Academic journal article Military Review

Lessons from Yusufiyah: From Black Hearts to Moral Education

Academic journal article Military Review

Lessons from Yusufiyah: From Black Hearts to Moral Education

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

On 16 June 2006, Pvt. Justin P. Watt sat on a green cot in a dusty tent on Forward Operating Base Mahmudiyah. As he sat there in the middle of Baghdad, Iraq, inhaling the dust, he felt certain of two things: insurgents were torturing two missing members of his squad, and he was going to die. (1)

Nothing, though, prepared him for the conversation he was about to have with his team leader, Sgt. Tony Yribe. As they talked about the ongoing search for their two squad members, Yribe told Watt that a member of their platoon, Pvt. Steven Green, had single-handedly murdered four members of an Iraqi family a few months earlier. (2) Watt questioned how an inept and physically diminutive soldier could carry out such an act alone, and Yribe replied, "[The] less you know about it ... the better. Just forget I said anything," (3) But Watt could not forget about it.

For the next few days, he obsessed over Yribe's revelation. He became certain he had to report the war crime. When he did report it, he subjected himself to a storm of criticism and threats. However, instead of withering under pressure that might have crushed other people, he stood strong behind his conviction that he had done the right thing. After leaving the service in January 2009, Watt received numerous threats to his life. Critics called him a snitch and asked how he could have turned in his "band of brothers" He answered with a rhetorical question: "How could I live with myself?" (4)

Spurred, perhaps, by Jim Frederick's 2011 book Black Hearts: One Platoons Descent into Madness in Iraq's Triangle of Death, the Army is attempting to learn from the 2006 massacre at Yusufiyah so that similar tragedies can be prevented. (5) From the story of Watt, this article offers key lessons about how the Army can teach its soldiers the moral obligations they have to other human beings, and the choices for which soldiers must be accountable. It tells not only of Watt's moral courage and imagination but also of how he applied moral agency--making ethical decisions and taking ethical actions based on right and wrong. Watt's decision to report the crime would help wronged people whom he had never met obtain justice, and it would lead to four of his platoon members going to prison.

The Challenge of Service: Welcome to the Meat Grinder

After a bad breakup with a girlfriend, Watt followed his father's example by joining the Army.6 Because he received high scores on his military aptitude examinations, he could have chosen any occupational specialty. Influenced by Stephen Ambrose's book Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne from Normandy to Hitler's Eagles Nest, which portrays infantry soldiers' heroic exploits in World War II, Watt volunteered to be an infantryman in the 101st Airborne Division. (7)

Walking out of the recruiter's office with a cool $20,000 for signing his enlistment contract, Watt finally felt his life had direction, and he looked forward to the challenges ahead. Though he knew he was going to combat in Afghanistan or Iraq, Watt thought the Army's training would prepare him for the challenges of war, as did the training given those brave men who confronted Hitler's military. However, Watt would realize less than a year from his enlistment that nothing could have adequately prepared him for the events that unfolded in Iraq's "Triangle of Death" Frederick puts the deployment of Watt's unit in perspective:

   The Triangle of Death was
   a meat grinder, churning
   out daily doses of carnage.
   During their yearlong
   deployment, soldiers from
   the battalion either found
   or got hit by nearly nine
   hundred roadside IEDs
   [improvised explosive devices]. They were
   shelled or mortared almost every day and
   took fire from rifles, machine guns, or rocket-propelled
   grenades (RPGs) nearly every
   other day. Twenty-one men from the battalion
   were killed. … 
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