If you Read Nothing Else: Book Review of
Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death
Photo: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26536627
March 12, 2006, Mahmudiyah, Iraq. Abeer Qassim Hamzah Rashid al-Janabi, age 14, was raped, murder and her burned body left to lay along with the rest of her slain family. The brutal and heinous details of the crime which hit the news two months later left Americans gagging on their morning coffee, publicly proclaiming how could this have happened and privately reassuring themselves that the crime was an aberration, a monstrous act perpetrated by sociopaths. Viewing the crime in this light was easier for the American conscience than looking at the big picture of what the it said about our war in Iraq, or about the nature of war in general.
When veteran journalist, Jim Frederick, first heard of the crime he knew there was a deeper story at play. Captain James Culp, whom he worked with on a previous piece, encouraged him to investigate further, telling him, “What that company is going through, it would turn your hair white.”
Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent Into Madness In Iraq’s Triangle Of Death shows compassion toward the victims and honesty regarding the soldiers as he tells the story of how hundreds of decisions up and down the chain of command over a period of months culminated in the conditions where war crimes that savage could occur.
Flawed mission is nothing new in the Army. Frederick describes the mission in the Triangle of Death, a 330-square mile region south of Baghdad as; simultaneously hunt down and kill insurgents, and win the hearts and minds of people in an area of extreme Sunni/Shia conflict and at a crossroads of weapons trafficking by militant extremists from many groups. This was all to be accomplished with a force hundreds of men short from what would have been needed to accomplish the job.
Poor leadership abounds in any large organization and the military is no exception. Frederick describes the steady stream of poor decisions made by Battalion Commander LTC Tom Kunk who at so many points during his command, prior to the incident, could have provided decisions and guidance which would have prevented the tragedy. Kunk chose to ignore warning signs at the isolated outpost which was meant to function as a checkpoint, and chose to belittle and demean the men under his command rather than provide guidance, with disastrous consequences.
When interviewed many of the men who served with James Barker, Paul Cortes, Steven Green and Jesse Spielman wish they had done more to curb the perpetrators blatant drug and alcohol use or that they had warned their chain of command more vehemently about the men’s deteriorating mental health. Frederick makes it plain, that if any blame could be assigned to the rest of Bravo Company, it is only that of a few bad decisions and miscommunications from otherwise good soldiers.
Throughout its 363 pages Frederick treats this difficult subject with a steadfast commitment to the truth no matter how unexpected or painful. For Frederick, it was less about laying blame or assigning responsibility and more about relaying to the reader the dehumanizing conditions in war which can culminate in such a horrific act. In some ways, the book is less about the act itself as it is about the incredibly flawed nature of war as a tool of peace.
Black Hearts maps for readers the impossible complexities of the war in Iraq. Even if you read nothing else on the war, in reading Black Hearts you will gain a greater understanding of America’s war in Iraq and its impossible challenges for the soldiers who are sent to fight it.