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'Black Hearts' (Anatomy of a War Crime)

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In his foreword to Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death, author Jim Frederick, contributing editor of Time magazine, describes being riveted in June, 2006, by a pair of news items. The first noted that two members of a U.S. Army platoon had been the victims of an atrocity. Taken hostage, they had just been found "mutilated, beheaded, burned, and booby-tapped with explosives."

The second news item, Frederick writes, reported that U.S. soldiers "had been implicated in the March, 2006 rape of a fourteen-year-old Iraqi girl, killing her, her parents and her six-year-old sister. The crime was horrific and cold-blooded. The fourteen year old had been triply defiled: raped, murdered, and burned to a blackened char." Both events stood out in their savagery even against the backdrop of constant killing in Iraq, attracting planetwide attention. The al-Janabi family members moreover had been slaughtered by soldiers from 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army and the beheaded soldiers came from the same small platoon. Frederick wondered if the events were in other ways related.

Pushed by the Battle of the Fallujah, both Iraqi nationalists and foreign jihadists had flooded into the triangular area south of Baghdad. A genocidal Sunni/Shi'ite civil war was also in progress, and weapons smugglers slicked through the region. All of this had brought the 101st Airborne's 502nd Infantry Regiment," the "Black Hearts." The slaughtered al-Janabi family had lived and died in a hamlet, Yusufiyah, within the Triangle. An Al Qaeda group active in the Triangle, which released a video of themselves playing with the body of a tortured and murdered U.S. soldier, took responsibility for the beheadings.

Worldwide women's networks, regarding the raped and murdered teenager, Abeer Qassim al-Janabi, as an example of what happens to women and children in war ravaged areas, meanwhile kept Abeer's story front and center as the murder and rape cases slowly wound though the U.S. courts.

Parts of the al-Janabi media story however were from the start inaccurate or misleading. The Associated Press [AP] reporter who broke the story in 2006 had for example wrongly dubbed the killings the "Mahmudiyah Massacre." The murders had occurred in Yusufiyah, but the term stuck. In testimony moreover, questions were raised about the part command negligence might have played in the al-Janabi murders. Having served as Time's senior editor in both Tokyo and London, Frederick not only called on his own gifts, experience and network of friends but on what he termed the "door-opening, safety-guaranteeing, wheel-greasing privileges" of journalism's establishment to help him chase the down the realities. Evidence was strong. First Platoon had been both unnecessarily endangered and dangerously unbridled by poor leadership.

How to Destroy a Platoon

The soldiers of 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1-502nd, who lived in frontline "combat squalor," were treated with contempt and culpable neglect by many of their officers. Under sniper and mortar fire, shorthanded, and therefore rarely sleeping, the soldiers were ordered to stand posts at exposed traffic checkpoints for months, and were simultaneously sent out on foot to find buried Improvised Explosive Devices [IEDs], often by inadvertently stepping on them, in order to save vehicles from blowing up.

Casualties were high. Frederick reports that even when they grieved for lost comrades, the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Tom Kunk, sneered at the memory of the just-lost troops and demeaned those still living. Deployed in static positions, Bravo asked for earthmoving equipment to build protective barriers. Battalion command denied the request. Bravo Company's commander, Captain John Goodwin, asked for more troops; Kink insisted that there were none to spare. Yet Frederick notes that when the two members of Bravo were taken hostage by Al Qaeda, triggering worldwide publicity, the Army "somehow mustered and flooded the area in less than seventy-two hours" with 8,000 extra soldiers.

Commercial contractor KBR had meanwhile inspected but not fully repaired faulty wiring in Bravo's Forward Operating Base [FOB], a firetrap that passed for a safe fall-back point, which contained the platoon's extra clothes, equipment, laptops, and reminders of home. Battalion leadership asked repeatedly for fire extinguishers. KBR replied that it was not required to furnish them. When a fire broke out, almost all extinguishers were used up. When the next fire started, it took the entire FOB only 30 minutes to burn down. Battalion leadership was slow even to replace the lost clothes--one 1st platoon soldier whom Frederick quotes said that he was stuck in the same uniform for 70 days straight.

