Black Hearts – Discussion Guide

The questions below are meant to be used in a guided discussion on the book Black Hearts by Jim Frederick. This book is on the Career Level Officer group of the 2013 United States Marine Corps Commandant’s Reading List. A brief synopsis of the book is reprinted below from Amazon.

Black Hearts by Jim Frederick
“This is the story of a small group of soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division’s fabled 502nd Infantry Regiment—a unit known as “the Black Heart Brigade.” Deployed in late 2005 to Iraq’s so-called Triangle of Death, a veritable meat grinder just south of Baghdad, the Black Hearts found themselves in arguably the country’s most dangerous location at its most dangerous time.

Hit by near-daily mortars, gunfire, and roadside bomb attacks, suffering from a particularly heavy death toll, and enduring a chronic breakdown in leadership, members of one Black Heart platoon—1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion—descended, over their year-long tour of duty, into a tailspin of poor discipline, substance abuse, and brutality.

Four 1st Platoon soldiers would perpetrate one of the most heinous war crimes U.S. forces have committed during the Iraq War—the rape of a fourteen-year-old Iraqi girl and the cold-blooded execution of her and her family. Three other 1st Platoon soldiers would be overrun at a remote outpost—one killed immediately and two taken from the scene, their mutilated corpses found days later booby-trapped with explosives.

Black Hearts is an unflinching account of the epic, tragic deployment of 1st Platoon. Drawing on hundreds of hours of in-depth interviews with Black Heart soldiers and first-hand reporting from the Triangle of Death, Black Hearts is a timeless story about men in combat and the fragility of character in the savage crucible of warfare. But it is also a timely warning of new dangers emerging in the way American soldiers are led on the battlefields of the twenty-first century.”

Discussion Questions
  • Discuss the Battalion Commander, LtCol Kunk, and how his leadership style affected his battalion’s morale
    • Negative leadership approach, condescending throughout the book (p32)
    • Failed to see the real problem and solve it
    • As the commander, he was responsible for ensuring his commander’s intent was understood
    • He was not approachable and often seemed insecure and egotistic
  • Discuss the Company Commander, Captain Goodwin, and his accountability procedures or lack thereof
    • It was a mistake he was even in the Army (p54)
    • Poor uniform discipline and sleeping in the TOC (p79-81)
    • Poor time management, wasted resource, poor troop to task (p117,338)
    • Poor communication with his orders. Never explained the “why” and failed to establish trust (p127)
    • Unable to understand and articulate tactical terms and commander’s intent into tasks (p190)
  • What impact did SFC Fenalson have on the Platoon with regards to leadership and discipline
    • Tried to instill basic customs and courtesies
    • Had never been a Plt Sgt, was a staff guy (p197-199)
    • Had a good plan but failed to communicate to subordinate leaders (p281,252)
    • Dilemma between SFC Fenalson and Captain Goodwin concerning the TCP schedule and cancelling the city meeting (p252)
    • Communication issues on the radio (p319,320)
    • Never went to check up on his men at the TCPs (p247)
  • The interaction between the soldiers and the local civilians
    • Embarrassing local males with rough physical contact (p113)
    • The “Mean Squad” running methodical and physically violent VCPs, vandalizing houses of suspects (p119-121,243)
    • SFC Blaisdell realization about rush hour, working with civilians, trying to prevent his Marines from getting frustrated (p159)
    • Extreme hatred of Iraqis was common and openly discussed, dehumanization (p172,242,255)
    • Lt Norton trying to convince the soldiers to treat civilians with respect (p189)