Cannonball Read V: Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent Into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death by Jim Frederick
I've been meaning to read this book since I first heard about it three years ago when a friend of mine who had previously been stationed at Ft. Campbell was looking for it at Barnes and Noble. She actually knew one of the Soldiers mentioned in the book, though I can't remember who specifically it was or what that person's role had been. Still, knowing myself and how bad I am at actually reading things that could be considered part of my professional development, I waited for the book to come out in paperback before purchasing it, and then let it languish in my to read pile for a long period of time. Last spring/summer, my BDE CDR at the time had all the company commanders read and watch War and Restrepo, and then had us get together to discuss them. He said he planned to do it again, and that the next book would be Black Hearts. I PCS'ed before that session occurred, but it was good to hear that my BDE CDR thought this would be a worthwhile read, especially since I already had the book.
I finally got around to reading it this month, and I have to say I really enjoyed it. In fact, I prefer this book to Sebastian Junger's War, though War is the one I've seen referenced much more often and is definitely more well known. As Frederick writes in the foreword, in June 2006, the kidnapping and killing of three US Soldiers made headlines in the United States. Only a few weeks later, four Soldiers were implicated in the rape and murder of an Iraqi family. It was only later that Frederick realized that both of these new stories involved men from the same platoon. As a result, he became interested in discovering what exactly was going on in that one group of about 35 men that would lead to two events like this. He begins by tracking down the men of 1st Platoon and interviewing them, but as his research and conversations progress, his circle widens, first to include interviews with men in the other platoons in the company, to discussions with the other companies in the battalion, and of course the battalion and brigade leadership. He also talks to the Iraqi family's surviving relatives, and other Iraqis.
This book presents a rather clear picture and analysis of what happened over the course of the deployment to Bravo Company's 1st platoon. He does a very good job of giving a balanced view, showing different perspectives and interpretations of events, and also letting the men speak for themselves. As the events progress, it becomes clear that in many ways the platoon was dealing with the same kind of stuff as everyone else in the area but Bravo and Charlie Company both had the rougher areas of operation. Initially, there wasn't anything too noticeable that distinguished 1st platoon from the rest of Bravo's platoons, though they did have younger leadership. However, the platoon managed to get on the BC (battalion commander) and the sergeant major's radar early on for what they saw as lack of discipline, and from then on 1st platoon always faced more scrutiny. In and of itself, this may have led the platoon to feel a bit more isolated or develop a "us against them" attitude, but when added with other factors they faced during the deployment, it became something much worse. Circumstances and events piled up to lead to catastrophic events. While all the platoons and companies had casualties, this platoon had some very critical ones within the first few months, losing personnel in key leadership positions. As portrayed in the book, at this point, the platoon could have used an encouraging word from the battalion leadership, but instead received diatribes about how they were ate up and to blame. In addition to combat losses, the platoon sergeant was moved and replaced, and the platoon had three different platoon sergeants between the end of December and the beginning of February. None of this would have helped the men have any type of stability. This doesn't excuse the actions of a few, and Frederick doesn't try to do this - instead he attempts to explain what happened, how it was even possible for four Soldiers to leave their posts and rape and kill a family, and places the incident in a larger context.
While I have been fortunate to have rather low key deployments, and I have always been on the support side of things (at my last duty station, I was in the support battalion of a light infantry brigade, but most of my daily interactions were with other loggies (logisticians)), I could definitely relate to some of parts of the book. I completely understand the idea of not feeling like there are enough Soldiers to complete all the taskings, and having to deal with whether that was because my company was overburdened or because I wasn't managing personnel correctly - in the Iraqi Triangle of Death, this of course led to some huge issues. While I could understand why the battalion might be telling them that they had enough personnel but weren't using them effectively, I still wondered why one of the senior staff couldn't have sat down with the companies then and provided some mentorship, going through the troop to task with them and show them how to use their Soldiers. I could also relate to the different types of leadership styles I saw in the book. CPT Bordwell, the Alpha commander, mentioned that when LTC Kunk arrived at the battalion, he was a huge change from their previous BC. The previous one may have asked what the company was doing and be happy with "Army training, sir" while LTC Kunk would ask for specifics, such as how many water cans a company had. It wasn't until later that Bordwell realized how important these other pieces were. As a result, I can see where Kunk was using this to make a teaching point, but his approach made many people feel belittled. I have also experienced a similar change in leadership, going from a more hands off approach to a detail oriented on; unlike Kunk, though my BC could be hard, he also was approachable, especially one on one, and he knew when the Soldiers needed a supportive word. While in the end, the higher headquarter elements attempted to shift all the blame to the platoon and company level, it is also clear that some of the problems were leadership levels at a higher level. Battalion and brigade failed the men, not listening when told that the platoon was combat ineffective following several casualties in December. The Bravo commander cared about his men, but is portrayed as someone that became afraid to make decisions, and would spend far too much time in the TOC, afraid to miss anything. While it is a leader's job to take care of Soldiers, there also must be a line where the leader takes care of himself - at some point, if the leader isn't sleeping or taking a few minutes for himself every once in a while, he will become ineffectual - you can't take care of anyone else if you are completely neglecting yourself.
I would definitely recommend this - I know I've seen tons of reviews for War on CBR over the years, and I think this would be another great book to read that talks about military culture, leadership and leadership failures, and some of the more challenging parts of modern warfare. Personally, I think he explained the military acronyms and jargon very well, and the back of the book included a list of the different people mentioned by the unit they fell under which made it very helpful to remember where they fell in the grand scheme. Of course, I don't know how accessible it will be to a civilian with no military experience, but it is worth a read.
(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links
in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)