In late 2005, the 1st Battalion of the 101st Airborne Division's fabled 502nd Infantry Regiment deployed to a 330 sq. mi. ribbon of land south of Baghdad that was dubbed the "Triangle of Death." Underequipped and undermanned, the 1-502nd arrived in perhaps the most dangerous part of Iraq at its most dangerous moment.
Suffering from a particularly heavy death toll, a leadership vacuum and rapidly declining morale and discipline, four soldiers from the 1-502nd's 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, would perpetrate one of the worst war crimes known to have been committed by U.S. forces during the Iraq war, or any war for that matter. On March 12, 2006, Specialist Paul Cortez, Specialist James Barker, Private First Class Jesse Spielman and Private First Class Steven Green raped 14-year-old Abeer Qassim Hamzah Rashid al-Janabi and murdered her, her parents and her 6-year-old sister.
As heinous as the crime was, it did not happen without warning. Again and again, leaders up and down the 1-502nd's chain of command were either unable or unwilling to recognize the clear signs of breakdown that the unit's soldiers were exhibiting, not to mention the increasing homicidal threat that Green was becoming to Iraqi civilians. As this first of two excerpts from TIME contributing editor Jim Frederick's new book, Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death, demonstrates, Green should have been a soldier of concern for the unit's leadership from the day he reported for duty ...
Twenty-one-year-old Steven Green was one of the weirdest men in the company. He was an okay soldier when he wanted to be, but the oddest thing about him was that he never stopped talking. And the stuff that came out of his mouth was some of the most outrageous, racist invective many of the men had ever heard. Green could discourse on any number of topics, but they usually involved hate in some way, including how Hitler should be admired, how "white culture" was under threat in multi-ethnic America, and how much he wanted to kill every last Iraqi on the planet. He would go on and on and on like this until somebody literally would have to order him to shut up.
Growing up in Midland, Texas, Green was always the odd kid, the strange child on the margins picked last for kickball. According to court records, he was an unwanted child, something his mother did not hesitate to tell him. She called him "demon spawn," and constantly compared him unfavorably to his brother, Doug, who was three years older. Working nights at a bar, she largely let her children fend for themselves. Doug was, not surprisingly, unable to cope with the responsibility of being a surrogate parent from as young as age seven or eight. He subjected Steven and their little sister to frequent, brutal beatings.
Green's long estranged parents divorced when he was 8, and he lived with his mother until she kicked him out of the house at age 14. Green bounced around various family members' homes for the next few years. Desperate for attention, he did win a few friends in high school by being the class clown. After dropping out of high school in the 10th grade, however, trouble followed him wherever he went. Smoking cigarettes, drinking booze, and walking around with marijuana are fairly common activities for teenagers, but Green managed to get caught, arrested, and convicted for each of those things by the time he was 19.
Along the way, he had developed some pointed ideas about society, religion, and race. He decided to join the Army in early 2005, not just as a way out of his rut, but as a way to participate in what he saw as the latest flare-up of a centuries-long struggle between Western civilization and Eastern barbarism. "This is almost like a race war, like a cultural war," he said about 9/11, the March 2004 Spanish subway bombings and the now lengthening conflict in Iraq. "And anyone who is my age who is not going to go fight in it is a coward. They can say it's about this or that, but it's really about religion. It's about not even which culture is going to rule the Middle East, but which culture is going to rule the West. I felt like Islam is, was, and always will be like fascism."
Green spent several months obtaining a high school correspondence diploma and the Army granted him a "moral waiver" for his prior convictions. After graduating from basic training, Green headed to Ft. Campbell in July of 2005. Here, as in school, he developed a reputation for not being quite right in the head. There was no doubt he was smart, but he was a racist and a misanthrope. He remained socially awkward and unable to control his emotions or impulses. He did have some friends, but most of the platoon viewed him less as a class clown and more as the village idiot occasionally entertaining as spectacle, but best kept at an arm's-length.