Book Review: Black Hearts

The Washington Post

I’ve become a serial highlighter when I read, as if I’m studying for an exam. It helps me organize my thoughts, of which I had plenty as I read Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent Into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death. As I started this book, I marked the following passage in bright yellow, a quote from an Army lawyer looking into one of the ugliest American war crimes this side of My Lai:

America has no idea what is going on with this war. I’m only twenty miles away, and most of the people on (Camp) Victory have no idea how bloody the fight is down there. What that company is going through, it would turn your hair white.

Black Hearts is the book I didn’t want to read but had to – in order to better understand how the best of intentions and efforts at leadership can sometimes fall far short of what’s needed in the most desperate of times. This is a must-read for future leaders at all levels, if not for today’s conflicts, than for the next ones. That Army lawyer quoted above (based at cushy, secure Camp Victory) was right at least in my case – although I read the news and watched CNN while back home, I certainly had no idea how bad things were in Iraq in 2005-2006, when Iraq was spiraling out of control from sectarian violence and attacks on U.S. forces.

The book documents the yearlong deployment of one Army rifle platoon in the Triangle of Death south of the capital city of Baghdad. The title comes from the nickname of the larger unit to which this platoon belongs, the 502nd Infantry Regiment of the famed 101st Airborne Division – informally the “Black Heart Brigade.” The unit arrived in the deadliest part of the country during the deadliest time of the war, as this linked 2004 feature in The Washington Post by my late boss, Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid, describes.

First Platoon of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion of the Black Hearts became infamous for two reasons:

In June 2006, Iraqi insurgents overran a checkpoint manned by soldiers of 1st Platoon. Insurgents killed one soldier, and kidnapped, tortured, killed and mutilated two others. Their beheaded bodies were found a few days afterward in an abandoned power plant, surrounded by IEDs.

– Two weeks later, four soldiers from the same platoon were implicated in the March 2006 rape of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, who was shot to death and set afire. Her parents and her younger sister were also killed. The men were eventually convicted of the crimes with sentences of up to life in prison.

Black Hearts, written by Time magazine writer Jim Frederick, attempts to answer what was on most people’s minds: What the hell happened?

The conditions under which these soldiers (particularly the men of Bravo Company) operated were unreal and elicits sympathy. Patrols absorbed multiple IED attacks every day and casualties piled up with each day in theater. Troop-to-task was woefully inadequate for Bravo Company’s violent area of operations, and their Iraqi Army counterparts were, at best, lazy and at worst, dangerous. The battalion commander fostered a toxic leadership climate, routinely humiliated his subordinate commanders in front of their men, and brooked no dissent. The company commanders were either not up to the task or the tasks were unrealistic given the operating environment. Every unit has its problems, but for this battalion, company and platoon, everything that could possibly go wrong did, at around the same time.

Frederick does an admirable job of telling the unit’s tale completely, from the commanders at higher headquarters to the individual soldiers’ stories and what made them all tick. Soldiers on that deployment have lauded the author’s work on Amazon.com (if we’re to believe they are who they say they are). A good interview with Frederick can also be found here, on Tom Ricks’ ForeignPolicy.com blog.

I’ve become very skeptical of military history books, particularly first-person memoirs and one-dimensional snapshots that fail to fully capture the essence of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Black Hearts has helped restore my faith in this genre because nothing is portrayed as an absolute. As Frederick writes in his prologue, war is full of good leaders who make poor decisions, and bad leaders who made good ones. This wasn’t lost on Black Hearts, and this fact shouldn’t be lost on any of us during our next trip outside the wire.

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About Chairman Mao

I like fomenting socialist revolutions and purging my homeland of pseudo-intellectualism and capitalist dogma. I also like sports, dogs and food (although I wouldn't consider myself a foodie).
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