And so it went. The pressure built. In previous U.S. wars, Frederick notes, soldiers had booze and cigarettes (drug) rations and visited prostitutes, spending reliable leaves with spouses and sweethearts. In Iraq by contrast they were "required to be nothing less than warrior monks" with no alcohol or pornography, "zero sexual release and almost no social recreation" beyond very rare permission to use a Green Zone retreat with a swimming pool. For many in 1st Platoon, the lack of release led to their buying drugs and booze from the (contrary to propaganda) anything-but-puritanical Iraqi Army.

Cracking

Leadership sets the tone. In the years 2003-2007, before David Petraeus became top commander first in Iraq and then in the Middle Eastern theater, most other U.S. generals were trying to dominate and terrorize Iraqi civilians, not to befriend and protect them. The otherwise evenhanded Frederick identifies General Ray Odierno, currently Commanding General, Multinational Force, Iraq, only as someone who in 2007 was with Petraeus "spearheading a new strategy" of enlightened counterinsurgency.

[Yet Odierno was before 2007 the worst offender, according to the Washington Post's Pulitzer-Prize-winning Thomas Ricks. In 2003-2004 Odierno ordered his troops to wait until dark for maximum terror, then kick down doors and arrest all MAMs--"military aged males"--between 16 and 60. Sending them by the truckload into Abu Ghraib prison, which was then at its worst, Odierno opposed their release. Though other generals disapproved, they did not stand up to him.]

Far too many enlisted people freely attacked Iraqi "suspects," barging into homes, routinely beating Iraqi males, sometimes ogling and touching women. Some members of First Platoon did. By early 2006, the platoon was cracking along the lines of its most unstable personalities. When Paul Cortez, who had passed his exams for the rank of sergeant, and Specialist James Barker decided to rape an Iraqi girl, they picked a tall (and to them nameless) teen with doe eyes whom they had seen during home raids and at checkpoints, her body always completely covered in an abaya. The fact that this was a youngster with dreams, who wanted to go to college and work in Baghdad, was invisible to them.

Private First Class Steven Green seemed the obvious person to enlist to kill the family, thus eliminating witnesses. (Green spewed virulent hatred of many groups nonstop and was increasingly erratic and slovenly--at one point, his low-slung, torn pants showed his genitals. Sent to Lieutenant Colonel Karen Marrs, a Combat Stress team psychiatric nurse, a highly agitated Green reported his barely contained need to kill Iraqi civilians. She gave him sleeping pills.) Posting lookouts, Frederick writes, "Cortez outlined the mission and divvied up the duty assignments just like a legit patrol." As he and Barker raped the screaming girl, Abeer, Green shot her six-year-old sister Hadeel in the back as she fled, shot their parents, and paused to join the gang rape before also murdering Abeer.

The 502nd command structure instantly failed again. Voluntarily, Green confessed twice to Sergeant Anthony Yribe. Initiating a cover-up, Yribe simply told Green to leave the Army. Soon after the killings Green went to Lt. Col. Elizabeth Bowler, a forensic psychiatrist, in Iraq. He told her that he had killed a puppy by throwing it off a roof, that he saw no difference in killing something quickly or slowly, saw no difference between killing a puppy and killing an Iraqi. Bowler concluded that Green had an antisocial personality disorder--was a sociopath--which brought an automatic expulsion from the military. Yet she deemed his danger to others to be "low."

Green therefore, only weeks after four premeditated civilian murders and a gang rape, was sent back to the States and received an honorable discharge. Green told Frederick that from May until July, 2006. all day, every day in the U.S. "All I was doing was drinking and smoking weed and driving around with a pistol and an AK-47 in my car...."

Frederick, taking the story through to the surprising effect of the beheadings, the conclusion of the war crime trials and the impact that they had on the Iraqi relatives of the slain and the members of Bravo Company, tells the complex story in raw, compassionate and exact detail. Black Hearts should be taught at West Point, Annapolis, and wherever else the styles and consequences of combat leadership are studied. Poor command overseas whether at the platoon or battalion level endangers troops and civilians on both sides of the ocean.