Best Defense

Q&A: Jim Frederick’s ‘Black Hearts,’ about a 101st Airborne war crime in Iraq

Q&A: Jim Frederick’s ‘Black Hearts,’ about a 101st Airborne war crime in Iraq

Here is a list of books on the Iraq war. But it leaves out one of my new favorites, which I finally got around to reading recently.  I liked it so much I decided to interview the author.

Tom Ricks: This is a terrific book. Was it difficult to report and write? I would imagine so. Did it invade your dreams? How did you, and those close to you, get through it?
 
Jim Frederick:  … The book was difficult to write, but not quite in the way you suggest. The subject matter was dark, brutally so. But every time I started feeling oppressed or beaten down by it, I just reflected on the soldiers I was interviewing and remembered: They had to live it, so stop feeling sorry for yourself and focus on telling their story. So it wasn’t actually hard in that way. I tried to be compassionate without letting the subject matter invade my personal life or, as you say, my dreams.

Now, that being said, the book was extraordinarily difficult because while I have been a journalist my entire adult life, I had never felt such pressure to Get The Story Right. The soldiers I spoke to (and it was well over 120 of them, over several years, and I interviewed a core of about 20 or 30 main players over and over again over that period) trusted me to a degree I have never really been able to fathom. A lot of them claimed to hate the mainstream media, yet they trusted me far beyond the degree I would ever trust a journalist. And from their trust I felt just a massive, massive burden: that if I don’t get this right, it will not only be a professional and personal embarrassment, but I will have let them down and confirmed all of their worst assumptions about journalists and modern journalism. Not that I wrote the book to please them, of course. I often told them that I had a professional obligation not to care whether they “liked” the book or not when it was finished, but it was a primary goal of mine to ensure those who were there thought it was accurate and fair-minded and captured the spirit of the deployment. Thankfully, I have heard from scores of the men in the book, and they have told me exactly that: that they might not have liked everything they read, but they thought that it was fair and accurate.

TR: I was down at “The Swamp,” an outpost near the power plant just west of your guys’ AO, in February 2006, and saw some of the unhappiest American soldiers I’d ever seen. I know that the Triangle of Death was tough, but so were a lot of other places, like Sadr City and Ramadi. Why do you think the 101st guys were so demoralized?
 
JF: I was not with, nor did I interview, the men of the 2-502nd who were in that AO around the Swamp, so I can’t really speak to their particular situation. But if I can extrapolate from what I know about 1-502nd across all of the 101st Airborne during that time, I would say a lot of it had to do with them falling into a very muddled period of extreme strategic breakdown. They were at the tail end of the seek and destroy era of terrorist hunting, and it was not going well. This was the absolute darkest era of the war, when the men knew in their hearts that what they were being asked to do was not working, but there were no better alternatives at the time. This was a full year before COIN really got going so I think those days you got a lot of the hopelessness from the men on the ground who knew the current strategy was doomed a year before the White House or the Pentagon were willing to admit it.

TR: You do a great job of showing why the chain of command is in many ways to blame for the crimes that occurred. But as portrayed, the chain kind of fades out above brigade. It would seem to me that your argument is that the division commander, Generals Casey and Chiarelli, and Secretary Rumsfeld above them, are also to blame for what happened. Is that correct? Did you ever get a chance to interview them for this book?

