the TCPs on Sportster; I've drank crappy coffee at the TCP on the corner of Mulla Fayad. I know the places and the men and the author captures them as well as possible.
If you are a veteran of OIF, served south of Baghdad or were in an infantry company at war, this book will be like gazing into your past. If you are a vet of the Strike Brigade-- especially First Strike-- and have not confronted your personal demons before reading this book, this may be too much to handle on your own. I was glad to have my wife and friends who served there too so I could talk about what I was remembering; it is a very real and personal book that I highly recommend to anyone who was there, or wants to know what it was like.
on February 12, 2010
Jim Frederick's "Black Hearts" chronicles two headline-grabbing, extremely negative events from the Iraq War in 2006: the ambush and murder of three 101st Screaming Eagles soldiers near Yusufiyah and then the news of a horrific murder-rape of a teenage Iraqi girl, who was murdered along with her parents and five-year-old sister by four troops from the same unit.
I had just returned from a combat tour in Iraq in late 2005, and was therefore intrigued by the backstory of the two events not so evident in the immediate news accounts and coverage of the soldiers' violent deaths and those of the Iraqi civilians. I hoped this book would put that unit's challenges and struggles in context. It does just that and more, telling an important story in what I feel is a balanced, even-handed manner.
Frederick interviewed just about everyone involved from the platoon level all the way up through brigade and while the actions of the leaders and individuals is often damning, one can never truly comprehend the kind of stress these men were under.
Frederick's book lays out the facts and details surrounding the platoon of Army soldiers involved, and how failures of leadership at nearly every level, exacerbated by a herculean and often undefined mission in one of the most dangerous places in Iraq at the time, came together to form an imperfect storm out of which one unit of about 30 troops found themselves at the center of a disastrous deployment, and one that had a negative strategic impact on U.S. efforts there at a time when the Iraq War was spiraling out of control.
The book is powerful because it deftly tells the story of an infantry platoon that seemed set up for failure from the get-go. It reveals that the men and women of our military are not infallible, and that yes, the ranks are seeded with those who lack the morals and values that we as Americans expect from our warriors. And while 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1-502d had its bad apples, Frederick also brings out the stories of those soldiers who were there and did their level best in a tough situation.
This is not a good news story, but it's one that needs to be told. War is an ugly business carried out by imperfect people, but I think that Frederick handles the events the right way in what is a well-written, fast-paced account. It's tough not to sit in judgment of those involved after reading a book such as this, but I respect the author's attempts to give everyone their say.
Not everyone is going to appreciate this book or its conclusions. I would imagine those closest to the protagonists may have some issues with Frederick's portrayals of the people and events. But, having served under and with personalities Frederick described like the battalion commander, sergeant major, company commander and platoon sergeant, as well as some of the soldiers at the heart of the events, I can certainly see how so much could go wrong in Yusufiyah the way it did. I wasn't there, but those who were know the real truth.
I suspect that Frederick's book is pretty close.
on August 20, 2010
While reading this book. I found myself becoming more and more frustrated and angry with the lack of solid leadership that was on displayed during the units rotation to Iraq. There are two culprits to this criminal act:
The Battalion Commander Tom Kunk did not care about his soldiers one bit. His tactics were atrocious and failed to adjust the battalion's battle plan. His lack of professionalism was evident when he blamed the platoon when two of their soldiers were killed, and by the way he turned on the entire platoon when the scandal broke out. He tossed every single soldier under the bus. This is what happens when you put the village idiot in charge of a battalion. He is a disgrace to the Army.
A lower ranking officer was quoted as saying "For Tom Kunk, there were two types of people. There were ‘his boys’ and there were 'the other people.' And if you were one of ‘the other people’ it didn’t matter how great your performance was or what you did, he was going to punch you in the balls every chance that he had. Every time you sat down for a meeting, he was going to embarrass you."---Stellar leadership Tom!
What was worse was the Battalion Sergeant Major. He was more concerned about cigarette butts rather than general welfare issues. Before the unit deployed the company First Sergeants asked him to intervene. He failed as a Senior Noncommissioned Officer to take care of HIS soldiers! He should have asked how are his men are doing. Most of all he needed to show some moral courage and advise his Battalion Commander how that his approach was dangerous. Instead he let his moral cowardice get the best of him.
It has been said that there are no bad soldiers; only bad leaders. This book demonstrates that that quote was alive and well in the 1/502nd during their tour of duty in Iraq. This should be required reading for future leaders on what happens when incompetent, self-serving leaders are placed in charge!
