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Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death Paperback – February 1, 2011
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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"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.”
"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."
“Gripping. . . . A model of extended reportage on a multifaceted subject.”
"Panoramic. . . . Gritty."
“Black Hearts shows how a broken system broke its men. . . . Engrossing and enraging, a chronology of combat and crime reported with compassion."
“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
From the Hardcover edition.
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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). :)
Because of the feckless Bush and his war-mongers, we have close to 5,000 American military dead today and counting.
This book is a brilliant and unsparing account of the appalling lack of leadership, information, strategy and planning shown by the American military beginning at the top, where the buck always stops.