Sunday, 4 August 2013

Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into Madness In Iraq's Triangle of Death by Jim Frederick

I guess most of the people who look at this blog will have read Band of Brothers by Steven Ambrose, or have watched the TV series of the same name. Band of Brothers was about the men of Easy Company, 501st Battalion, 101st Airborne in 1944-5. Black Hearts ( Link to Amazon page for this book )by Jim Frederick is about Bravo Company, 502nd Battalion, 101st Airborne during 2005-6 - sixty years on and warfare has changed immensely as has the pressures on the young men who fight their nations wars. This book has, at it's heart, a terrible crime committed by four drunken youths - the murder in their own home of a husband and wife and their two daughters, one of whom was raped before she was killed. The fact that the drunken youths were serving American soldiers makes the book all the more shocking. But, to put the crime into context, Frederick details the travails of Bravo Company in the Triangle of Death - and the whole book is appalling.

I've only read the book and not read more widely on the subject - so my views are based solely upon Black Hearts, which is always a bit risky. But, I've been told it is on the reading list at West Point - which I guess means at least someone thought it was on the money.

Bravo Company were sent to an area South of Baghdad referred to by the media as The Triangle of Death. The first surprise for many British readers is that the Americans fighting this war were not blessed with every technological advantage known to man and huge reserves of manpower to throw at situations. This is a battalion of "light infantry" (as in they don't have heavy APCs etc) who have been dumped in the worst part of Iraq at that time and told to manage an area that was several times too large for their numbers (at this point I started to get serious deja vu thinking of the book I read awhile ago on the Welsh guards deployment to Helmand). They also have the misfortune that their battalion commander, Lt.Colonel Kunk, appears to have stepped straight out of a Joseph Heller novel (by the end of the book you may well feel that Kunk is a mispronunciation of his name).

The book addresses the thinking that many people have that Iraq wasn't a "proper war" because it wasn't full on combat a-la WWII. Frederick addresses the pressures of low level counter insurgency warfare being fought on a daily basis for months without respite very well, pointing out that WWII soldiers were usually rotated in and out of the line on a regular basis whereas these poor guys were pretty much at the sharp end for the duration of their tour.

The men of 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 502nd Airborne had the misfortune to be serving in the worst place in Iraq at the worst time - force levels were low, the search and destroy tactics used were clearly failing but it would be another year or so before senior command were prepared to admit this. The guys on the ground knew that what they were being asked to do was futile, given their level of resources, and yet nobody seemed to have any other solutions. They were in the butt end of nowhere being attacked on a daily basis, living in appalling conditions at the wrong end of a very long supply line. The lack of coherent strategy for the war flowed down from Pentagon to battalion and below with demoralizing results.

This book was an eye-opener for me on a number of levels. Apart from the fact that the 502nd were often short of equipment, Frederick writes extremely well describing the events that led up to the murders - this should be required reading for soldiers at all levels. He also covers the pressures (as of the middles of the last decade) that caused the US Army to recruit men like the four accused (one in five recruits had "moral waivers" that allowed the army to overlook prior criminal convictions), and how a lack of support and supervision in the field allowed them to do what they did.

He also covers the investigation and trial of the men involved. One of the final chapters includes a note of what the various people within the battalion were doing at the time of writing the book -if anything, this was the part that I found most shocking - as far as I could see these four boys behaved appallingly but their chain of command was responsible for where they were, how they were supported, their tactics and so on. And pretty much everything about that was screwed up by NCOs and officers at all levels within their chain of command who failed to appreciate the situation on the ground - or who ignored the issues knowing that in a "can-do" army that admitting that the mission couldn't be done with the assets at hand wouldn't help their prospect of higher command in the future.

This leadership failed at pretty much every level, from Rumsfeld on down. But, after reading the book, I defy anyone to think that Lt Col Kunk was anything other than a complete w***** who couldn't run a whelk stall let alone a battalion - and yet he wasn't dismissed from the service (which was what I expected to see when I looked at his entry) - his "punishment" was to be given a "letter of concern" (on the need for "an absolutely clear and concise flow of information down to the platoon level") - the minimum level of reprimand. No, he was promoted to Colonel in July 2009 and, at the time of the book being written (2010) was serving as "chief of current operations in the army's Operations, Planning and Training office at the Pentagon." Which seems quite scary to me.

Unsurprisingly, as a book about a war crime committed by US Army soldiers, this book hasn't sold as well as Band of Brothers. I picked it up remaindered for £1.99. Yet this book has just as much to say about how men react to war as Band of Brothers, or Sebastian Junger's War.

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