‘Blackhearts’ : A view from the inside

By Dan Sukman

Best Defense guest columnist

Tom Ricks has repeatedly cited in this blog Jim Frederick’s 2010 book Blackhearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death, about B Company, 1/502 (1st Battalion, 2nd Brigade) and their yearlong deployment in South Baghdad.

This deployment, from September 2005--2006 was marred by two distinct incidents. The first was the DUSTWUN (Duty Status: Whereabouts Unknown), when members of Al Qaeda in Iraq kidnapped and murdered three soldiers. The second was when a squad from B Co 1/502 raped a young Iraqi girl and murderer her and her entire family inside their own home. Frederick offers insight and analysis into how these events unfolded. The book is generally accurate in the portrayal of events and personnel involved, but for those of us who were actually there can attest, there is more to the story that has remained in the shadows for too long.

I was a member of the Blackhearts Brigade throughout the deployment. During the first six months I served as the Brigade Provost Marshal and the second six months as the Headquarters Company Commander for the Brigade Special Troops Battalion. When Blackhearts was released, I purchased the book on Amazon, and when it arrived, I practically locked myself in my bedroom and read the book in one sitting. Over the past seven years, whenever I have had the opportunity to catch up with a member of that Brigade, be it over lunch, dinner, drinks, or just running into each other in the PX food court, the subject of the book inevitably comes up. Typically, we agree that the book, for the most is accurate, but lacks sufficient context. The shortcoming of the book is that it failed to capture a complete picture of events leading up to and during that 12-month deployment. Everyone has a perspective on what happened, and what we should take away from that deployment. As one who lived it, here is my perspective.

Toxic Relationships

Blackhearts details continually and painfully the leadership failures of various members of leaders at the level of Platoon, Company, and Battalion. What the book does not discuss are the varying toxic relationships that developed prior to the deployment that endured throughout the year. These toxic relationships occurred between Commanders and their Command Sergeants Major (CSMs), between the staffs of the 4ID and 2nd BCT, and between the leaders of the division and of the 2nd Brigade.

The relationship between the Brigade Commander and CSM began to deteriorate months before the deployment. Indeed, by the time the Brigade was packing connexes and boarding aircraft, the Brigade CSM and Commander barely spoke to one another.

The relationship between a commander and the senior NCO is key to a unit’s success. Commanders rely on their senior enlisted advisors to speak truth to power, and in turn, senior NCOs must trust that their respective commanders will consider and respect their wisdom and advice. When this relationship sours, the effects ripple through the ranks. From my time with the Blackheart Brigade, I developed and maintain a deep respect for both the Brigade Commander and CSM, men, who deeply cared about the mission, and their soldiers, but I wish their respective relationship could have been repaired.  There are times when two competent leaders are paired in a Commander-CSM or Higher to Lower Commander relationship. Sometime these relationships flourish, and other time they deteriorate. The Army as an institution should examine how to enable leaders to repair relationships, or how to break up command relationships without putting careers at risk.

While the CSM – Commander relationship went sour, the relationship between 4ID (Multi-National Division Baghdad) did not fare much better. This mistrust began prior to deployment, and as a result of the Division’s Warfighter Exercise. The Brigade elected to send only one officer (yours truly) and one NCO to participate. As the Blackheart Brigade was deploying three months before 4ID, the brigade focus during the 4ID Warfighter was deployment preparation. The Blackheart Brigade also participated in a multi-day leadership-training program (LTP) with the 4ID staff. However, these two short events were inadequate to develop the relationships and trust required between two warfighting commands.

When a division and a subordinate brigade have a poor relationship from the onset of a deployment, again, the effects ripple through the ranks. This tension was palpable at the staff level whenever the division and brigade staffs interacted. A combination of mistrust and lack of empathy built up over the course of the deployment. With this dynamic, complaints about lack of resources or faulty policies often went unheeded. When senior leaders at different echelons have a conflict (based on personality, perceived performance or lack of empathy) it is incumbent upon those leaders to put their differences aside. Sadly, this never occurred.

This highlights a shortcoming of the modular BCT construct. When one unit falls under a higher-level command with which they have neither trained, nor developed relationships prior to combat, the Clausewitzian friction--the countless minor incidents that make the simple very difficult--floats to the surface. The subordinate unit tends to be unfamiliar with standard operating procedures, ranging from the mundane markings on PowerPoint slides to the complex understanding of how a commander processes information and makes decisions. Conversely, the higher headquarters may be unfamiliar with the subordinate’s capabilities, ranging from weapons systems and training efficiency to leadership effectiveness. Highlighting this aspect was our Brigade’s transformation to the BCT construct in the year prior to deployment. We were just beginning to understand our own capabilities. Expecting a distant headquarters to understand and employ capabilities properly may be a bridge too far.  Under this force generation model, absent a doctrinal change requiring extensive pre-deployment integration, understanding personalities of commanders and staffs simply does not exist. In this model, every game becomes a pick-up game.

