#45 The Reason

Next week, on Feb 9th, a book will be published entitled, "Black Hearts, One Platoon's Descent Into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death." It is written by Time magazine editor Jim Frederick and is the story of 1st platoon, B Co, 1/502 Infantry, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and the events and tragedies that occurred from September 2005 to September 2006. It will tell the story - hopefully accurately - of the events that began my personal odyssey and transformation.

As many of you are already aware, I was the platoon sergeant for 1st platoon from Feb 5th, 2006 - December 31st 2006. During this time the principle, although certainly not the only, significant events that became the basis for the book, took place. These are the rape of a 14 year old Iraqi girl and the murder of she and her family by US forces, and an insurgent attack against 3 of my Soldiers which resulted in a 3 day manhunt to recover their tortured and booby-trapped bodies.

I have not read the book so I have no idea what it will say. What I do know is that short of the official investigations, this will probably be the most complete record of that period that has been conducted. Mr. Frederick interviewed hundreds of members of the battalion and the reviews that I have seen all say that it has been painstakingly researched. What conclusions he has drawn from those interviews remain to be seen.

I think that many of us who went through that time will be looking for some sort of absolution or vindication in the pages of the story - some sense that we did all we could, or knew how to do. But I'm not sure that that sort of comfort will be provided. My guess is that for every event where it appears that someone is vindicated, there will likely be another point where he will be vilified. As Mr. Frederick told me when he interviewed me, everybody gets a little messy in the end.

Personally, I think I'll have to read it 3 times. Once, to see the parts that directly involve me, a second time to learn how others saw the events unfolding and finally to try and draw some leadership lessons from it.

That time and those events are also the beginning of my personal journey. They have become the reason behind this blog and my somewhat amateurish study of leadership. As I have told other people, when you have travelled through the looking glass as events like this force you to do, when you emerge you no longer see your world the same way again. Any personal dramatic event in a person's life will do this, death, illness, injury etc. The sheer emotional weight of the event itself has a changing effect on those who were part of it. I, like many others who were part of that unit at that time and place, have been changed.

For me, that time was a crucible. I gave all I had to rebuilding the platoon prior to July '06 and then trying to keep it together until we could get back home after everything came to light. It was emotionally exhausting and difficult. I was forced to question everything I knew about the Army and leadership. I lost friends and professional acquaintances along the way. All my Soldiers did too. I saw extreme heroism and the absolute best of the American character in a Soldier who had the courage to come forward after the deaths of our 3 Soldiers to inform me that the Iraqi family may not have been killed by insurgents but rather by Americans. Knowing that that information would make our ordeal even more difficult, he did the right thing anyway. That is the Army and American value system at it's finest. I also saw the worst in people. I saw a sergeant cover up the crime and then watched as he memorialized a friend of his who was killed as a result of him covering it up. I saw people lie and try to rewrite facts in order to explain away their partial ownership in the events that transpired. I saw and experienced the anger and resentment and hostility and denial by many people looking to make the events go away.

I write this blog to talk about leadership. Leadership is easy when there is nothing critical at stake. It's all a matter of perspective. In the civilian sector there will always be pressure to turn a profit or meet sales goals or performance expectations, and those who are in charge often have to make very difficult choices in order to meet those expectations. In the military however - and in particular during a time of war - leaders make decisions that can have permanent effects. People can live or die on the outcome of the decisions we make. I sent those 4 Soldiers to that checkpoint from which they carried out their crimes. They were sent there for just and valid reasons. Am I then somehow responsible for the death of Abeer Al Janabi and her family? That is the ultimate difference between military and civilian leadership. It is rare in the civilian world that a person pays the ultimate price for the decision a leader or supervisor makes. In an Army at war it is a much greater possibility.

In the weeks ahead as people read the book and work through it, more accusations and denials will likely arise. And most will be self-serving. As much as I would like to think that I won't participate in that, the odds are I will. Someone, either a reader or the author, will fault me for something I did or did not do and I will feel compelled to defend my actions. I wish I could say that I won't participate in another round of tit-for-tat, but I know myself too well. I cannot take an attack without responding. It's not in my nature.

Here's the interesting part though....What if all of those decisions, made at all the varying levels of command, were 'correct'? What if each of us who were making decisions at that point in time were doing everything that we believed to be correct? Then what? What if there isn't anyone to blame? Where will that leave us? What lessons will there be to be learned?

The Army pays me to make decisions. They trained me and promoted me and gave me positions of authority over the course of my career. I am expected to take my knowledge, skills and abilities and make decisions that will help achieve the unit's mission. From Feb 2006 to December 2006 that's what I did for the men of 1st platoon who were in my charge. That's what we do. But they didn't train me for something like this. And they didn't train any of the people above me for something like this either. Once the events began to unfold we no longer had a road map or leadership manual to guide us. We were in uncharted waters.

