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Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death Hardcover – February 9, 2010
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This painstaking and balanced book studies the experience of one airborne platoon in Iraq’s deadly “Black Triangle,” where U.S. forces have racked up a larger number of casualties than in any other area of the country. The stress of combat on the platoon eventually led to what can be described only as a war crime, in which rape and murder overtook an entire Iraqi family. Frederick’s thorough research makes this a dense book, one not for the novice in studying the Iraq War or any other, but his compassion for all parties involved has enabled him to get an amount of cooperation from all of them that makes the book an exceptionally rich and valuable document of an aspect of the war the coverage of which is not always free from political bias or just plain sloppiness. Although not for the beginner, this is a valuable addition to any serious study of this war. --Roland Green
'Riveting. . . A narrative that combines elements of 'In Cold Blood' and 'Black Hawk Down' with a touch of 'Apocalypse Now' as it builds toward its terrible climax....Frederick's extraordinary book is a testament to a misconceived war, and to the ease with which ordinary men, under certain conditions, can transform into monsters. . . . Extraordinary.' —New York Times Book Review
“Meticulous. . . . Demands to be read.” —Washington Post 'Frederick, taking the story through to the surprising effect of the beheadings, the conclusion of the war crime trials and the impact that they had on the Iraqi relatives of the slain and the members of Bravo Company, tells the complex story in raw, compassionate and exact detail. Black Hearts should be taught at West Point, Annapolis, and wherever else the styles and consequences of combat leadership are studied.' —HuffingtonPost.com
“Gripping. . . . A model of extended reportage on a multifaceted subject.” —Chicago Sun-Times
'Panoramic. . . . Gritty.' —Chicago Tribune
“Black Hearts shows how a broken system broke its men. . . . Engrossing and enraging, a chronology of combat and crime reported with compassion.' —Army Times
“Every military leader should read Black Hearts. With empathy and clear-eyed understanding, Frederick reveals why some men fail in battle, and how others struggle to redeem themselves. An absorbing, honest and instructive investigation into the nature of leadership under stress.” —Bing West, author of The Village and The Strongest Tribe
'Intense. . . . Fast-paced and highly detailed, this volume is difficult to put down. ' —Publishers Weekly, starred review, 'Pick of the Week'
'Frederick’s...compassion for all parties involved has enabled him to get an amount of cooperation from all of them that makes the book an exceptionally rich and valuable document of an aspect of the war the coverage of which is not always free from political bias or just plain sloppiness.'
'Harrowing account of the atmospherics, commission and aftermath of a war crime. In March 2006, deployed in the south of Baghdad, the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division faced a countryside in uproar. Arguably the most dangerous spot in an extremely dangerous country, the Triangle of Death featured IEDs that made every Humvee ride “an exercise in terror” and a civilian population indistinguishable from the death-dealing armed militias. With too few men to mount proper patrols and suicide car bombings and videotaped beheadings circulating to instill an extra bit of horror, every soldier had to endure constant stress and resist hating the very people they were charged with protecting. Relying on scores of interviews with soldiers and Iraqis, journals, letters, classified reports and investigations, Frederick carefully reconstructs the events that led to the breakdown of 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, when four soldiers raped and killed an Iraqi girl and murdered her family. War atrocities, of course, are as old as Achilles’ rage, and why particular soldiers succumb to madness and surrender their honor, while others who have undergone the same hardships don’t, remains a mystery. Still, the author answers the questions he can, plumbing 1st Platoon’s psychological isolation, a consequence of having three of their leaders killed in a two-week period, the resulting disarray compounded by a leadership vacuum and by constant, invidious comparisons by senior officers with Bravo’s other platoons. Their heightened sense of self-pity, the belief that they faced unevenly distributed risks and the perceived disrespect or indifference of high command—all these factors created the conditions that led to an unspeakable crime. While never absolving the four perpetrators of their individual responsibility, Frederick makes clear that the atrocity had identifiable antecedents and spreads blame much wider than four out-of-control GIs. A riveting picture of life outside the wire in Iraq, where '[y]ou tell a guy to go across a bridge, and within five minutes he’s dead.''
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
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The 1/502 battalion commander was clearly a 'nut job' of the first order; the company commander weak and woefully inadquate as a unit leader. The expected NCO leadership within the platoon was noticeably absent. There was a systemic failure of leadership from battalion down to squad level.
It is easy to critize the platoon, but the real responsibility rests at the top - the President and SecDef Rumsfeld - for giving the division an unstated mission, with no clear guidence, and inadequate resources. I was there in Iraq at the same time (Dec. 2004-May 2006), to include the time of the "abduction" of the three soldiers from first platoon. It is not easy to explain to the reader the complex, uncertain political-military situation that existed at the time, or the oppressive heat, dust, and general stench of Iraq, or the deepening distrust and dislike that developed between U.S. forces and the Iraqis. IEDs were the main source of frustration - and it was widely believed that Iraqi army and police forces were active participants in the planning and execution of the insurgent IED campaign. The longer one stayed in Iraq, the less trust and goodwill was extended to the Iraqis.
Frederick does an excellent job in tying together the "big picture" with the day to day activities of the first platoon, that will eventually result in the rape and murder of an Iraqi family. Frederick lays out this sordid crime in detail. It was this rape/murder, coupled with the significant breach in security and lack of supervision that shortly thereafter resulted in the "abduction" of the three soldiers from the first platoon.
There was a very well written short article by former lieutenant Frederick Downs called "Death and the Dark Side of Command" that was published in Parameters some twenty years ago. Frederick's work Black Hearts just reinforces in greater detail Downs' earlier observation that some soldiers in the U.S. Army are deceitful, untrustworthy, malcontents, criminal in conduct, and even pschopathic in personality. It is the responsibility of the chain of command to identify and separate these persons at the earliest opportunity.
Clearly, the battalion and company chain of command failed to provide the proper leadership needed during the deployment. First platoon B-1/502 was in many respects a disaster just waiting to happen. It finally happened one day in March 2006 when this disfunctional unit went badly off-course.
I found Black Hearts to be military writing of the highest order. One of the best books to come out of the Iraq war to date. Anyone interested in small unit leadership will want to read this book.