The last relationship to highlight is that between the 48th Enhanced Brigade Combat Team of the Georgia National Guard and the Blackheart Brigade. Our brigade took over the Southern Baghdad area of operations from the 48th. Almost immediately, tensions developed between the two units. The outgoing command had the perception that our brigade did not understand the complexity of what we were about to engage in. Conversely, a perception developed within our Brigade that the 48th was filled with amateurs, who had long ago reached their limit of advance. The reality is that both units deployed with professionals, doing their best in a complex environment. Frederick discusses this at some length early in his book. This toxic relationship between the brigades would be one of the first elements of an “us versus them” mindset that would prevail throughout the deployment.

At the tactical level, when thinking in time and space, units occur risk in two areas; during times of transition, and in the seams between unit AOs. When the Army moved to the BCT construct, the number of transitions under a Division HQ increased, thus maintaining a higher level of risk throughout the course of the war. The mistrust between the 48th and the Blackheart Brigade exasperated this risk to a higher level.  Unfortunately, these toxic relationships set the stage for events yet to come.

Relationships, be it inside of a marriage or between military units is built upon trust. When trust departs the relationship, chaos ensues. As the relationships between senior leaders in the battalions, brigade and division went sour, an “us against them” mentality developed at the various echelons.

From the Brigade staff officer perspective, 1st Battalion created a culture of superiority. The same perception developed with the Brigade MiTT team, which was headquartered in Mahmudiyah alongside 1st Battalion. From the Brigade perspective, these units were cocky, with a holier than thou complex. From their perspective, Brigade, and to an extent Division HQ, just did not understand how tough they had it. 

This same corrosive dynamic would play out between our brigade and the division. Frederick alludes to this dynamic in Blackhearts: Mistrust between headquarters leads to soldiers believing their commanders simply don’t care and cannot be trusted. When soldiers lose confidence in their leadership they tend to quit. (Blackhearts comes to this conclusion, as does the book When Soldiers Quit, Studies in Military Disintegration)

This conflict between headquarters is common within the military, however leaders at all levels should recognize the risks inherent when this dynamic goes too far. The more latitude a higher headquarters allows a subordinate element to conduct tactical operations based on their intimate knowledge of the AO, the higher the risk that these actions will not fit into the broader campaign. This is why a unit’s understanding of the higher HQ strategy and intent is critical. Likewise, a subordinate headquarters refusing assistance from a higher headquarters out of an arrogant sense of loyalty to the brigade, battalion, company, or platoon tribe, it creates risk in executing missions with inadequate capabilities. Further, this loss of trust can lead to the subordinate units conducting operations completely unrelated to the higher commander’s intent. Once the trust began to erode, things only got worse.

Adding to the friction involving the Blackhearts Brigade was the nature of the fight. The Brigade was assigned to South Baghdad. This area of operation was distinct from other Brigades within MND-B, with both the terrain and the enemy completely different from other brigades’ area of operations in Baghdad proper.

1st Battalion, on which Jim Frederick focuses in his book Blackhearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death, was at the southern edge of not only the brigade’s, but also the division’s, area of operation. Moreover, the Brigade bordered the Marines operating to the west of our AO, making coordination with a non-army unit an added element of friction. This relatively remote area was rural, characterized by flat terrain and a series of canals, which often limited maneuver space in contrast to the urban areas of Central Baghdad (urban areas can limit maneuver as well). Much of the area was populated by Sunni tribes, and as such was neglected by the Shia-led government in Baghdad. Further, the South Baghdad area of operations was populated by former senior Ba’ath party and military leaders who now found themselves unemployed, disenfranchised, and with no hope for livelihood or power in the future. This dynamic allowed Al Qaeda in Iraq to prosper, and thus was the main adversary facing our brigade. This was in contrast to the Shia militias metastasizing in Central Baghdad at the time.

Paramount to success in warfare is understanding the nature of the fight. Complicating the fight in South Baghdad was a complete misunderstanding of the local power structure. In an effort to empower the central Iraqi government, our Brigade initially sought to build up local government officials, who more often than not would find themselves on the short end of an assassination stick. It was not until well into the second half of the deployment that our brigade shifted effort to local sheiks and tribal chiefs at the expense of town mayors. This coincides with a broader issue the Army faced at the time, a lack of counter-insurgency doctrine that identifies the most likely center of gravity as the people (FM 3-24 was not published until after our deployment). Indeed, the Brigade received the Effects Based Operations Handbook prior to our rotation at JRTC as a model to plan operations. The poor relationships, downward spiral of trust, lack of common understanding of the situation, and absence of doctrine created a perfect storm for the events to follow.

