This well balanced, honest and cleverly crafted work of non-fiction is so much more than an account of the brutal slaying, rape and murder of the Janabi family on March 12th 2006 in Iraq. Jim Frederick delves deeply into the inner workings of a platoon in free-fall, the human aspects of a platoon and a combination of indiscipline, exhaustion, naivety and plain bad luck.
Black Hearts is a timeless true story of how modern warfare can make or break a man’s character.
The 101st airborne division is arguably the most elite of all US divisions and bares the instantly recognisable insignia (the screaming eagle) made famous by “The Band of Brothers”. A division synonymous with honour and integrity, its name and reputation was tested vehemently when the infantry platoon was deployed to Iraq in 2005-6.
Iraq’s ‘Triangle of Death’, 2005. A platoon of young soldiers from a U.S. regiment known as ‘the Black Heart Brigade’ is deployed to a lawless and hyperviolent area just south of Baghdad. Almost immediately, the attacks begin: every day another roadside bomb, another colleague blown to pieces. As the daily violence chips away, and chips away at their sanity, the thirty-five young men of 1st Platoon, Bravo Company descend into a tailspin of poor discipline, substance abuse, and brutality – with tragic results.
When Bravo Company lost influential leaders early on, particularly 1st platoon killed in action, they failed to recover. As I read through Black Hearts I couldn’t help but feel that these soldiers, despite their obvious faults were let down. There was a clear lack of support and an inept chain of command in place. When the company lost its father figures early on in the deployment, it came as no surprise to me that soldiers in the heat of battle suffered and became monsters.
One such soldier was James Baker (one of the rapists of Abeer Qasim Hamza ). He lost his father when he was just 15 years old and found a surrogate father in Sergeant Kenith Casica. But when Casica was killed early on Baker lost his most immediate and influential support network.
Another soldier, clearly not “compos mentis” was the group’s ringleader Private First Class Steven Green. Green was a loose cannon, a vile and toxic soldier who in a combat stress report claimed his interests as “none other than killing Iraqis”. The army’s mental health professionals failed to spot this clear irregularity and passed him fit for action. Green was discharged from the army before his role in the heinous crime was discovered.
Before Green was deployed in Iraq he told a neighbour “I’m gonna go over there and kill ’em all.” A chilling thought and ultimately a prophecy he fulfilled to a certain degree.
To deal with the alarming rate of losses some soldiers drank heavily while others turned to drugs and substance abuse just to get through their deployment.
Frederick reserves his most powerful prose to that of March 12th when the five men callously set out to rape and murder the Janabis. The men, drunk from boredom and whisky picked up their rifles and shuffled their way, 200 feet northwest and rounding up the family entered the house. Cortez through rank superiority decided to rape the 14 year old first while Green would kill the rest of the family in the bedroom.
I grimaced my way through the entire chapter, couldn’t quite believe what I was reading – surely human beings weren’t capable of such debauchery?
Very well written by Jim Frederick, managing editor of Time.com – Black Hearts (One platoon’s descent into madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death), is an arresting account of the war in Iraq. Arguably the most engrossing and realistic account of its type, if you’re to read one book on the War in Iraq, let it be this one. Remarkable.