Book Recommendation and Response: “Black Hearts” by Jim Frederick

15 June 2018

Note: I am an Amazon affiliate marketer, meaning I get a % of money from sales if you buy a book by clicking through its link, like this one: Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death. Thank you! I’m not directly paid by the publishers/authors, but when I recommend a book or movie, I see no reason not to put an affiliate link. 

Book Recommendation and Response: Black Hearts by Jim Frederick

"First Strike" insignia

Good evening,

I’ve been hard at work on my novel today. I’m going a lot further on the planning this time, using the “Snowflake Method” developed by Randal Ingermason. I’ll tell you more in the next few days, but this book will be a haunted house story, with well-developed characters and (hopefully) surprising twists.

But today on the blog, I want to talk about some real-life horror. It’s the story of a platoon of American soldiers, pushed too far in the brutal counterinsurgency warfare of 2005/2006 Iraq: underresourced, undermanned, and handed an unwinnable mission. The particular platoon came from the 101st Airborne Division’s legendary 502nd Infantry Regiment, aka “the Black Heart Brigade,” and was assigned to secure a village south of Baghdad, as part of a larger effort of protecting the country’s capital from insurgent infiltration.

The soldiers of that platoon lived in an intensity of war seldom seen in American history, “taking contact” virtually every single day in the form of roadside bombs, sniper fire, and mortar attacks. This onslaught all came from a ghost-like enemy that blended all-too-well into the very same population that the Americans were supposed to protect.

Ultimately, a small group of soldiers from that platoon took their bitterness-turned-to-hatred of the local civilians so far as to brutalize a random Iraqi family, committing vicious rape and cold-blooded murder, and then using fire to obscure the gruesome evidence.

How did such a crime occur? How could American soldiers, some of the best-trained and disciplined troops in the history of mankind, deployed on a mission of reconstruction and handoff rather than imperial conquest, come to commit such things? Where does the blame lie, aside from the obvious minimum of at the direct perpetrators’ feet? What could have prevented this injustice?

Investigative journalist Jim Frederick’s Black Hearts is his attempt to answer those questions. He takes a detailed look at what went so horribly wrong for so long as to allow such barbarity. He interviewed as many veterans of the Black Hearts as possible, as much as possible. Frederick does an admirable job of putting all the pieces together and analyzing them in the big picture, and in detail.

The resulting book shows both the tremendous capabilities of American soldiers, and the tremendous, critical reality of the violent madness that lurks in the heart of human beings, and which can be stirred and unleashed in the horrors of war. One is reminded of Apocalypse Now, and its inspiration, Heart of Darkness.

I read Black Hearts for an assignment in my Military Science class this most recent semester with ROTC. I wrote the following response to it. I got a good grade on it. It’ll make more sense to you after you read Frederick’s book:

Reviewing Black Hearts: Bad Strategy Exacerbated by Improper Battalion Leadership

The story told by Jim Frederick in Black Hearts is almost unbelievable. One wishes it wasn’t true, but the evidence of the crimes described is too strong to ignore. It is shocking that American Soldiers would commit such atrocities. But one can trace the failures of leadership through the chain of command to at least the Battalion level and find the causes for the extreme mental deterioration of the men of 1PLT/BCO/1BN/2BDE (“Black Hearts”) which culminated in the horrific rape and murder of the Janabi family. Essentially: the BN was overstretched in the Yusufiyah area South of Baghdad as a symptom of poor U.S. strategy that severely underestimated manpower needs across Iraq; LTC Kunk was willfully ignorant of the needs and challenges of his Company Commanders, and repeatedly demonstrated his preference for berating them rather than sincerely listening; as a result of these higher-level failures, 1PLT was overstretched for the mission and size of AO assigned to it, leading to overtaxing and under-security of its Soldiers; and down to the individual level, Soldiers’ resulting mental deterioration wasn’t taken seriously enough by Army mental health specialists or by NCOs and Lieutenants at the Team, Squad, and Platoon levels. Reallocation of combat units to the most troubled areas South of Baghdad, (that occupied by BCO,) and proper R&R and more serious mental health probes and responses for Soldiers (like Green) who expressed disturbing thoughts all could have likely prevented the massacre.

Without dwelling too much on the strategic level rather than direct level leadership, it’s important to note the ill-conceived nature of the American strategy in Iraq, especially the low troop numbers, and how this led to 1PLT finding itself so overstretched. In 1999, with high U.S./Iraqi tensions after the Gulf War, the NSC, DoD, CIA, and other agencies ran a war game called “Desert Crossing,” to examine the possibilities for regime change in Iraq. (Gordon and Trainor, pages 6-10) This exercise found that an overthrow of Saddam, with or without an American invasion, would likely lead to massive sectarian violence, intervention by neighboring states, and immense difficulty and expense for the U.S. to piece together a democratic government. When the U.S. actually did invade and attempt to occupy and rebuild Iraq, a country of 25 million people, with a little over 100,000 troops. Ambassador Jerry Bremer disbanded the 500,000-strong Iraqi army and national police, and kicked from office many more bureaucrats whose only crime was being Baath Party members. The U.S. military lacked a counterinsurgency doctrine. Altogether, there weren’t enough American troops in-country to get the job done, and strategic mistakes made those troops’ jobs more difficult than they had to be.

This failure fell hard on the “First Strike” BN of LTC Kunk, tasked with occupying the greater Yusufiyah area south of Baghdad, keeping the routes there clear of IEDs, denying insurgents access to Baghdad, protecting the locals from insurgent violence, killing the insurgents, building good relationships with the locals, and training and setting up new Iraqi Army units to take over security. This was a lot to ask of one infantry BN, who had to both maintain its own security with patrols and traffic control points, and work towards the longer-term goal of friendly Iraqi governance and security hand-off, all while giving the Soldiers enough rest time to stay combat effective.

LTC Kunk made his task even harder than it needed to be, and hurt his own men, by demonstrating horrible leadership habits. (Note the entire chapter “The Kunk Gun.”) He publicly berated his Company Commanders, leading to them becoming timid and unwilling to speak up about problems and ideas in meetings. (First discussed pages 34-35; also described throughout the book too many times to count.) When Officers and NCOs were obviously already feeling depressed, guilty, and angry about the deaths of men under their command, Kunk would instantly start berating them about uniform standards or how their supposedly lax security had led to their men’s deaths. While it is important for commanders to keep everyone in their units in proper discipline, including uniform, it would have been dramatically more helpful for Kunk to first listen to what challenges Goodwin and other COs were facing, and find out why “The Alamo” looked like shit, or why it was so important that 1PLT get proper fortification supplies ASAP, or why Soldiers isolated out at undermanned TCPs for days on end were getting “lax” about their helmets, vests, and mental awareness. Kunk was too quick to blame BCO and especially 1PLT for the horrible experience they were having compared to his other companies, without even trying to allocate more troops to their AO, which had clearly become a particular hotspot of insurgent violence.

The accelerating violence in December 2005, especially the murder of Nelson and Casica by an Iraqi civilian with a handgun (Frederick, page 139) accelerated the mental deterioration of the 1PLT Soldiers, who increasingly saw all Iraqis as the enemy. One may find it inevitable that some broadly hostile thoughts will develop in all counterinsurgency operations, but, we also know that 1PLT was severely overstretched with all the TCPs and route patrols they had to maintain at all times, without enough truly secure rest, and this would likely worsen psychological effects. PFC Green did, at the prodding of SSG Miller, (one example of good NCO troop-care) talk to LTC Marrs from Combat Stress. In his evaluation, he expresses to her his suicidal and homicidal thoughts, and his open desire to kill as many Iraqis as possible. This is after he’d expressed alarmingly hateful thoughts to other Soldiers repeatedly, far above and beyond usual Soldier complaining and venting. Marrs didn’t seem to take Green’s thoughts seriously, and just gave him some insomnia pills, and the concept of some vague further counseling in the future. (Pages 157-159.) The fact that there wasn’t more concern for and about Green’s seemingly psychotic thoughts reflects bad individual leadership on the parts of the NCOs and even fellow lower enlisted closest to Green. But, one should never forget the blame at the feet of LTC Kunk, under resourcing his most troubled company: the cumulative results of this seem to have made it hard for 1PLT members to “see above” their own horrible feelings and realize how dangerous Green had become. On the topic of Green, it’s noteworthy that the PFC got a half hour meeting with COL Ebel (2BDE commander) and expressed persistent thoughts and actual questions about shooting all the Iraqis, and that COL Ebel wasn’t alarmed, especially given the context of his unit’s condition. LTs Norton and Fisher share in the responsibility of not identifying extremely disaffected Soldiers like Green and removing them from the AO, but, they were also busy requesting more general tactical help from Higher, and being ignored on those requests.

In the end, after the rape and murders of the Janabi family, it was the humble Private Watt, rather than Sergeant Yribe, who finally blew the whistle on the whole grisly affair. (Pages 318-319.) And, predictably though disappointingly, LTC Kunk didn’t take the accusations seriously (page 323) and proceeded to severely berate 1PLT as they were mourning their dead comrades. (Pages 326-328.) Page 328 critically describes the way that official blame was all pushed on the Company and Platoon level, for not maintaining proper accountability and standards.

Overall, the experience of 1PLT at Yusufiyah is among the worst reflections of the under resourcing and poor strategic planning embodied in the Bush administration’s plans for invading and remaking Iraq, and, 1PLT’s situation was made abysmally worse by lack of useful attention at the battalion level. If the 101st had been able to deploy in greater mass like the the 10th Mountain later did as part of General Patreus’ and President Bush’s “Surge” strategy, (page 351-357) the troops would have had better security, more rest, and more energy to focus on completing their mission, leading to less psychological damage. When multiple incidents proved that 1PLT of BCO was in the toughest AO of Kunk’s BN, the calls for reinforcement were ignored, and the blame for problems was shoved back down to PLT leadership. When psychological deterioration and outright psychopathy became apparent in Green and other Soldiers, one sees that the Platoon’s NCOs, junior officers, the Army psychologists tasked with treating these problems, and even a brigade commander, didn’t realize and respond to the growing risk of atrocities with the needed decisiveness to prevent what ultimately occurred.

Sources:

  1. Frederick, Jim. (2010.) Black Hearts. New York City, NY. Harmony Books.
  2. Gordon, Michael R., and Gen. Trainor, Bernard E. (2013.) The End Game: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama. New York City, NY: Vintage Books

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Next time, I’ll talk about more fun types of scary and fucked up things. Like ghosts or sea serpents.

Sincerely,

-Geoff

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