Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death Hardcover – Feb 9 2010
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"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 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."
“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
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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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.
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.
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.
The Battalion Commander Tom Kunk did not care about his soldiers one bit. His tactics were atrocious and failed to adjust the battalion's battle plan. His lack of professionalism was evident when he blamed the platoon when two of their soldiers were killed, and by the way he turned on the entire platoon when the scandal broke out. He tossed every single soldier under the bus. This is what happens when you put the village idiot in charge of a battalion. He is a disgrace to the Army.
A lower ranking officer was quoted as saying "For Tom Kunk, there were two types of people. There were ‘his boys’ and there were 'the other people.' And if you were one of ‘the other people’ it didn’t matter how great your performance was or what you did, he was going to punch you in the balls every chance that he had. Every time you sat down for a meeting, he was going to embarrass you."---Stellar leadership Tom!
What was worse was the Battalion Sergeant Major. He was more concerned about cigarette butts rather than general welfare issues. Before the unit deployed the company First Sergeants asked him to intervene. He failed as a Senior Noncommissioned Officer to take care of HIS soldiers! He should have asked how are his men are doing. Most of all he needed to show some moral courage and advise his Battalion Commander how that his approach was dangerous. Instead he let his moral cowardice get the best of him.
It has been said that there are no bad soldiers; only bad leaders. This book demonstrates that that quote was alive and well in the 1/502nd during their tour of duty in Iraq. This should be required reading for future leaders on what happens when incompetent, self-serving leaders are placed in charge!
When I was finished with this book. All I wanted to do is ask Kunk how does he sleep at night?
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