#65 Black Hearts Review

In the May/June issue of Military Review there is a 4 page review of "Black Hearts" written by LTC (Ret) Paul Christipher. You can find the link here:

To date this is probably the most complete and fair-minded review of the book that I have seen. While not completely accurate, LTC Christopher does a very good job of getting at many of the issues that surround that event and the leadership and command climate that existed during our tour. I highly recommend people read it because it offers some strong insights into leadership in general, not just military. I think LTC Christopher's review also demonstrates that issues such as command climate, and willingness to consider different viewpoints are important in all walks of life. Hopefully, his review will further the discussion of the manner and method by which we train military leaders and the critical importance of creating work climates that enhance and build cohesion and a unified understanding of the purpose of the work, no matter the industry.

My real issue with any of the reviews I have seen is that they all focus on only one thing, the perceived or real leadership 'failures' throughout the command. Since I am often lumped into that category along with others, obviously that is not something that is easy to read time after time. However, what absolutely baffles me is that no one seems to place the responsibility for the atrocities committed by those Soldiers where it truly belongs - on them. Every review ends up almost excusing them and implying that they were somehow victims in this event. Consider the following from LTC Christopher's review:

"Frederick’s commitment to detail and organization are brilliant, allowing the perceptive reader to share the frustration and hardship that members of this unit experienced in a climate of dysfunctional leadership. Black Hearts invites its readers to spend long frightening nights on undermanned and isolated guard posts and to accompany squads on patrols looking for roadside bombs during the most dangerous period of the Iraqi occupation.
We, as readers, are invited not only to empathize with members of the 1-502, but to vicariously experience the exhaustion, the frustration, the sense of abandonment, the anger, the rebellion, and occasionally, the palpable fear that members of the battalion experienced daily for a year."

I wonder how many other units in Iraq during 2005-2006 had Soldiers who spent "long frightening nights in undermanned and isolated guard posts"? My guess is most. I wonder, how many other units experienced "the exhaustion, the frustration, the sense of abandonment, the anger" etc etc during that time. Again, the answer is most - if not all. How many of those Soldiers and units committed unspeakable acts of depravity? Few, if any. Search as we may for some way to come to grips with what those Soldiers decided to do, the truth still remains that even if the command climate was the most dysfunctional in the entire Army, nothing mitigates, excuses, or minimizes the responsibility of those individuals for their personal actions. Nothing.

LTC Christopher's review does touch on some very important issues that do need to be discussed however, some of which I have mentioned throughout this blog. For example, he states that:

"An obvious question readers may have upon completing Frederick’s book concerns whether members of the chain of command, especially some of the officers and senior officers from brigade on down, should also bear some culpability for the actions of the four men who were convicted. I don’t believe so. While some members of the chain of command were grossly incompetent, they were not unethical, and this is more of an indictment of our military training and certification programs than the character of the leaders in question. Unlike the murderers and rapists they led, these leaders were not bad people, just deplorable leaders."

"..they were not unethical, and this is more an indictment of our military training and certification programs than the character of the leaders in question." A critical point. Our leader development programs currently do not place anywhere near enough emphasis on ethical decision making, nor the behavioral dynamics of unit/team design. We simply label anyone with rank and a title a leader and then send them on their way. Without understanding how teams and units are built (or destroyed), and the absolutely fundamental part that human being interaction plays in that creation or destruction, we are continually putting people in the position of having to command something that they have no understanding of.