When I was finished with this book. All I wanted to do is ask Kunk how does he sleep at night?
on February 9, 2010
Black Hearts is the most extraordinary work of nonfiction. Jim Frederick tells the story of the entire deployment of a group of soldiers in the Triangle of Death who suffered the most terrible losses and were under attack almost every day. They lived outside the wire in "the most dangerous place at the most dangerous time" in Iraq. Black Hearts is not just for those who like war books, it's a book for anyone who wants to read about characters, about human character, how it is tested, about how war really is (some passages are difficult to read, so raw and real), how humans interact, how they behave under the kind of pressure most of us will never have to suffer. This book is for anyone who wants to read a beautifully crafted tale, sensitively and fairly handled. You feel as if you were there, watching the soldiers the whole time, willing them to step back two inches, a step that would spare the insurgent a clean shot; urging leaders to choose this course of action, not the one that results in yet more losses, with little overall gain; urging those who ended up committing the worst crimes of the war to hold back, to dig deeper, find the good in their character, to spare the innocent Iraqis their lives, their brothers-in-arms the inevitable tainted-by-association. Black Hearts is about leadership, about friendship, about the extraordinary tests on the character of a person, why those who endure the same things cope, or don't. It's about why some people choose to behave the way they do. (The chapter on the rape of the girl and murder of her family by 4 soldiers --all now in jail in the US -- is extremely difficult to stomach.) There's nothing Hollywood -- though it would make the most incredible movie actually -- or sanitized about Black Hearts, so real are the characters and images conveyed. We need to know this is what war is without, thankfully, not debating the been-there-done-that pros and cons of going into this particular war. This is the best and most emotive book, not just war book but book, I have read in years. Some scenes made me weep openly. It has changed the way I think about men at war, about character, good and bad, right and wrong, how not every leader is a good one, not every soldier is a hero -- a point Frederick makes very well, -- mostly because soldiers and leaders are human, too. But it also makes you realize how an army needs to sort those who can lead from those who obviously cannot, that is those whose errors in judgment have catastrophic consequences, those whose orders decide whether people live or die and, for those that live, how they live, how they cope, how they work within the larger group, how they rebuild their lives outside the wire, inside, if they're lucky enough, and how they deal when they return home. This is stuff we need to know and think about. It would be an amazing book were it fiction. The fact it is not makes it all the more riveting and shocking. Frederick is an extremely talented writer. I absolutely recommend Black Hearts to all Amazon customers.
on October 29, 2011
Once I got this book, I wasn't sure if I would be able to read it. I was in C co. (The People's Army) during this deployment, and was tasked out to be part of the Iron Claw team that covered the whole battalion's and sometimes other battalion's AO. During this whole deployment, we traveled up and down Sportster and Fatboy a lot, and it was plainly evident that B co had it rough, I remember thinking, I hate doing this Iron Claw s***, but I'm glad I wasn't do that s*** (TCPs).
This story is a clearly shows how bad things can get and just how quickly things can get that way. In this case, the lack of leadership and support from company, battalion and brigade, the rise in insurgency in the area, having to live like animals literally on the side of the road, and dealing with an ROE that is causing your friends to die and enemy to get away. All of this was the "perfect storm" for something to go horribly wrong and it did.
We all felt that battalion and brigade were purposely trying to get us all killed and it was clear that they would rather you got blown up on foot rather than destroy a vehicle! They cared more about the HMMWVs than they cared about the lives of their men. We had air assets with weapon systems that would have made our jobs a lot easier and safer for us soldiers on the ground, but when we asked if we can use them to destroy a house or something we were repeatedly told "NEGATIVE". It became a joke "Oh... One of us has to die first before we are allowed to use it."
The whole year for us was not a deployment to a combat zone; it was simply another season of the show "Survivor" the missions turned into "challenges" but the only difference was; we didn't get a chance to vote anyone off the show. Every time we got chewed up for something stupid we were waiting for Ashton Kutcher to jump up with a camera and yell "OHH... YOU JUST GOT KUNK'd!"
I'm not trying to making excuses for what happened that night, it made me look bad, it made the Army look bad and it made the whole country look bad and those few soldiers deserve much more than what they got. I just think that certain parts of the Chain of Command all the way up to brigade should have been hammered as well. They created the environment and I felt that it was only a matter of time before something terribly wrong was going to happen.
In closing it is a great read, anyone who is going to lead soldiers at any level in the military should have to read it. This is all history now and the only way to avoid repeating history is to understand it and learn from it.
The People's Army lives forever...
Most of the reviews present already hit most of the high points, but the book deserves another five-star review.
