This post visits the Battle of COP Keating in October 2009 as a case study in seeing naturalistic decision making at work.

The previous post discussed the foundations of naturalistic decision making. Let’s see whether or not the framework works. I’ll be using only the account of Jake Tapper [book] as the main historical reference. I know this limits the playing field a bit since we need a lot of information to do case studies. However, this is simply an exercise and not intended to be a research paper. Furthermore, I simply don’t have the capacity to peruse so many resources.

Given that any war situation is always rife with uncertainty, high levels of stress, and ill-defined situations, why the Battle of COP Keating? The Battle of COP Keating features an array of soldiers that vary in terms of expertise, who we can use as reference. As far as soldiers go, their expertise is supposedly proportional to the rank they bear. Thus, it would be relatively easy to compare the levels of experience and their supposed mental models. Furthermore, the battle was relatively constrained to the tactical level, where NDM supposedly works best. Hence, COP Keating is an ideal testing ground for the NDM school.

However, there are also limitations of conducting posthoc case studies. NDM supposedly works best when observers directly observe the situation as it is unfolding, and then questioning the actors. Here, we don’t have the luxury of activating “god mode” and being impervious to bullets to observe the situation as it unfolded. Historical accounts should also be taken with a grain of salt and might not prove to be the best resource for conducting a psychology experiment. And finally, there’s always the potential hindsight bias.

Given the intended brevity of this note, here’s a quick video to sum up the situation at COP Keating.

Here are several instances where I thought NDM theory helped explain the decisions made by the troops on the ground.

Note: COA refers to “course of action”.

  • CPT. Porter’s decision to not allow SGT. Romesha to return fire at the enemy at Putting Green due to lack of possible identifiable threat. According to the NDM model, Porter’s decision not to return fire would be a result of a developed mental model based on Porter’s past experiences and adherence to military rules of engagement in counterinsurgency operations. From there, Porter assessed the situation and decided that returning fire would not be the best COA.
  • There was a notable difference in decision-making between SGT. Hardt and SSGT.
    Romesha in regard to providing assistance at LRAS-2. Hardt wanted to provide cover at LRAS-2, however, Romesha objected on the grounds that the situation was too risky (high intensity of enemy fire) and the truck was low on ammo. One might accuse Romesha of showing prudence; however, Romesha, being one rank above Hardt, supposedly possesses more experience and, by assumption, a more developed mental model that was capable of processing the situation better than Hardt. In this case, there is an indication that difference in experience levels results in a different situational awareness of the battlefield, which supports NDM.
  • SGT. Larson and SPC. Carter also showed difference in assessing the combat situation in regards to helping the wounded under intense fire. Larson advised Carter against rushing into the field to aid the wounded due to the possibility of enemies in the camp and the presence of intense fire, while Carter was eager to go. Given that there is a stark difference in rank (and possibly expertise), the two soldiers evaluated the situation differently and took different COAs.
  • Finally, LT. Bundermann, cognizant of the dire situation of COP Keating, assembled a battle plan to defend the COP. Bundermann’s initial COA was to only defend the core parts of the COP. Based on NDM, Bundermann’s initial COA was a result of assessment and matching the current situation to his “mental database”. However, Bundermann did not decide to execute the initial COA after Hill and Romesha wanted to take back the camp. This might have indicated external influence in Bundermann’s decision-making process. Or perhaps, Bundermann decided to trust the judgment of his subordinates. It’s still a sketchy area.

From the instances above, we see that NDM at least works in explaining the behaviour of the soldiers at COP Keating. As we have seen, different soldiers take different courses of action based on their mental models, which is mostly influenced by the degree of expertise reflected in either their ranks, past experience, or even doctrine.

When compared to rational choice theory, NDM has the advantage of being able to explain how people make split-second decisions that may not be the most optimal, but at least satisfying for that given condition. However, questions still remain regarding the definition of “expertise”. I refer to the last instance, when a lieurenant deferred their judgment to a subordinate. Does this mean that rank does not always equal expertise? The lack of a rigid definition of an expert still remains one of the major flaws of NDM.