Whenever a soldier committed suicide, Bayer says, a team of Army investigators would essentially ask the same questions: What was wrong with the individual soldier? Did he or she have a troubled childhood or mental health problems? Did the soldier just break up with a partner or spouse? Was he or she in debt? The answer was often “yes.” But Bayer says he felt part of the puzzle was missing.
“ And I just had, like, feelings, like, that nothing’s ever going to change. I’m going to get [expletive] every day, and I just don’t want this anymore. And I just felt like I wanted to kill myself.
“We decided we were going to take a look at it from a different angle,” he says.
So Matsuda looked at the cases of eight soldiers who had recently killed themselves and interviewed friends of the victims.
“I crisscrossed Iraq and interviewed 50 soldiers,” Matusda recalls.
A more complicated story began to emerge, he says. In addition to major problems in their personal lives, the victims also had a leader who made their lives hell — sometimes a couple of leaders — Matsuda says. The officers would “smoke” them, as soldiers call it.
“Oftentimes platoon leaders will take turns seeing who can smoke this guy the worst. Seeing who can dream up the worst torture, seeing who can dream up the worst duties, seeing who can make this guy’s life the most miserable,” says Matusda.
He says the evidence did not show that the soldiers’ leaders caused them to commit suicide. But the soldiers’ friends said leaders had helped push them over the brink.
“When you’re ridden mercilessly, there’s just no letup, a lot of folks begin to fold,” Matsuda says. He submitted a report stating: “[S]uicidal behavior can be triggered by … toxic command climate.”
The Army isn’t all fun and games. It’s a deadly serious business, and often leaders have to tell people to do things they don’t want to. In an tour, you are almost certain to find yourself working for or with someone with whom you don’t particularly like.
But toxic leadership isn’t just someone you don’t enjoy spending time with. As the article notes, toxic leaders damage their units morale (and that is essentially the unit itself) and do two further wrongs. First, they drive excellent soldiers and leaders to flee from the service. Second, they wrongly teach junior leaders (those that don’t flee) that such a toxic method is acceptable, and even expected. It’s not. It’s a stupid, often criminal, misuse of the precious human talent that the nation has made available.
This confidential subordinate review system won’t be a panacea. What’s troubling is that such a review would be necessary. Every toxic leader has a senior. And that senior leader has a responsibility to know just what the climate is like in his sub-units.