"Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death"
By Jim Frederick
Harmony Books, 439 pages, $26
A question arose briefly in a meeting between local sheiks and U.S. military officials south of Baghdad in mid-March 2006: did anyone have information pertaining to the murder of an Iraqi family of four in the nearby town of Al-Dhubat a few days previously?
No one did; theories abounded but evidence and witnesses went lacking. “It was instantly a cold case like literally tens of thousands of murders in Iraq that year,” and as a result was to have no further resources devoted to it, writes Jim Frederick in his disturbing but extraordinarily revealing war chronicle “Black Hearts.”
As Frederick’s book reports in excruciating detail, a fourteen-year- old girl named Abeer, her six-year-old sister Hadeel, and their parents, Quassim and Fakhria al-Janabi, had in fact been slaughtered by a band of four liquored-up U.S. troops who had raped Abeer and set fire to her dead body as well. Were it not for the troubled conscience of a private named Justin Watt, who heard part of the story third-hand from a tight-lipped sergeant to whom one of the participants had confessed, none of this would be known.
Watt’s revelations, once they emerged, triggered an investigation that was reported publicly by the Associated Press at the end of June that year. While the particulars of the case are harrowing and caused an international outcry at the time, Frederick has a more panoramic interest at stake in “Black Hearts”: to illuminate the wartime context in which the murders took place. Far from exculpatory in nature, the book yields a gritty portrait of troops under severe duress, the potential casualties of faulty planning and ineffectual leadership, and the psychological toll that is exacted on soldiers along with the carnage.
Frederick follows the yearlong tour of the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, in Iraq from October 2005 to September 2006. It was assigned to a dangerous area south of Baghdad that came to be dubbed the Triangle of Death, and was posted, Frederick maintains, with “far fewer troops and resources than were necessary for the job.” The terrain, cut up with canals and covered with high elephant grass and weeds for concealment, was “perfect for guerrilla warfare.”
Within that battalion of roughly 700 men, Frederick concentrates on Bravo Company, which lost 51 of approximately 135 soldiers (killed, wounded or transferred) over time, and within Bravo, its ill- fated 1st Platoon, the unit in which the murderers served and a seeming magnet of bad luck whose fortunes were in retrospect “heartbreakingly preventable at literally dozens of junctures.”
At that point in the war, it was a “rare day” when some member of Bravo did not suffer enemy attack in some form, the buried IEDs (improvised explosive devices) taking a particularly heavy toll. Two months after deployment, “It was not lost on anyone: The casualties just kept mounting. Every week or two, they were losing someone, or multiple people — frequently leaders — to injuries or death.” When 2nd Platoon’s Jerry Eidson was injured in an IED blow-up, it shook Lieutenant Ben Britt of 1st Platoon badly: he was the only remaining platoon leader in all of Bravo Company, and told other soldiers, “I just know I’m next.”
“The feeling that death was certain was becoming pervasive throughout the platoon, and it was spreading like a panic,” Frederick reports, the timing of which coincided with “drinking in the ranks becoming fairly common.” All the while, a sense of anger was growing, and a sense of betrayal by a high command (battalion commander Lieutenant Colonel Tom Kunk and Command Sergeant Major Anthony Edwards) who seemed in denial of facts on the ground and more interested in spit and polish than in the troops’ welfare.
Britt was indeed killed by an IED, while on foot with other soldiers who had been told to retrieve a tube believed to be part of a rocket- propelled grenade assembly. Bravo Captain John Goodwin —the officer who had given the order, over resistance from the troops — broke down as a result. He sought counsel with a combat stress team officer, Lieutenant Colonel Karen Marrs, who was visited the same day by the 1st Platoon’s Staff Sergeant Phil Miller as well, informing her that his men “had become combat ineffective.” Marrs had also spoken with one of Miller’s men, private Steven Green, who admitted to her, “My main preoccupation in life is wanting to kill Iraqis, whoever they are, wherever they are.” (Unknown at the time was that Green was the triggerman in killing the Janabi family; he was discharged from the Army before that was discovered.)
As a result, Marrs informed commander Kunk that “hostility and vengeance seem prominent in 1st Platoon,” and recommended they be given leave to recover from their casualty losses. Kunk, belligerent and famously resistant to points of view other than his own, in Frederick’s accounting, gave them leave but limited it to forty-eight hours. Yet the platoon’s problems were patently obvious to others. One sergeant who lasted only a week before being yanked out by superiors thought, “Bravo’s mission was clearly flawed by design.” Another, Sergeant Daniel Carrick, one of the battalion’s best noncommissioned officers, was assigned to 1st Platoon halfway through Bravo’s deployment and suffered “extreme” culture shock when he arrived. “They wanted to punch somebody in the head or they wanted to shoot up somebody’s car,” Carrick said. He considered many of them thugs who had never learned discipline in civilian life, either, but were out of control in Iraq.
Frederick, who was Tokyo bureau chief of Time magazine when he began the book, has interviewed dozens of the principals involved in the action he reports. Naturally, there is extensive finger-pointing up and down the chain of command in his story as it unfolds, but on the troops’ behalf Frederick concludes that the fixed road control points they were required to maintain were seriously undermanned and “shockingly unfortified,” which exacerbated the strain from lack of down time.
One of the central questions of “Black Hearts,” whose title represents both a military nickname and some soldiers’ state of mind, is summed up by Frederick in his epilogue: “Why do some fighting men give in to the final inhumanity of combat — raping and murdering the innocent — while others who experience the same loss, suffer the same hardships and feel the same hatred resist the temptation to defile the defenseless, abandon their honor, debase themselves, and shame their kin and country?”
The question isn’t answered, it is simply delineated by events, with a strong suggestion that leadership has an enormous role to play. Sergeant John Diem, a philosophically minded soldier who brought to official attention what Private Watt confided to him about the murders, told Frederick, “If people continue to treat this like a mysterious event that came out of nowhere, and we don’t change how we lead soldiers… it’s going to happen again.”
Art Winslow is a frequent contributor to The Tribune and a former literary and executive editor of The Nation.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun