Home > Decision Making, Ethics, Leadership, Toxic Leadership > Book Review – Blackhearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death

Book Review – Blackhearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death

February 9, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I only made it through a few chapters of Blackhearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death by Jim Frederick before I was compelled to write a post on the toxic leadership of this story’s battalion commander.  Now, I will finish by telling the rest of the story.

Bottom line up front:  Every single leader in the Army should be required to read this book. It is a study in bad leadership.  If the old adage is true that we learn more in defeat than in victory, then certainly this book has more to teach us than all the war hero books we can buy.

Blackhearts tells the story of 1st Platoon, B Company, 1-502nd Infantry Battalion of the Army’s 101st Airborne Division. In the middle of what can only be described as a horrific tour in the most dangerous area of Iraq (at that time), four members of this unit left their post on March 12, 2006, barged into a local Iraqi house, raped their 14-year-old daughter, then executed the entire family.

In my previous post, I wondered what role the toxic battalion commander played since toxic leadership in the Army is approaching epidemic levels.  However, what I found was the toxic battalion commander was simply one link in a chain that led to this horrible crime.

Before I go on, some background.  I am a pilot, so naturally I am interested in aviation safety.  Whenever there is an aviation accident, military or civilian, and investigation team shows up to pinpoint the cause.  What they often find is not one cause, but a multitude of small failures that all led to the accident.  This is referred to as the “accident chain” because removing even one of the multiple small failures could have “broken the chain.”  In other words, the accident would not have happened, even if all the other causes were present.

This crime was also a chain that started at the highest levels of government and went right down to the four soldiers who committed the crime.

image The rape of 14-year old Abeer Qasim Hamza al-Janabi and the murder of her and her family did not begin on March 12, 2006.  Rather, it began on September 15, 2001 at Camp David when then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his underling Paul Wolfowitz began to make the case for going to war with Iraq. This is important, not because it led us to invade Iraq, but because we did so without a clear understanding of what it would take to win.  We ended going in with too few troops, which gave rise to an insurgency.  As the Army tried to cope with this second war, it caused recruiting problems, which led to decreased quality of recruits and an increase in “moral waivers,” which is an Army term for letting criminals join up.  From 2004 to 2008, the percentage Army enlistees requiring moral waivers went from 4.6% to 11% of total enlistees.

One of these moral waivers was a criminal named Steven Green, who would eventually rape Abeer Qasim Hamza al-Janabi, along with murdering her, her six-year-old sister Hadeel, her father, Qassim Hamza Rasheed, and her mother, Fakhriya Taha Muhasen in Mahmoudiyah.

This shortage of personnel also led to a situation in Iraq where commanders did not have enough troops to conduct operations.  1-502nd got the worst of this.  Thin manning, combined with the danger of their area, resulted in over one third of 1st Platoon, Bravo not completing their yearlong tour, either due to being killed, wounded, or other causes.

The commander of US forces in Iraq at the time, GEN George Casey, wasn’t helping matters.  Despite overwhelming evidence and worsening violence, GEN Casey did not ask for more troops.  In fact, he was trying to pull troops out.  Meanwhile, the military strategy of partnering with incompetent, untrained Iraqi forces was failing, epitomized by the grand flop known as Operation Together Forward.

Frederick doesn’t spend much time talking about the division or brigade leadership, but one gets the impression they were either unaware or indifferent to what was happening in 1-502.  I lean toward the former explanation.  Certainly they had to be cognizant that casualties in 1-502 were high, however, given that the 1-502 commander was a toxic leader, I’m not surprise brigade or division weren’t aware of the true direness of the situation in 1-502.

Toxic leaders excel at looking good to the higher-ups.  I’ve heard informally that the 1-502 battalion commander,then LTC Tom Kunk, was well thought of by the brass, and, despite not being a Ranger, was on his way to the top.  The only way Kunk could have fast tracking despite his toxic leadership style and non-Ranger status was if he was a skilled self-promoter.  Though the book does not say this, I’m inclined to believe Kunk was a master of keeping his higher commanders under the impression that everything was hunky-dory in his command.

image I talked about Kunk at length in my last post.  Suffice it to say he alienated his men and pulled the rug from beneath subordinate commanders.  Though the company commander comes across as a weak learder, its clear this is at least partially attributable to the mental beatings suffered under LTC Kunk.  The company commander sits by his radio all day and night, rarely sleeping, just in case battalion calls.  He never gets out to see his men, who are slowly devolving from soldiers into criminals.