In the Blackhearts deployment, a key mission of our Brigade was to train the local Iraqi Army Brigade. This became the mission of an ad-hoc organization known as a Military Transition Team (MiTT). In 2005/2006, the Army was still relying on MiTTs pulled out of hide to train the Iraqi Army. The 2nd Brigade MiTT pulled officers (to include a Battalion Commander), NCOs, and junior Soldiers from the Brigade to form the team. Indeed, the BSTB Battalion Commander led the MiTT, along with a maneuver battalion XO. In organizing for this mission set, we assumed risk within our maneuver units in terms of manning and leadership. While this risk may have been identified, it was never adequately mitigated as evidenced by some junior Soldiers operating checkpoints for days on end--alone, unafraid, and at times ready to commit war crimes. The MiTTs became a pick-up team within a pick-up team in one of the toughest neighborhoods in Bagdad.  This was a recipe for failure.

This risk does not simply fall onto the brigade, or even the division, but rather how the military was completely unprepared for the nature of the fight. The Army would correct this failure by standing up organic MiTT teams who would train together at Fort Riley prior to deployment. In 2005/2006, this adaptation to the conflict had yet to materialize. The Brigade MiTT team had little time or capability to truly form the team prior to deployment, but would itself adapt and perform well under trying conditions.


In 2014, retired Lieutenant General Daniel Bolger published his thoughts on the war with a book titled Why We Lost. The soldiers of the Blackheart Brigade had significant accomplishments, to include inflicting great costs to Al Qaeda in Iraq and providing time and breathing space for the central government of Iraq. We had multiple tactical victories, methodically moving forces into previously enemy held territory (as mentioned in Rick’s Book Fiasco pg 426-428). The counter to this view is that once Green and his team raped and killed a little girl and her family, the battle of South Baghdad was lost. We simply cannot claim, as many in Vietnam did, that the Army won every tactical victory. Just as the Army lost in Mei Lai, when Green and his team did what they did, one can argue that we lost in Yusifiyah. The tactical and operational effects of the Rape and Murder may have been fleeting, but for a moment in time, the Army lost the moral high ground.

I have had eleven years to think about this deployment. For many of us it was the defining year in our military career. To this day, the challenge coin I carry in my wallet is not that of my current unit, but rather of 2nd Brigade’s 05/06 deployment. The events that unfolded in South Baghdad are complex. Jim Frederick’s Blackhearts told the story of a platoon, a company, and a battalion. But “Blackhearts” is the nickname of the entire Brigade. The Blackheart Brigade achieved various levels of success and failure throughout the 12-month deployment.

At a personal level, the Blackheart deployment changed me in three distinct ways. First, working as a staff officer on combatant command and other high-level staffs, I do my best to communicate subordinate command concerns while formulating plans and orders. These concerns are typically communicated from subordinate staffs, and can often be solved at the staff level. Second, the Blackheart deployment taught me that I must be honest in communicating risk, both to my own commander and to higher-level staffs. Articulating risk is a skill all in its own, and there is a balance between failing to say anything, and blowing some risk out of proportion. Do either of the two too often, and concerns tend to be ignored.

The deployment taught me the value of trust. Trust between leaders is paramount to success. When leaders within an organization lose trust with each other, soldiers see it at every level. I recently returned from a short deployment in Afghanistan. While there, I witnessed a division commander and his division CSM make it a point to sit together in the dining facility at least once a day. This action sent a message to the entire command that leaders were on the same page, they communicated with each other, that they had mutual trust. Before I flew home, I made it a point to stop the CSM in the hall and tell him how much I appreciated what they did.

At the broader organizational, or Army level, the Blackheart deployment taught me three things. First, as an organization, the Army should do its best to avoid ad hocery. The fewer pick-up teams we employ in combat the better. Second, the Army must keep COIN doctrine alive even during times when said doctrine is not employed. We simply cannot have tactical and operational units operating on a battlefield without a common understanding of how to attack a problem. Third, just I mentioned the value of trust in personal relationships, building trust between organizations or units is paramount in winning wars.

Finally, as an Army Strategist, the Blackheart deployment taught me firsthand how tactical actions can have strategic consequences. Prior to the deployment I had read about Abu Ghraib but those events seemed distant and more conceptual. The events in South Baghdad brought the reality of human fallibility to the doorstep. The military needs strategic leaders who can focus on the large geostrategic picture and translate policy into military strategy. At the same time, those leaders must ensure to place the right leaders at the tactical level. Sun Tzu was right, good strategy with bad tactics is the slowest route to victory.


[Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Sukman is a strategist in the U.S. Army, a former Military Fellow at the Project for International Peace & Security (PIPS), and a member of the Military Writers Guild. Over the course of his career, LTC Sukman served with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), United States European Command, and the Army Capabilities Integration Center (ARCIC). He currently works for the Joint Enabling Capabilities Command in Norfolk VA. His combat experience includes multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Follow him on twitter @dansukman.

This article represents the author’s views, and not necessarily the views of the U.S. Army or Department of Defense. Further, this article represents the author’s views, and his alone, not those of other members of the Blackheart Brigade