Best Defense

Back to ‘Black Hearts’: Why this book stands out so much as a study of the Army

By “PKL” Best Defense guest explicator Another damn army scandal, another damn book about it; worse, a book with a lurid title: Black Hearts, and an even more lurid subtitle: One platoon’s descent into madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death. War weariness and a proliferation of books about individual actions in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to have left ...

Amazon
Amazon

By “PKL”

Best Defense guest explicator

Another damn army scandal, another damn book about it; worse, a book with a lurid title: Black Hearts, and an even more lurid subtitle: One platoon’s descent into madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death. War weariness and a proliferation of books about individual actions in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to have left this book in publishing’s no man’s land: number 286,309 in the Amazon hit parade this month. Hard to understand why more than a quarter million other books at Amazon outsell it.

This seems a pity. Black Hearts is the battle name adopted by the 1st battalion, 2nd brigade combat team, 101st Airborne. The book by senior Time magazine editor Jim Frederick is described by senior British war and military correspondent Max Hastings as matching In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s 1965 account of the murder of the Clutter family on their farm in Holcomb, Kansas. Three Black Heart soldiers murdered the Iraqi al-Janabi family of Yusufiyah, a father, mother and six- and 14-year-old daughters. The cousin who found their corpses in March 2006, demented by grief and his desire to offer some propriety to the scene, snatched a kettle and ran back and forth to a nearby stream, gathering water to put out the fire that had consumed every part of the 14-year-old’s upper body, other than her fingertips.

As Frederick recounts matters, the army was called in minutes later, and contrary to physical evidence on the scene, was content to attribute the crime to other Iraqis. Then a Black Heart’s conscience started to trouble him and the reality of what happened to the al-Janabis came to light. Those who entered the house and killed them were prosecuted and in his masterwork, Frederick sets the incident in the context of army administration as it was in 2006.

Why his book is a masterwork,  its ten-page foreword makes clear.

At sundry officer levels, the 101st‘s leading edge units were administered in an atmosphere of public insults and sarcasm. 1000 men were required to do the work that by 2008 was being done by 30,000, and those lonely first thousand were bleeding heavily. Black Hearts platoons lost their leaders to enemy action one by one; three months after the al-Janabis died, three Americans were overrun by insurgents. One died during the battle. The survivors were later mutilated, beheaded and their bodies were booby-trapped.

In Tokyo, having read reading brief wire service reports about the al-Janabi family’s deaths and the later small battle, Frederick, then Time Magazine’s bureau chief in that city received a phone call from army captain James Culp, a former infantry sergeant turned lawyer who had been assigned to defend one of the three Bravo Company men accused of the Yusufiyah atrocity. He wanted Frederick to come as a reporter, “if not for the sake of my client, then for the sake of the other guys in Bravo.” He did, and later, he gained assignment to Iraq both as a reporter and, in time, in preparation for what turned out to be his book.

His research occupied much of the next three years, and what marks the difference between Black Hearts and most other books on similar subjects was that he started contacting101st men to see if they were willing to talk. Surprisingly, they were.

Frederick writes: “Despondent over being judged for the actions of a few criminals in their midst, they were eager to share their stories … They were generous with their time, unvarnished in their honesty … arguing that I could not properly understand the crime and the abduction if I did not understand their whole deployment.

“[As well,] I could not understand (the errant) 1st platoon if I did not understand 2nd and 3rd platoons, who had labored under exactly the same conditions but who had come home with far fewer losses and their sense of brotherhood and accomplishment intact.”

In some cases he interviewed individual veterans repeatedly, building a history, scaffolding it with context. He spoke to relatives of the al-Janabi dead and attended the trials of the men charged with killing the little family. He used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain reams of official documents.

“Every opened door led to a new one,” his foreword recounts. “Most soldiers and officers I talked to offered to put me in touch with more. Some shared journals, letters and emails, photos … classified reports and investigations.”

Honorable men. The heart and sinew of Black Hearts is those few sentences. The conclusion of this multidimensional examination of army practice is its head. So also is its conclusion: “I had thought that the Army way was for everyone to accept a small piece of the responsibilities for any debacle truly too big to be of one man’s making … [and so,] make the fiasco something that the army could study and learn from. But the ordeal generated so much bile and rancor for so many people that the army seems more interested in forgetting about the tragedy entirely, than in ensuring that it never happens again … 

“[M]any men feel that blame was unfairly pushed down to the lower ranks and not shared by a higher command they believed was also culpable.”

The ten-page foreword is a clear and fair introduction to the rest of the book’s contents.

Those closing remarks match what General Antonio Taguba told West Point in an oral history interview available on the web. If you question Frederick’s conclusions as reported in his book, ponder the calm and confident retired general telling his interviewer that his investigation of Abu Ghraib satisfied him that army abuses there were widespread through Iraq, and that, given permission to do so, he would certainly have sheeted home some responsibility for them to general Ricardo Sanchez,  V Corps’ 1st Armored Division commander when those abuses were in flower.Keep in mind also that Frederick was writing down his conclusions before the 5th Stryker murders of Afghan civilians were widely known, and before this year’s Panjwali massacre, in which 16 Afghan peasants were killed. All these actions were performed either by an individual or a very small and aberrant criminal group. Virtually all other soldiers despise them. And, as Frederick suggests, their recurrence suggests the army isn’t very good at forestalling future such outbreaks, staining as they do the name of an entire military arm of this great nation.

Keep in mind also that Frederick was writing down his conclusions before the 5th Stryker murders of Afghan civilians were widely known, and before this year’s Panjwali massacre, in which 16 Afghan peasants were killed. All these actions were performed either by an individual or a very small and aberrant criminal group. Virtually all other soldiers despise them. And, as Frederick suggests, their recurrence suggests the army isn’t very good at forestalling future such outbreaks, staining as they do the name of an entire military arm of this great nation.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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