As a member of that chain of command, I have tried to look at the events and my decisions fairly and openly over the past year. I have not hidden from this, nor have I tried to shy away from asking hard questions. Some might even say that the blog is my way of holding on to that time and to continually punish myself for what happened. For the record, that is not true. I continue to talk about the events that happened to my platoon for one reason only - to get people to understand that what happened to us can very easily happen to others and that the system of leader development that is currently in place has a lot to do with why that is so. I have been supported and demonized equally throughout and that has been hard. Some people have understood that there are some very important lessons to be learned from the Black Hearts story that should fundamentally change the manner and method by which we grow leaders in the Army. Some fall back on the easy label of leadership failure. In effect saying, "We don't have to study this because that was just a group of shitty leaders, and because I'm not one of them, then I don't have to worry about it." And, certainly, no matter what I write here, some people will never get past the idea that all I'm trying to do is make myself feel better. There have been a lot of responses like that lately. That somehow, even if I'm correct that there are very important leader development skills and ideas that need to be studied, because I am a member of the 'failed leadership' group, that my points are somehow diminished because of it. On the contrary, having studied and thought about it almost every day for the past 4 years, I contend that my thoughts and ideas might be an important starting point. There are many times throughout this blog, where the very questions that I have raised, are also being raised by others. For example, this review - as with every other - paints a picture of an extremely toxic leadership climate. No argument. It was extremely toxic. Every Soldier in the battalion knew it and felt it. The question really is, did the leadership know how toxic it's actions were? The answer is no. Why not? Why could they not see what behavioral conditions were being created? And, importantly, even if they could have seen or were aware of how the Soldiers really felt, what could have been done? As a subordinate, there was only so much I could do to try to mitigate that toxicity when it was directed at my Soldiers. Since I've rarely heard from anyone else, the question becomes, what would you have done differently?

LTC Christopher brings up another important point that I have tried to look at in past postings as well. Consider the following:

"The commander of the 1-502 is a central figure in Black Hearts, and it is incontrovertible that his behavior was especially dysfunctional. Leaders who refuse to listen to suggestions from their subordinates unhinge any hope of unit cohesion. Even if the commander’s selected courses of action are always the best ones—which
is a preposterous supposition—the arrogance of not listening to team members denigrates them. Leader arrogance is the mortal enemy of unit cohesion, and the disenchantment of subordinates can sometimes do more to destroy a unit than enemy weapons. In this case, the battalion commander did not simply refuse to listen to his company commanders or senior noncommissioned officers, but he berated,abused, and publicly ridiculed them whenever they spoke up. His actions completely destroyed any notion of team."

That quotation is the exact reason that I have been pushing so hard for the last few months for an inclusive leadership design model. However, if I go back to my earliest leader development school, and find the models of leadership outlined in the old leadership manual, I will find 3 types of leaders, (1) Authoritative (2) Delagative (3) Participative. The 1-502 commander was most certainly an authoritative leader. He was following an Army leadership model that had been laid out for him throughout his career and which suits his personality and inclination. What no one had ever pointed out to him before were the positive and negative effects of such a style. The same can be said for me. I believe that I tend to be a more delagative and participative leader, however, just last week someone accused me of being so arrogant that I could not be taught anything. That would imply that either (1) their perception of me is incorrect, or (2) my self-awareness is not as complete as it should be. Either way, there is the beginning of a misunderstanding by either my followers or myself that could potentially have devastating effects.

Some other examples of why this incident demands such serious study by anyone who would ever aspire to leadership positions:

1. The unit was undermanned - Regardless of how we got there, the truth is that an Army must fight with what it has available be it people or equipment. The political situation that called for the manning in 2005-2006 is beyond my purview. However, as a Soldier, I do the best I can with what I have. In post number 10 I included the following quotation:

"In the Korean War...I was a 2nd Lieutenant, commanding a company. I had a Corporal as a platoon leader, a Sergeant as a platoon leader and one other Sergeant in the company. That's not the way you want to go to war, but that's the way you have to go to war. So we have to train our people the best we can so we're able to perform in whatever manner we're called upon. I've always been amazed at what individuals can do when they have to, when called upon, particularly in combat. Understrength units, properly trained, can fight like hell."

General Edward C. Meyer

The battalion and brigade commanders certainly would have been glad to accept more Soldiers into their battlespace during that time, but there weren't any to be had. We were all doing the best we could with the manpower we had available. It wouldn't be until the 'Surge' that an additional 30,000 troops would be pushed into theater. The land that we controlled as a company in 2005 was later controlled by a battalion in 2007.