At the platoon level, the leadership situation is turbulent.  Leaders are routinely killed, wounded, moved, or fired.  The soldiers of 1st Platoon rarely have any good leadership, if for no other reason than no leader is around long enough to keep the unit together.

Finally, we come to the men themselves.  Bravo company was stretched too thin.  They had three platoons, and three platoon missions.  This begs the question, when was anyone supposed to sleep or rest?  Research shows sleep deprivation exacerbates PTSD and even suicidal tendencies. At one point in the book, a team from 1st Platoon conduct operations for 54 hours straight, at the end of which they get berated for not having shaved.  The company commander asked for another platoon several times; battalion said no.

There was another consequence of being spread too thin – there were not enough leaders to go around.  The day of the rape/murder, Specialist Paul Cortez was in charge of the check point near the house where the crime took place.  There was no officer or sergeant in charge of the checkpoint.  The lack of supervision meant the soldiers could do as they pleased, and they did, including drinking and taking drugs.  Finally, they deliberately planned and executed the crime.  With no leaders checking in on them, it was easy to sneak away.

The sleep deprivation and lack of leadership only added to what was, by any stretch of the imagination, pure hell.  The men were routinely shot at and attacked with IEDs.  There was no where for the men to rest and refit.  In addition to the high operations tempo, their living quarters offered no sanctuary for mental and physical recovery.  Exhausted, battle fatigued and unsupervised, many turned to drugs and alcohol supplied by locals.  Their leadership was either non-existent, weak, or a completely tyrannical, depending on which level of command you look at.  1st Platoon became psychologically isolated from their unit, and eventually, humanity.

We return to the question, how could we have stopped this crime before it started?  Blackhearts shows us the long chain of events that led to that fateful day.  Anyone in the chain could have stopped it by making a different decision.  This doesn’t take away from the responsibility of the four criminals who executed the crime, however, in some sense, everyone involved bears a little responsibility, and should feel a little shame.

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  1. gail
    May 24, 2011 at 2:00 am

    the picture you have above the name of spc james paul barker is not james! get it right

    • May 25, 2011 at 6:19 pm

      Apologies. I’ll post the correct picture in the next few days.

      • Anonymous
        March 21, 2012 at 11:26 pm

        so where is his picture? its been almost a year and you still havent put it up! Are you another one of his protectors?

  2. gail
    May 24, 2011 at 2:04 am

    james barker never should have gone to iraq. the army new full well what he was like. they were just (and still r) protecting their investment. he was in lots and lots of trouble before he went!

  3. De La Garza
    September 13, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    I was WITH MITT II, in FOB Mudhumidya, Sept 05-Sept 06, I have seen videos of the decay of troop moral. I have been accused of not know what was going on in Hell hole, I saw officers and NCOs from 1st BN who never held accounted. This was a nightmare designed by our officers of 2nd BDE, 502nd. Ass to say that this unit, all should be held accountable for their actions. In any other Infantry unit, if a Soldier messed up, EVERYBODY paid for it. Funny how so many so called leaders tried so hard to distant themselves from these events and claimed to have done everything in their power. I call bullshittin, in todays media access any one leader could have exposed these toxic leaders. But…egos, promotion and self interest kept them from taking this to a higher level at the time. The excuse of followup g orders…more bullshit!

  4. Anonymous
    March 21, 2012 at 11:23 pm

    you cant blame leadership for all this. it was not leadership that caused this. it was the thugs they let into the army! the recruiters lied to get james barker in and kept lying to keep him in. they just wanted their pay.