I went into it expecting more of a "true crime" focus on the rape-murder of the Iraqi civilians. I'm glad to say that while it's clearly an important part of this horrific deployment, it's placed in some sort of proper context. It really is the story of the platoon and company that those soldiers were members of, and not the other way around.
Frederick's achievement in reporting is really amazing. A reader really feels like they've gotten to appreciate what these men went through. And, for Frederick to have pulled all this together without being actually being embedded with the unit at the time is phenomanal. David Finkel wrote the excellent "The Good Soldiers," and was actually present with his subjects for much of their deployment. I would say that Frederick does just as good a job here of really showing these men "in their element" even though he wasn't actually with them at the time.
I've embedded as a freelance reporter in Iraq three times with infantry companies, though never in situations even 1/100th as awful as these soldiers were going through. The details of platoon dynamics were absolutely spot-on accurate; each time I went, I embedded with an infantry company similar to Bravo, and each time there was usually one platoon that wanted nothing to do with a reporter, another that was excited to have somebody new to talk with, and a third that was kind of in the middle. I sort of looked at these platoons the same way.
So, I could appreciate the dynamics of leadership making a lot of difference in how soldiers felt on any given day. The platoon leaders and sergeants really set the tone, and Frederick does a great job of capturing that importance. It's something that's hard to grasp until one sees it up close.
Facts and scenes like those above are what gave this book its credibility, at least for me. I never thought to myself, "wait, that doesn't sound right." It always did, as awful as that often was. That carried through the whole book.
This book will and should make a reader very angry. The men involved in the crime deserve their sentence - but I think it's unfair that Green bore the harshest sentence. He wasn't the highest ranking soldier present. The battalion commander, now a colonel, probably did a good job in other areas of his AO, but if a platoon and company are this broken, I can't see how he doesn't share a large segment of the blame. But who knows. And, those are legal and emotional questions not really relevant to Frederick's storytelling and informational achievement.
In the past few months, there have been several books - "The Good Soldiers," "They Fought for Each Other" - published that focus more on individual soldier's experiences, rather than on somewhat contrived "big battle" stories that try to make more out of specific engagements than they really deserve. I've never thought those books captured any honest aspect of this war.
Soldiers - and I'm an Army war veteran, too - are never all heroes, like the media likes to sometime present. They are men and women going OUT THERE to do a hard job. I don't think a soldier wants to be built up on a pedestal; I think they just want people to know the truth. This book is the kind of hard truth that people should know.
on July 17, 2010
There are two reasons I purchased this book. The first is that enough time has passed in the Iraq War that a well-researched author can start to provide some historical perspective on the various events of the war (including how unspeakable war crimes like this one can happen). The second is that I have known the author personally, though I've not spoken with him in well over a decade (we attended one of the same schools). People change as they go through life of course... The whole point of my stating this is to drive home the point that I have no agenda here and have never spoken to Jim about any professional project, including this one.
I simply discovered a book on Amazon that covers a subject I wanted to know more about, which happens to be written by an old classmate whom I always respected. Jim Frederick the editor was always honest, extremely diligent in his research and preparations for a project, and he was tireless. It seems, based on what I found in this book, Jim has lost none of those traits as an author. He has much to be proud of...
...I have to confess: I rarely read books of this length and when I do, it often takes me a good month to finish. Despite best intentions, my attention wanders or I get lazy and turn on the TV, etc. I read this book in 4 days. The story that Jim conveys is equal parts dismaying, tragic, and anger-inducing. There were even a few moments of muffled laughter as I tried to keep quiet while my wife slept (Army types are nothing if not supremely gifted with the expletives). But it was the kind of laughter you feel when you gather with friends and family after an unexpected death and start exchanging stories... you don't want to laugh because (in this case), what's happening through the 9 or so months of the deployment is anything but good, but somehow the mind copes with laughter. I would laugh and immediately feel regret because of what these men were dealing with on a daily basis (and surely many others like them in both Iraq and Afghanistan). Today, when I read "Allied soldiers killed in _____," it evokes a different reaction than it did 5 days ago. I was always sad to hear the news (and appreciative of their sacrifices), but now I am appreciative in a different way.
What I love about this book:
1) You get to know the men of Bravo... to understand from the moment they deployed until after it was over, what happened to them as individuals, and as a team that slowly became dysfunctional. You start to see the men for who they are, including several of the commanding officers. Mind you these are NOT judgements the author makes. Like any good journalistic writer, he laid out the facts as he understood them, so the reader can judge for themselves. To be honest, I'm not sure how he remained detached in his writing; I doubt I could have.
