Harrowing account of the atmospherics, commission and aftermath of a war crime.
In March 2006, deployed in the south of Baghdad, the 1st Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division faced a countryside in uproar. Arguably the most dangerous spot in an extremely dangerous country, the Triangle of Death featured IEDs that made every Humvee ride “an exercise in terror” and a civilian population indistinguishable from the death-dealing armed militias. With too few men to mount proper patrols and suicide car bombings and videotaped beheadings circulating to instill an extra bit of horror, every soldier had to endure constant stress and resist hating the very people they were charged with protecting. Relying on scores of interviews with soldiers and Iraqis, journals, letters, classified reports and investigations, Frederick (co-author: The Reluctant Communist: My Desertion, Court-Martial, and Forty-Year Imprisonment in North Korea, 2008) carefully reconstructs the events that led to the breakdown of 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, when four soldiers raped and killed an Iraqi girl and murdered her family. War atrocities, of course, are as old as Achilles’ rage, and why particular soldiers succumb to madness and surrender their honor, while others who have undergone the same hardships don’t, remains a mystery. Still, the author answers the questions he can, plumbing 1st Platoon’s psychological isolation, a consequence of having three of their leaders killed in a two-week period, the resulting disarray compounded by a leadership vacuum and by constant, invidious comparisons by senior officers with Bravo’s other platoons. Their heightened sense of self-pity, the belief that they faced unevenly distributed risks and the perceived disrespect or indifference of high command—all these factors created the conditions that led to an unspeakable crime. While never absolving the four perpetrators of their individual responsibility, Frederick makes clear that the atrocity had identifiable antecedents and spreads blame much wider than four out-of-control GIs.
A riveting picture of life outside the wire in Iraq, where “[y]ou tell a guy to go across a bridge, and within five minutes he’s dead.”