Best Defense

Inside ‘Blackhearts’ (III): With different units holding very different views of the fight, we stepped off into the abyss

Adding to the friction involving the Blackhearts Brigade was the nature of the fight.

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By Dan Sukman
Best Defense guest columnist

Adding to the friction involving the Blackhearts Brigade was the nature of the fight. The brigade was assigned to south Baghdad. This area of operation (AO) was distinct from other brigades within the Multi-National Division Baghdad, with both the terrain and the enemy completely different from other brigades’ area of operations in Baghdad proper.

1st Battalion, on which Jim Frederick focuses in his book, Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death, was at the southern edge of not only the brigade’s, but also the division’s, AO. Moreover, the brigade bordered the Marines operating to the west of our AO, making coordination with a non-Army unit an added element of friction. This relatively remote area was rural, characterized by flat terrain and a series of canals, which often limited maneuver space in contrast to the urban areas of central Baghdad (urban areas can limit maneuver as well). Much of the area was populated by Sunni tribes, and as such was neglected by the Shia-led government in Baghdad. Further, the south Baghdad AO was populated by former senior Baath Party and military leaders who now found themselves unemployed, disenfranchised, and with no hope for livelihood or power in the future. This dynamic allowed al Qaeda in Iraq to prosper, and thus was the main adversary facing our brigade. This was in contrast to the Shia militias metastasizing in central Baghdad at the time. 

Paramount to success in warfare is understanding the nature of the fight. A complete misunderstanding of the local power structure complicated the fight in south Baghdad. In an effort to empower the central Iraqi government, our brigade initially sought to build up local government officials, who more often than not would find themselves on the short end of an assassination stick. It was not until well into the second half of the deployment that our brigade shifted effort to local sheiks and tribal chiefs at the expense of town mayors. This coincides with a broader issue the Army faced at the time, a lack of counter-insurgency doctrine that identifies the most likely center of gravity as the people (FM 3-24 was not published until after our deployment). Indeed, the Brigade received the Effects-based operations handbook prior to our rotation at the Joint Readiness Training Center as a model to plan operations.

The poor relationships, downward spiral of trust, lack of common understanding of the situation, and absence of doctrine created a perfect storm for the events to follow.

Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Sukman is a strategist in the U.S. Army, a former Military Fellow at the Project for International Peace & Security (PIPS), and a member of the Military Writers Guild. Over the course of his career, 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, Va. 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.

Photo credit:

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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