JF: You are correct that I would lay blame all the way up the chain of command and that, yes, my examination does pretty much cut out at the brigade level. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I assessed that there had been many books already about the Iraq war told from the general, Pentagon or White House level. And the more reporting I did, the more I became captivated by the intimate, on the ground stories of men at war that I was collecting. And I thought I had not seen a lot of books like that (Memoirs by soldiers? Yes, lots. Journalistic accounts of a full deployment of men at war in Iraq? Not many). So I decided that the focus was going to be platoon, company and battalion. Second, having expanded my lens all the way to battalion, I was a bit overwhelmed already by the reporting task ahead of me. To add several more battalions’ experience, let alone division command and on up the chain from there, it was pretty easy for me, once I got going to say: that is just out of scope. To keep the narrative lens focused and novelistic, I need to cut it at battalion. (And I know, I have heard from many men who served during this time, telling me that I thus let brigade and division get off “easy.” I can see that, but I simply had to cut the frame somewhere.) And finally, I was blessed by the fact that a lot of men I interviewed, on up to captains and majors, and sergeants first class and first sergeants were really, really rubbed raw about their experience and decided, eyes wide open, that they were going to be 100 percent candid with me. And I will be grateful to them until the day I die, since the book lives on the back of their honesty. But when I started getting to the lieutenant colonel and colonel level of my research, that’s when I perceived that the Army field grade officer mutual protection society started to kick in. According to them, everybody was just a great officer, and everybody did helluva job, and nobody was to blame for anything bad that happened. I just didn’t feel like I was getting candid, unvarnished, unfiltered accounts of events or people at those levels. So that made it especially easy to say, okay, I’m not going to focus on that level, because these guys are more interested in reciting the party line than in telling me what they really think.

TR: How has the Army reacted to this book? I’ve heard that you’ve been invited to speak at West Point about it. Is that right? Any other official reactions? Unofficial ones?
 
JF: The Army’s strong positive reaction has been among the most gratifying and rewarding aspects of this whole experience. Before the book was released, I was a little worried that people might misunderstand what they book was about. I thought they might think it was anti-American or anti-Army, when I viewed it as a hugely pro-soldier and pro-Army. I always viewed it as a book about leadership. Admittedly, this unit had far more examples of bad leadership than good, but that’s what I was outraged about, and I hoped that one of my audiences would be a pre-deployment staff sergeant or lieutenant who might read the book and maybe do something a little different or avoid a mistake or two. And from all the feedback I have gotten, that’s exactly how the Army at the very highest levels has received the book. Not as something to feel attacked about, but as something they can learn from.

The feedback from West Point in particular has been extraordinary. I have been up there three times now to speak to cadets, and the Commandant made Black Hearts the inaugural book in his personal leadership development book club for cadets. When he shook my hand and told me I would be considered a lifetime friend of West Point, well that was a career high for me. Beyond that, I have heard about numerous units that have put it on their pre-deployment reading lists and other smaller captains and majors leadership classes around the Army have made it required reading. And then there are individual soldiers. I have heard from almost everyone portrayed in the book and their feedback has been, without exception, positive. And many of the men in the book check in just with me every couple of months, just to fill me in on what they’re up to now. I value those relationships very much. And then I hear from soldiers who were there at different times, or near there, or new and newly deploying soldiers on a weekly basis, and we’re getting into nearly three years since the book was published, so that has been very gratifying. And finally, a major constituency I hear from is soldiers’ wives, a lot of whom say: my husband doesn’t talk much about his deployments, but now I feel like I know a little better what he’s been through. I get a lot of letters that bring tears to my eyes, to be honest.

TR: How did the book do in sales? I feel a bit guilty in asking — I’ve had a copy since it came out, but could not bring myself to read it until recently when a retired general more or less insisted that I read it.
 
JF: Was it a bestseller? No. But it did respectably well, all told. My publisher seems happy enough. And every time I’m tempted to get down about the fact that the sales were not through the roof, I remember that it is about a war crime, committed by Americans. Not really Band of Brothers territory. But the book was better received critically than I ever dared dream. And then to also have it embraced by the military the way it has as a leadership teaching tool has been doubly gratifying. So I hope the book has a long tail, and it seems to have a good shot of entering the Iraq/Afghanistan War canon, if not a more general canon of war literature. I am very proud of all of that.

TR: Are you glad you wrote it?
 
JF: Absolutely. It was the kind of book I always dreamed of writing, and it turned out exactly like I hoped it would. I hope I have the honor and luck to write another one like it someday.