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Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death [Hardcover]

Jim Frederick
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

Feb. 9 2010
This is the story of a small group of soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division’s fabled 502nd Infantry Regiment—a unit known as “the Black Heart Brigade.” Deployed in late 2005 to Iraq’s so-called Triangle of Death, a veritable meat grinder just south of Baghdad, the Black Hearts found themselves in arguably the country’s most dangerous location at its most dangerous time.

Hit by near-daily mortars, gunfire, and roadside bomb attacks, suffering from a particularly heavy death toll, and enduring a chronic breakdown in leadership, members of one Black Heart platoon—1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion—descended, over their year-long tour of duty, into a tailspin of poor discipline, substance abuse, and brutality.

Four 1st Platoon soldiers would perpetrate one of the most heinous war crimes U.S. forces have committed during the Iraq War—the rape of a fourteen-year-old Iraqi girl and the cold-blooded execution of her and her family. Three other 1st Platoon soldiers would be overrun at a remote outpost—one killed immediately and two taken from the scene, their mutilated corpses found days later booby-trapped with explosives.

Black Hearts is an unflinching account of the epic, tragic deployment of 1st Platoon. Drawing on hundreds of hours of in-depth interviews with Black Heart soldiers and first-hand reporting from the Triangle of Death, Black Hearts is a timeless story about men in combat and the fragility of character in the savage crucible of warfare. But it is also a timely warning of new dangers emerging in the way American soldiers are led on the battlefields of the twenty-first century.

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Review

"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 is a gripping account of a single incident involving some of the most despicable actions by U.S. soldiers since the My Lai massacre in Vietnam....It would be good for our nation and our military if the examples of bad leadership exposed by Jim Frederick in BLACK HEARTS become a subject of study in our military education system."
Military Review

“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."
Booklist

"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
 

About the Author

JIM FREDERICK is a contributing editor at Time magazine. He was previously a Time senior editor in London and, before that, the magazine’s Tokyo bureau chief. He is coauthor, with former Army Sergeant Charles Robert Jenkins, of The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea. He lives in New York City.

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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover
Too many who are appalled at descriptions of war - will consent to the next one. All those with a humanitarian perspective should read this before they consent to the next Kosovo or Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya or Syria... Objective writing is not the only honest way to do good journalism - but if you look at reviews on Amazon.com from members of the same Company as the Blackhearts in Iraq... you will see this is very good objective journalism. Be prepared for some descriptive writing without moral or emotional narrative. Let the objectivity sink in... then consider carefully the morality of the next war you are asked to support. It won't be different... and if you want to support it see if you can sign up yourself to get your own legs blown off in the service of humanity.
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Amazon.com: 4.6 out of 5 stars  111 reviews
108 of 110 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars WOW. Feb. 10 2010
By just another PTSD statistic - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
68 of 70 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic, Accurate, Raw April 14 2010
By Ryan M. Crosby - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
44 of 48 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An imperfect storm: Superbly written account of what went disastrously wrong in Yusufiyah Feb. 12 2010
By Kirk L. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A punch in the gut March 19 2010
By Nathan Webster - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
29 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic...riveting Feb. 9 2010
By B.D. Saur - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
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