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.
The first excerpt of TIME contributing editor Jim Frederick's new book, Black Hearts: One Platoon's Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death, demonstrated Steven Green's downward psychological spiral. The second and final excerpt highlights how Green and his co-conspirators masterminded their crime ...
By the spring of 2006, the psychological isolation that 1st Platoon had been experiencing throughout the deployment was becoming nearly total. "First Platoon had become insane," declared platoon-member Sergeant John Diem flatly. "What does an infantry rifle platoon do? It destroys. That's what it's trained to do. Now turn that 90 degrees to the left, and let slip the leash, and it becomes something monstrous. It's not even aware of what it's doing."
Some of the mental states that the men described are well documented by psychologists studying the effect of combat on soldiers. The men talked about desensitization, how numbed they were to the violence. They passed around short, graphic, computer-video compilations of collected combat kills and corpses found in Iraq. Iraqis were not seen as humans. Many soldiers actively cultivated the dehumanization of locals as a secret to survival. "You can't think of these people as people," opined Sergeant Tony Yribe, another member of 1st Platoon. "If I see this old lady and say, 'Ah, she reminds me of grandmother,' but then she pulls out a f___ing bomb, I'm not going to react right." Children were considered insurgents or future insurgents, and women were little more than insurgent factories.
Specialist James Barker described the paradoxical yet typical swings combat-weary soldiers have between thinking they are doomed and thinking they are invincible. "I knew I was going to die, it was just a matter of time, so I just didn't care. I would run straight at somebody shooting at me instead of taking cover. That was my mentality: I'm already dead so, f___ it, what can anybody do to me? I'd gotten shot at so many times and blown up so many times, and hadn't taken a scratch that it's like, 'Oh, f___, I'm untouchable. I am a badass and nobody can f___ with me.' "