In Real Time with Jim Frederick
Managing Editor of TIME.com and Executive Editor of TIME Magazine, Jim Frederick, first discovered his knack for pairing words and images while working on the yearbook staff at Loyola Academy in Wilmette. “My senior year, I was editor-in-chief,” Frederick says. “If you looked at what our yearbook was doing, it was not just pictures on a page. It was writing and editing and headlines; it was a real publication. Even looking back on it today, they were like magazine layouts. That’s where I decided I wanted to do something like that for the rest of my life.” The edition of The Year published on his watch even won the Gold Crown Award for journalistic excellence from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association.
However, high school accolades must start getting lost in the shuffle when your latest book is called “riveting” by The New York Times, when The Washington Post says it “demands to be read,” or when the UK’s Guardian newspaper declares it, “the best book by far on the Iraq war.” Frederick’s latest book, Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death, is a meticulously researched reconstruction of how four American soldiers ended up committing one of the most heinous war crimes imaginable, the rape and murder of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl as well as the murders of her father, mother, and 6-year-old little sister. Though the impetus for the book is sensational, Frederick’s journalistic approach treats it with appropriate gravitas as he searches for the conditions that allowed it to happen. Black Hearts explores the platoon’s entire deployment and every factor, from losing one man after another to enemy explosives in a short amount of time, to a series of shockingly poor decisions by company commanders, that turned one platoon, and four men in particular, into something monstrous.
“It was hard to write dispassionately,” says Fredericks, about writing the central scene in which the crime is committed. “Obviously, I’m outraged. Obviously, it’s disgusting. Obviously, it’s a disappointment to America and the Armed Forces. But I thought it was really important to treat it almost as clinically as everything else in the book and not break voice. Things become more powerful when you don’t give in to sentimentality or start instructing the reader to be outraged. Just let the facts be true, and the outrage takes care of itself.” Frederick compiled the facts through interviews with around 150 people who spoke from firsthand experience, approximately 400 hours of recorded interviews, and more than 4,000 pages of notes, some of which he collected on the ground in Iraq. All told, Black Hearts is the result of two years worth of research and writing.
Since the book examines a grievous breakdown in military protocol and leadership as applied to this one platoon, Frederick was initially concerned that it might be received as anti-military, anti-establishment, or even poorly timed anti-American propaganda as far as the war in Iraq is concerned. But the reception has been the exact opposite. In fact, other than glowing book reviews, the most vocal supporters of Black Hearts have been people in the military. “I’ve been to West Point three times to speak to cadets,” says Frederick. “The Commandant of Cadets has put the book on his personal reading list for leadership development. The book is actually pro-soldier and pro-army, because it’s trying to pick apart an occasion when the army absolutely failed its own men and figure out what happened so that it doesn’t happen again. For the army leadership superstructure to not just recognize that but embrace it is a real testament of organizational maturity.”
Although Black Hearts is chock-full of firsthand accounts of actual events and military jargon, Frederick’s choice of presentation is mercifully novelistic, inviting some reviewers to compare it to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It’s not surprising that Fredrick can skillfully blend the worlds of unbiased journalism and transportive prose. After graduating from Loyola Academy, he studied English literature at Columbia University in New York, before spending his first few years in the field of journalism as a fact checker. Ever since then, working for TIME as a contributing writer, Tokyo Bureau Chief, and Senior Editor in London, his current positions as Executive Editor and Managing Editor of TIME.com, and the writing of his first book, The Reluctant Communist, Frederick has brought people factual events in a very relatable way. He’s currently exploring potential stories for his third book, and after two that revolve around the military, he’s thinking about venturing into a different subject. Now all he needs to do is find the time to write it. “TIME.com keeps me busy 24/7,” says Frederick. “With the Japanese tsunami and Osama bin Laden and tornados and weather, it’s just been a never-ending news year, which is good for the news business, but it doesn’t give us any time to catch our breath.”