  5. Anonymous
    April 2, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    Yes you can blame the leadership when your fucked up platoon sergent wont leave the comfort of his own fucking bed to make sure that his soldiers are all right after being shot at and blown up. And yes i do know he never left his bed cause i was in this platoon and that man was so much of a fucking pussy that he made our medic care his weapon out on patrol because it was to heavy for him we are talking about a 10k movement and the medic had his fucking weapon the entire time and he lived the life while his soldiers suffered because of his incompetence. He was there just to try and please the up leadership he could care how it affected his soldiers and he is the reason we lost Babs Tucker and Menchaca. And while we got told we were fucked up not ten minutes after we had a memoral for them SFC Fenalson was too busy suck Kunk off so that none of this came down on him cause he was a disgrace of a leader and all around shitbag.

    • Ryan hill
      August 16, 2012 at 1:53 am

      I have a twin brother who was over there at that time he is now a platoon sergeant that was his third tour he was in the invasion and 2006 was the worsts you say that it’s the platoon sergeants fault but his job is beans bullets in band aids and keeping track of what the lieutenant is doing I find it hard to believe a platoon sergeant would give his m 4 to the medic to carry a from what I heard all the soldiers had resentment towards leadership because they pushed into areas that u s soldiers haven’t been my brothers best friend was killed buy a roadside bomb and they spent 5 hours picking him up

      platoon sargent has at least 11 years in the army I also find it hard to believe you were over there yes leadership was messed up but I still doubt you’re over there

      • Anonymous
        November 9, 2012 at 8:48 am

        Ryan Hill,
        Were you there? Then you really should shut the hell up. Don’t use a family member’s personal experiences as your own and make it out like you know exactly what you’re talking about. You have no clue.
        Guess what, I really don’t either, and I was even in the same battalion as these men. Sometimes soldiers cant even compare their experiences to one another, unless they were together in the exact same situation at the exact same time. I was a squad leader in Charlie Company during that deployment, and we all know that everyone had a rough tour, though some more than others. But even in the same unit, we have an idea, but no real knowledge of what each other went through. People from Bravo Co have no clue about some of the things I’ve been through and I have no clue about some of the things they’ve been through. I don’t know what it was like to have 2 kids from my platoon get captured and tortured and they have no clue what it was like to watch a soldier die from friendly fire from a .50-cal machine gun. Even in different platoons of the same company we have different experiences. Even in different squads of the same platoon. And I’m not even talking about just hardcore combat situations. I’m talking about all the everyday situations added together and the effects it has on leadership, morale, perception, etc.
        It was no big secret to us even at that time that Bravo had some leadership problems. A lot of their good leaders were killed or wounded and some of the best ones that were left weren’t in positions to make a huge difference. Some of the others were nothing but cowards (just like some of the ones we had). But who are you to suggest that you know better than a man who was in that unit at that time? Do I know your personal experiences better than you do? That’s what sums it up, and that’s exactly what bad leadership does to men. In a very condescending way, they always “know” what you’re going through better than you do.

        • Anonymous
          September 21, 2013 at 6:54 pm

          true, if people only knew the real stories ,,,, the books time frame was even off,,,,,, and yes I sat on Bradly bridge for 3-4 days strait to brother cobra. also know the Kunk asked for help ,,, from 4 ID , but they couldn’t and would not help, even seen the sgt. major of the army there having conference with Kunk ,,,, but still no help, if people really want to know ,,, ask someone that was there sure some pog would tell you all about it

          • Anonymous
            March 14, 2014 at 8:09 am

            Great point. Kunk tried hard to get us more men and better battle positions to increase our effectiveness. Shot down by evil Ebel every time. Kunk even stayed in it after he caught shrapnel. First Strike was full of many tough guys, who made the biggest sacrifices. Natural Reactions To Nearly Impossible Situations. PSD-

  6. Anonymous
    October 9, 2012 at 6:51 pm

    i think a lot of people are missing the big pitcher and are not thinking of how these guys where out in no where ville with 3-8 man post. holding rout sportzer. Plus no one has ever brought up TBI or ever if these man wore tested for TBI.

    • anonymous
      May 25, 2014 at 7:21 pm

      I was in Bco during this deployment. We had Soldiers hit multiple IED’s in the same day and at the time we didnt really know about TBI you would just drive on with the mission.

  1. March 1, 2011 at 8:10 am

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