Reading for War

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

By Brendan Robinson October 28, 2019


In late 2005, during a year-long tour in a semi-rural area just south of Baghdad, 1st Battalion of the Black Heart Brigade of the famed 101st Airborne Division was assigned an area of operations (AO) to dominate. They would face some of the toughest conditions US Forces experienced in Iraq. Yet they would leave their AO forever tarnished by the actions of four soldiers of the battalion’s 1st Platoon. These four soldiers would eventually be convicted and sentenced for the rape of a 14 year-old girl and the murder of her and her family. Jim Frederick’s thoroughly researched book tells the tale of 1st Platoon’s descent - morally, emotionally and physically - amidst an apparent lack of leadership and value by their chain of command.

Why study this book?

This book provides many lessons worthy of study but I think it’s worth exploring this book in the context of Good Soldiering.

After nine months being Forces Command's (FORCOMD) Incident Manager, I have thought more about character and behaviour than I ever wished to. It has been a professionally beneficial posting, but sometimes disheartening to hear cases of unacceptable behaviour which a few of our people have inflicted on others, themselves or that they receive. Still, I know that as an organisation of 35,000 people, we do fairly well. There are similarly sized towns in Australia that have far worse incident statistics than we do.

What is Good Soldiering? This concept forms a core part of the Chief of Army (CA’s) guidance, Army in Motion. It describes what behaviours Army wants of its soldiers and officers and outlines what society expects in a humane and rules-based world. It reinforces the Army's values of Courage, Initiative, Teamwork and Respect. It rededicates the soldiers’ contract with Australia and reinforces the Laws of Armed Conflict. Ultimately, it says we must treat others the way we wish to be treated, at home, on exercise and deployed, or face the consequences.

The tale of 1st Platoon is surely one where human values completely evaporated amidst the strain of constant patrols, heat, dust, lack of leadership and resources, and the ever present spectre of unpredictable violence. But how did this happen in a modern, first world Army of a democratic, liberal-values superpower? As some reviewers of this book have noted, perhaps this is this just an example like My Lai in Vietnam, where such incidents, previously hard to uncover before the advent of embedded media, can no longer be hidden. Is this a sign that the West has serious problems with its values? Was it a symptom of an uncaring chain of command? Or maybe it is a reflection of the kind of unconventional conflicts we have been part of now for nearly 20 years? It is probably all these and more.

Immutable lessons

On of our legal officers here on the HQ, LTCOL Jim Backwell, put me onto an excellent 2004 International Committee of the Red Cross  (ICRC) paper entitled, The Roots of Behaviour in War: Understanding and preventing International Human Law violations that explores these very issues. The authors noted three main findings:

  1. The universal character of adherence to humanitarian principles (i.e., a combatant shares civilian humanitarian values because they are universal).
  2. The importance, for combatants, of authority, group affiliation and the spiral of violence they often find themselves locked into.
  3. The existence of mechanisms of moral disengagement when violations of International Human Law (IHL) occur.

These are all present in the Black Hearts’ platoon. I would posit that the last (moral disengagement) is informed by the acts (or lack thereof) of an authority.

In this vein, during the All Corps Majors Course I remember reading about Australia’s legendary WWI General Sir John Monash and the intense scrutiny he put staff officers under to ensure Australian Imperal Force (AIF) soldiers in France were properly kitted, trained and supported. He was a soldiers' advocate well before the War and long after it, knowing that soldiers who knew their welfare was being managed properly would do the right thing and do it well. The successful battle to capture the Hamel salient is a powerful example of getting this right.

We often speak of the values we expect our people to uphold. They are fundamental to what our Army represent - but, I think they are closely tied to the support we give our personnel. One depends on the other.

The importance of organisational culture

We will never really understand what was going through the heads of those 1st Platoon soldiers. But clearly there were factors that allowed them to abandon their values and commit those heinous crimes. These factors are what we, as an organisation responsible for individual and collective force generation and training, need to keep in mind. As the Chief of Army reiterated in his Cove Address (delivered 17 October 2019), the management of tempo is a critical factor. But so is thorough planning, setting the conditions for good command & control, appropriate resourcing and prioritisation, and holding people to account for their actions - these are things that HQ FORCOMD does on a daily basis to set the Command up for success. We all play our small part.

Doing these and other things well at this headquarters go a long way to ensuring that our soldiers and officers, when deployed, know they are valued by Army, that their welfare will be considered, and that their role has real purpose.

Reading Jim Frederick’s book it is obvious that the members of platoon lost this sense of value (and their values with it) during their year-long tour of duty in Iraq. What those soldiers did is inexcusable. However, it is clear from Frederick’s account that their leaders (all the way up the command chain) created the conditions that allowed these inexcusable crimes to occur. From a leadership stance, that is unforgivable.

That is why we need to study this book.

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The Defence Library Service (DLS) holds eight copies of this book and will deliver to your workplace.


Portrait

Biography

Brendan Robinson

Brendan Robinson is a graduate of the UK Command and Staff College and the Royal Military College Duntroon. Trained as a mechanical engineer at the Australian Defence Force Academy, he has served with armoured, infantry and logistics units and has deployed twice. He now manages the sensitive and strategic incidents that arise from Army’s largest command, Forces Command. He maintains an interest in good writing, world affairs and Army modernisation.

Brendan has also written:

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



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