Hypervigilance at work?

Did extended exposure to untreated effects of hypervigilance play a role in the situation in which Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl lived and acted?  Take a look at this background piece in today’s New York Times about the Sgt. Bergdahl case.


It seems we put a small contingent of soldiers in an untenable location over an extended period and got what you get when you do that.  They lived in constant risk.  The possibility of death from any number of sources was their normal state.  The breakdowns in organizational health are predictable in these circumstances.

It’s not the Army’s fault that our country goes to war in the 21st century without facing the true costs of the commitment.  It’s not the fault of the commanders whose units get isolated in the highest-risk areas.  It’s the fault of Republic and Democratic governments alike and of we as a nation that we squeeze the costs out of the mental health and life prospects of young soldiers.  And the Army has to be smarter about how such hair-thin stretching of troop strength affects the stretched troops.

Even without such barely tolerable risk and isolation, organizational health breaks down under the conditions of open-ended deployments.  An analog to this was found by the organizational diagnostician John Linder when he examined the Boston Police Department for then-Superintendent-in-Chief Bill Bratton in the 1990’s.  Stranding squads of officers together over extended tours during the school desegregation — busing — crisis of the mid-70’s caused the command structure to collapse.  Bosses and officers began cutting deals with one another for much-needed time to sleep, be with families, etc.  It’s hard for the boss to behave like a leader when he’s begging his troops’ permission to break the basic rules.  Linder found that this dragged-out deployment had nearly the negative effect on organizational well-being as did the mass firing that proceeded the short Police Strike of 1919.  He saw the busing-era breakdown still affecting leadership practices in the 90’s.

I certainly don’t know whether Sgt. Bergdahl is a traitor.  The process will, one hopes, sort that out.  Untreated effects hypervgilance do not excuse treason.  That said, we all need to think about how working conditions that we control are affecting the people for whom we bear responsibility.


About stephenomeara

My name is Jim Jordan. I have had the privilege of working with the Boston Police Department and hundreds more departments over my nearly 30-year career in police administration and city government. I am now teaching and consulting independently at www.sergeantsleadership.org. I have learned the best of what I know from the thousands of smart, dedicated and ethical police personnel and scholars who have guided me along the way. My address is named for the great Reform commissioner of the Boston Police at the turn of the 20th century. Commissioner O'Meara died just a short while before the Strike in 1919. He was replaced by a vicious puppet (of Gov. Coolidge) named Edwin U. Curtis. Had O'Meara lived events may have turned out quite differently.
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