2) The gritty details: the heated dialogs; the total frustration of the men; the things they did every day; even the geography, poverty and unpredictability of the place they served. This is the right way to "keep it real" without going overboard or letting it become a gratuitous exercise in "shock value". In an ideal world, Jim should assemble a team to research and write an hour's worth of news for us every week; we'd all be a hell of a lot more educated and better off for it. So refreshing to skip the fluff, the vapid soundbites, and the spin that the mainstream (especially television) media crams down our throats. I learned more about the Iraq war in the last 4 days reading this book than the last four YEARS of watching the news. That says something both about the author and our television media. If you want to learn anything substantial, turn off the television and READ.
3) Gaining a better understanding of modern warfare... the confusion, the valor, the locals, the incompetence, all of it. You learn real quick the military is not the simple machine we are taught to believe, with four cogs or moving parts (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines) and everyone following orders all of the time. The human dynamics are laid bare and suddenly you understand: these aren't automatons... they are (mostly) well-meaning, dedicated, flawed, sometimes fearless, or even selfish and scared human beings. War is not only hell; it is human chaos and this book shows you why.
What could have been better:
1) The book was a bit difficult to follow in a few spots, partly because I don't have a great understanding of military hierarchies, and partly because there is quite a bit of back and forth as events unfold. It can be confusing to know who was where on the "org chart", who was responsible for which guys, etc. The good news is there is information in the back of the book about how the Army units are subdivided from Division down to the squad level, including typical ranks of those who lead each unit... but you don't know it's there until the end. Similarly there were only a couple maps. I think if the Army backgrounder were shown near the start of the story somewhere, and there were maps and pictures interspersed throughout (this was likely a publisher decision based on budgets and printing press issues), it would have been easier to follow.
2) Almost too large a cast of characters, however it is almost unavoidable because in order to truly understand the dynamic --which guys' decisions are acting upon the other players and what results-- you have to cover many people and understand their take on things as the story evolves.
3) Some chapters skip around too much. You get into one line of thinking, following a particular squad of guys, and then suddenly you jump to something (as a lay person) that seems unrelated, but which may not be. IOW it can be difficult to connect the dots at certain points. But never so much so that you lose the big picture; that sticks with you well after you put the book down for the night... that's why I read this in 4 days. I genuinely *needed* to understand what was happening as things lead up to this nightmare.
Overall, the minor flaws of this book are easily overlooked IMO. If you stick with it you will be rewarded with a better understanding of how it is these men and women sacrifice for their country (and for another country), as well as a better understanding of the military and how war crimes like this can take place. Definitely recommended if you have an interest in these types of subjects. This is NOT a work of fiction in any sense of the word, and is not about "entertainment", so if that's what you're looking for, go read whichever author has displaced Tom Clancy as the military novelist of the day (I honestly don't know the answer to that question). :)
on March 4, 2010
This book is an incredible look into the difficulties of one platoon in the triangle of death in Iraq. The narrative is strong, and the reader is literally on the edge of his seat during certain scenes. The story of the day to day lives of these soldiers, often attempting to achieve impossible tasks in an impossible place at an impossible time drives the book forward. It reads quite quick. The research is impressive and its obvious that Frederick has spent countless hours with most of the major participants in the book. Thematically, the book is also an extended examination about effective leadership. What makes an effective leader? How can a leadership style in one circumstance be effective but in another be literally deadly? How can effective leadership overcome some of the worst military circumstances our nation has seen in years and, conversely, how can ineffective leadership make that situation even worse. Frederick's book is an impressive achievement and I would recommend it to a wide range of readers. By writing a book that is much more than just a history of a time and place in the Iraq War, I believe he's written a text that will be read for years to come.
on February 16, 2010
My son was in B Company during this deployment to Iraq. From what he wrote to me while he was there, I could tell this book was an accurate collection of what was going on with 1/502nd and especially with the soldiers of B Company. How the commanders were more worried about picking up cigarette butts and whether the men were clean shaven and properly dressed than they were about them getting a few hours of shut-eye or some food in their stomachs before they had to go out and risk their lives again. It wasn't difficult to see how they would feel like they were the "forgotten" after requesting just the basic needs and being turned down time after time, and how silly it seemed to the soldiers that they had to have gravel at the Battalion so they wouldn't get their boots muddy was first priority! The combat stress team was totally ineffective - especially when the treatment of the day was Ambien and/or Seroquel and send them on their way. Even when red flags were sent up about Green, upper command dismissed it. Losing so many of their good friends day after day was taking a toll even on the guys that had been on several tours, let alone the first tour soldiers.
Thank you Jim Frederick for a glimpse into what these soldiers went through. The thought and honest interpretation of just what these guys were thinking and feeling rang true and I hope that people everywhere will get a chance to read your book.