POWER POINTS: “Black Hearts – One Platoon’s Descent Into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death” by Jim Frederick

This book is gutwrenching.  The effects of disengaged and arguably toxic, self-absorbed leadership are on full display here.

This book is particularly meaningful to me since I too am a “Black Heart” serving in the “Strike Brigade” (2nd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division).

Frederick does a tremendous job of setting the context for one of the most egregious military leadership failures in recent history.  Three young men raping a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and killing her and her family on the evening of March 12, 2006 did not happen on a whim.  It was the result of an extended series of leadership oversights, indecision, bad personnel decisions, and a constant failure to listen to the “guy on the ground” that created an environment where a “disaster was waiting to happen.”

In his introduction, Frederick writes:

“Human organizations are flawed because humans are flawed.  Even with the best intentions, men make errors in judgment and initiate courses of action that are counterproductive to their self-interest or the completion of the mission.  In a combat zone, ranks as low as the staff sergeants make dozens of decisions every day, each with a direct impact on the potential safety and well-being of their own men.  A company commander or a battalion commander may make hundreds of such decisions a day.  Fortunately, in complex environments, individual errors or even long chains of mistakes can often be corrected or they simply dissipate before they cause any adverse effect.  Decisions from different people about the same goal either negate or reinforce each other, and, it is hoped, the preponderance of these heaped-together decisions pushes the task towards completion rather than failure.  But sometimes, in the permutations of millions of decisions from thousands of actors converging on a battlefield over a period of weeks or even months, a singular combination comes together to unlock something abhorrent.  These are what are known, in retrospect, as disasters waiting to happen.  March 12, 2006, was one such disaster.”  (pg. xvii-xviii)

Here are my POWER POINTS from this book:

POWER POINTS

Key Insights:

  • The question that haunted me as I read this book is WHERE WAS THE CHAPLAIN?  Frederick writes of a particularly demanding season when “paranoia skyrocketed” and SSG Lauzier was not “coping well. He felt a blinding anger and crushing disappointment… it was a personal betrayal… he also felt tremendous guilt.”  “As he ground himself up on the inside, no one was putting an arm around Lauzier’s shoulder, telling him not to take it so hard” (pg. 341).  The Chaplain should have done that.  Where was he?  He was present at some points in this craziness (see pg. 327)… I wish he could have been there.  (Admittedly this book is NOT about Chaplains so he may have been around more than Frederick acknowledges.  HOWEVER, I believe that the presence of a strong, engaged Chaplain may well have made a difference in this story.)

 

  • pg. 83-85 is a bone-jarring description of an IED attack.  Though I have never been through an IED attack, the description made me anxious… frustrated… even a little angry.  Perhaps most significant part of this description was the emotional revelation of those who survived the attack.  An IED attack is not like fighting a standard enemy who you can see and at whom you can return fire.  An IED attack is obviously an attack against you… but the enemy is nowhere to be found.  What do you do with the rage within you?  Your buddy is maimed… maybe even dead.  Someone has tried to kill you… your warrior instinct rages strong… yet there is NOWHERE to righteously place your rage.  What do you do with it?  “There is nothing you can do.  There is no release for the anger and the adrenaline coursing through your veins.”  

 

  • Frederick’s discourse on a lieutenant’s role in the platoon was helpful for me.  “Soldiers complain, all the time, about everything.  To complain is part of the Soldier’s very essence.  But one of the most valuable functions a platoon leader serves is to explain to a bunch of complaining Soldiers why a mission is not stupid, a time waste, or a death trap.  He helps the Soldiers understand the nonobvious logic of unpopular missions.” (pg 127)

 

  • WOW! Frederick refers to Jonathan Shay’s book, Achilles in Vietnam and shows how the effects of combat are exacerbated when leaders don’t do what is right.  Here’s the quote:
    • “Shay describes how the long-term debilitating effects of combat are exacerbated exponentially when a soldier’s sense of ‘what’s right’ is violated by his leaders.  ‘The mortal dependence of the modern soldier on the military organization for everything he needs to survive is as great as that of a small child on his or her parents.’  During his clinical treatment of Vietnam veterans, one of the most persistent causes of stress soldiers described was the perception that risk was not evenly distributed.  […] ‘Shortages of all sorts – food, water, ammunition, clothing, shelter from the elements, medical care – are intrinsic to prolonged combat…. However, when deprivation is perceived as the outcome of indifference or disrespect by superiors, it arouses menis [the Greek word for ‘indignant rage’] as an unbearable offense.’  This rage… is instrumental in the soldiers’ own ‘undoing of character’ and ‘loss of humanity’ essential to the commission of war crimes” (pg. 247)
  • ISOLATION IS DANGEROUS AND POWERFULLY DESTRUCTIVE!            SGT. John Diem reflecting on the 2005-2006 deployment that was so destructive: “…I know what kills Soldiers now.  I know what kills them.  Not in a physical sense, but in the psychological sense; what causes Soldiers to fail themselves, and what command can do to set them up for failure or not.  It was the feeling of isolation at all levels that caused what happened” (pg. 349).

PERSONAL APPLICATION

  • I need to listen and investigate the constant themes I am hearing from the “guys on the ground”.  I must take the rumblings seriously enough to explore… to investigate to confirm or deny.
  • An arm around the shoulder might change the story.  What would have happened if someone had cared enough to put an arm around the shoulder and encourage?  Leadership’s rhythm was negative, disheartening, and accusatory.  A simple “We hear you.  We care.” would have done a lot for these guys!
  • Lonely people are dangerous people.  Healthy connections minimize the likelihood of dangerous behavior.
  • Dark and dangerous times are exacerbated by leaders who neglect or avoid the right action.  
  • “Everything rises and falls on leadership.” 
  • Chaplain, be engaged.  Even if you cannot change what is happening at the highest levels, you can influence change at the lowest levels.  Care about people… it’s a game-changer!

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