2. Empathy - Although I did a poor job last week in sorting out my thoughts regarding empathy, it is the critical link to creating climates of understanding and awareness. While it is possible that the battalion commander was correct that the Soldiers who got killed had become lax, to not recognize the effect that his words would have on the remainder of the unit does demonstrate a lack of understanding of the empathy required whenever we ask someone to do something extremely difficult.

3. What makes COIN hard - It should also be remembered that he had demanded that we extend a hand of friendship to the Iraqi people. He was trying to do COIN before COIN was cool. These were the early days of counterinsurgent operations and people didn't really have a good understanding of what was required and the inherent risks involved. Consider that in current operations in Afghanistan, it is encouraged for Soldiers to take off their protective equipment (once security has been emplaced) when meeting with local elders. This demonstrates trust and respect - both crucial aspects of successful COIN operations.

4. A bottom-up approach - As LTC Christopher points out in his review

"Appropriately, Frederick begins his research“from the bottom up.” He conducts extensive
interviews with the members of the platoon, company,and battalion, and without adding his own evaluative commentary, allowing these Soldiers to report actions, outcomes, and feelings in their own words."

I simply cannot state enough that the Army as an institution must keep an ear tuned to the interpretations and understandings of the myriad levels of people throughout the organization and ensure that each group has the same generalized understanding of the intended outcome. As Black Hearts clearly demonstrates at the microcosmic level, when even one small group becomes disenfranchised or does not have the same understanding as their superiors, then the results can be devastating.

5. Comparisons to My Lai - Finally, for those of you who are members of Facebook, there is a 'Black Hearts' group site that has an interview with the Mr. Frederick regarding comparisons between this incident and the one at My Lai that was filmed for inclusion in a PBS documentary. Although there are some similarities between the two events, there are also some major differences as well. As I mentioned in an earlier post, one of the parts of this tragedy that needs to be considered are the behavioral dynamics that would create a situation where 4 people who might normally not consider actions like this, would suddenly take actions well outside any normal human behavior.

At the end of the day, there will be people who see the 'Black Hearts' incident in the simplest form possible - leadership failure. The issue however, is very much more complex than that. From individual human behaviors, emotions, and feelings to geopolitical military strategy, from a scared kid on a patrol to a leader formed by a different time and circumstance, from a lack of individual ethical and moral underpinning to the honorable behavior of so many others, this event demands careful study at all levels.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. Jeff...you and I talked about this on the phone before I left the states...but I will state my thesis again....no doubt the guys in jail were/are criminals....and for the sake of my point I will say that even if they were lead by "perfect" leaders (not that they exist) that set "ideal command climates" (not that they exist) they would still be in jail because they were/are criminals..

    having said that....we need to develop leaders who have a mentality like our Navy (and many allied Navies do) has...."if the ship runs aground, the CO is relieved"....of course this is extreme and idealistic....but if we teach and develop leaders to internalize this level of responsibility, we will have more responsible and better leaders, better Soldiers, better units, etc....

    of course leaders can't prevent every DUI, drug taking, wife beating, fratricide, accidental discharge, rape etc etc etc...but maybe, just maybe, if we inculcate and develop this level of responsiblity....we might get close to the ideal....

    as an artillery commander, I used to tell myself that I would "relieve myself from command" if my unit was responsible for an "unsafe" round....

    "I commander is responsible for everything the unit does and/or fails to do"

    I continue to enjoy and learn from your blog...thanks....Joe

  2. Jeff,

    I have been studying leadership and its development at my current federal job. I have learned a significant amount about myself and those around me by studying Emotional Intelligence (EI), and more importantly for myself, being self aware of my actions and then "regulating" them. I have some references for this material, let me know if you would like to hear more. After learning about EI, to me it is just another tool in the tool-box that can be used by EVERYBODY.