I think any study of leadership has to begin with the question, "What would I have done if I were in that position?" So, if you are inclined to read the history of that time and those events, please keep this in mind: Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the actions we took, we were the one's who were required to make them. And we did. Many with the best of intentions and bringing to bear all of the experience and knowledge we had available to us at the time.

Events like this can be very instructive however. They show the fault in the leader education system where we provide lists of memorized phrases and vignettes of former heroes and hand a person a graduation certificate and call them a leader. In 1st platoon, I had Soldiers who had great leadership qualities, and I had leaders who were morally bankrupt. We had heroes and villains.

Finally, if you read the book and have questions about what and why things happened, please ask. The only good that can come of these tragic events will be that another young leader gains an insight into the human condition and the difficulties of leading men in battle and comes away with a better understanding of both.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts and comments.


  1. Perhaps this will come up as I continue through - but how did you react when the events began to come to light? When suddenly all the decisions that had seemed reasonable and logical as you made them going into the situation had all kinds of different shadows and implications than you would have/could have seen, what happened?

    I think that perhaps we are fascinated by wanting to never get caught up in a horrible circumstance like what you have experienced, or to recognize when the moment of glory has arrived for us, and there is a sincere hope that we might somehow recognize our moment before it happens, and that draws us into things like vignettes, but what preparation is there really to being in uncharted waters?

    I heard someone somewhere describe wisdom as "knowing what to do when you don't know what to do;" leadership includes looking at those you are developing and adding in ingredients that might someday be the very thing that puts them over the top in their uncharted waters, I think. It might be a story or a reflection or even a look that at the right moment returns and gives what is needed to go on, to make it through, and even to become that light to someone else.

    We don't know how what we do can make a difference, and we can't plan it or bottle it for distribution, though I think we are honor bound to try and make it as available as possible. What you are writing and sharing can make a difference; thank you for stepping out and continuing in this.

  2. Teknogirl -

    You bring up some very interesting questions. First, at the time that the potential crimes were brought to my attention, we were still dealing with the fact that 3 more platoon members had just been killed. When their bodies were located they had been badly abused and mutiliated. The remains were sent back to the States for positive identificaction. It was in this gap in time that the possible crimes were relayed to me and my platoon leader. At that point, I don't remember 'feeling' much of anything, just another set of issues/decisions that needed to be made.
    Once the call went out, many things were out of our control. We had to get relieved so we could go back and prepare for the memorial. Of course, there would be an investigation into the 'how' and 'why' of the attack etc. What we really had was an administrative nightmare of interviews with lawyers, investigators for the attack on our Soldiers, and investigators for the alleged crimes committed by our Soldiers. Just keeping track of who was meeting with who when was hard enough.
    My understanding that things would get ugly came early, but I had not considered just how isolated we would become. It seemed for awhile that our worst enemies were people in Army uniforms. Rumors, innuendo, accusations, counter-accusations, lawyers, investigators etc, etc. It got hard keeping track of all the players and figuring out that each group had an agenda and bosses and everyone wanted answers right now. The 28 Soldiers that I had left who had NOT committed any crimes became my focus.

    On a personal level, this sense of 'identity loss' has come in waves over the intervening years. Whenever a court-martial would arise, or the Green trial, and finally the approach of the release of the book, I would feel more and more conflicted. I believed then, and believe now, that the decisions I made were sound given the people, circumstances, and conditions that we faced in early March 2006. However, defense lawyers get paid to shade and cast doubt, Green's lawyers were the same except that the stakes in his trial were much higher. The book (now that I've read it) paints me and every other leader in a poor light. The problem is that if I try to tell my point of view now, then it only appears as self-protectionism. If I say nothing, then people will interpret the book as complete fact. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

    I'm not sure there is a moment of realization when situations like this occurr. They don't happen all at once, it's more an unravelling over time. You tend to live in the moment and then deal with the next moment. It has taken 4 years to gain enough perspective to sort through some of it.

    Your definition of wisdom strikes a chord with me. I like it. There is no guide book for how to deal with a situation like this. There are so many victims and so many interpretations, and points of view that it gets hard to keep it all in balance. That is why I spend so much time talking about self-awareness. I think, at the end of the day, the reason I feel compelled to write now is to make others see that it really is your character that counts. When you feel most isolated and abandoned, the only thing that you will have to draw upon is your moral character, your name, your values, and your professional reputation.

    I continue to serve becaue, although this happened and I 'see' the Army differently now than before, the insitution as a whole is still good, still fair, and still committed to Soldier development. This is my part of that discussion.

    Thank you very much for your thoughts. I appreciate them.