Best Defense
Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

‘Blackhearts’ (I): A view from the inside

There is more to the story that has remained in the shadows for too long.




By Dan Sukman
Best Defense guest columnist

In this blog, Tom has repeatedly cited Jim Frederick’s 2010 book, Blackhearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death, about B Company, 1/502 (1st battalion, 2nd brigade) and their year-long deployment in South Baghdad.

This deployment, from September 2005 to 2006, was marred by two distinct incidents. The first was the DUSTWUN (Duty Status: Whereabouts Unknown), when members of al Qaeda in Iraq kidnapped and murdered three soldiers. The second was when a squad from B Co 1/502 raped a young Iraqi girl and murdered her and her entire family inside their own home. Frederick offers insight and analysis explaining how these events unfolded. The book is generally accurate in the portrayal of events and personnel involved. But there is more to the story, as those of us who were actually there can attest.

I was a member of the Blackhearts Brigade throughout the deployment. During the first six months I served as the brigade provost marshal and the second six months as the headquarters company commander for the brigade special troops battalion. When Blackhearts was released, I purchased the book on Amazon, and when it arrived, I practically locked myself in my bedroom and read the book in one sitting. Over the past seven years, whenever I have had the opportunity to catch up with a member of that brigade, be it over lunch, dinner, drinks, or just running into each other in the PX food court, the subject of the book inevitably comes up. Typically, we agree that the book is accurate for the most part, but lacks sufficient context. The shortcoming of the book is that it failed to capture a complete picture of events leading up to and during that 12-month deployment. Everyone has a perspective on what happened and what we should take away from that deployment. As one who lived it, here is my perspective.

Toxic relationships

Blackhearts painfully details the leadership failures of various leaders at the level of platoon, company, and battalion. What the book does not discuss are the varying toxic relationships that developed prior to the deployment that endured throughout the year. These toxic relationships occurred between commanders and their command sergeants major (CSMs), between the staffs of the 4ID and 2nd BCT, and between the leaders of the division and of the 2nd Brigade.

The relationship between the brigade commander and CSM began to deteriorate months before the deployment. Indeed, by the time the brigade was packing connexes and boarding aircraft, the brigade CSM and commander barely spoke to one another.

The relationship between a commander and the senior non-comissioned officer is key to a unit’s success. Commanders rely on their senior enlisted advisors to speak truth to power, and in turn, senior NCOs must trust that their respective commanders will consider and respect their wisdom and advice. When this relationship sours, the effects ripple through the ranks. From my time with the Blackheart Brigade, I developed and maintain a deep respect for both the brigade commander and CSM, men who deeply cared about the mission and their soldiers. But I wish their respective relationship could have been repaired. There are times when two competent leaders are paired in a commander-CSM or higher to lower commander relationship. Sometime these relationships flourish, and other time they deteriorate. The Army as an institution should examine how to enable leaders to repair relationships, or how to break up command relationships without putting careers at risk.

While the CSM-Commander relationship went sour, the relationship between 4ID (Multi-National Division Baghdad) did not fare much better. This mistrust began prior to deployment, and as a result of the Division’s Warfighter Exercise. The Brigade elected to send only one officer (yours truly) and one NCO to participate. Since the Blackheart Brigade was deploying three months before 4ID, the brigade focus during the 4ID Warfighter was deployment preparation. The Blackheart Brigade also participated in a multi-day leadership-training program (LTP) with the 4ID staff. However, these two short events were not enough to develop the relationships and trust required between two warfighting commands.

When a division and a subordinate brigade have a poor relationship from the onset of a deployment, the effects ripple through the ranks. This tension was palpable at the staff level whenever the division and brigade staff interacted. A combination of mistrust and lack of empathy built up over the course of the deployment. With this dynamic, complaints about lack of resources or faulty policies often went unheeded. When senior leaders at different levels have a conflict (based on personality, perceived performance, or lack of empathy) it is incumbent upon those leaders to put their differences aside. Sadly, this never occurred.

This highlights a shortcoming of the modular BCT construct. When one unit falls under a higher-level command with which they have neither trained nor developed relationships prior to combat, the Clausewitzian friction — the countless minor incidents that make the simple very difficult — floats to the surface. The subordinate unit tends to be unfamiliar with standard operating procedures, ranging from the mundane markings on PowerPoint slides, to the complex understanding of how a commander processes information and makes decisions. Conversely, the higher headquarters may be unfamiliar with the subordinate’s capabilities, ranging from weapons systems and training efficiency, to leadership effectiveness. Highlighting this aspect was our brigade’s transformation to the BCT construct in the year prior to deployment. We were just beginning to understand our own capabilities. Expecting a distant headquarters to understand and employ capabilities properly may be a bridge too far. Under this force generation model, absent a doctrinal change requiring extensive pre-deployment integration, understanding the personalities of commanders and staff simply does not exist. In this model, every game becomes a pick-up game.

The last relationship to highlight is the one between the 48th Enhanced Brigade Combat Team of the Georgia National Guard and the Blackheart Brigade. Our brigade took over the southern Baghdad area of operations from the 48th. Almost immediately, tensions developed between the two units. The outgoing command had the perception that our brigade did not understand the complexity of what we were about to engage in. Conversely, our brigade thought that the 48th was filled with amateurs, who had long ago reached their limit of advance. The reality is that both units deployed with professionals, doing their best in a complex environment. Frederick discusses this at some length early in his book. This toxic relationship between the brigades would be one of the first elements of an “us versus them” mindset that would prevail throughout the deployment.

At the tactical level, when thinking in time and space, units incur risk in two areas: during times of transition, and in the seams between unit AOs. When the Army moved to the BCT construct, the number of transitions under a division HQ increased, thus maintaining a higher level of risk throughout the course of the war. The mistrust between the 48th and the Blackheart Brigade exacerbated this risk to a higher level. Unfortunately, these toxic relationships set the stage for events yet to come.

Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Sukman is a strategist in the U.S. Army, a former Military Fellow at the Project for International Peace and Security (PIPS), and a member of the Military Writers Guild. Over the course of his career, LTC Sukman served with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), United States European Command, and the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC). He currently works for the Joint Enabling Capabilities Command in Norfolk, Virginia. His combat experience includes multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Follow him on twitter @dansukman. This article represents the author’s views, and not necessarily the views of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense. Further, this article represents the author’s views, and his alone, not those of other members of the Blackheart Brigade.

Image credit: U.S. Army 

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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