The Soldier is a critical reflection on a decisive moment. This case study was initially submitted as an assignment to meet one of the requirements of an MBA course in managerial decision making - a course designed to meet university requirements for critical and creative thinking. The Soldier was then included in a book of student assignments entitled My Decisive Moment9. Previous research has discussed the design of this course at some length, and has analysed 159 assignments for indicators that the course empowered students1. In contrast, the current research provides an in-depth analysis of a single assignment. After a brief introduction, the assignment is presented in full. The concluding section discusses the nature of student learning and the value obtained from critical reflection.
The course employs a pluralistic mode of inquiry2,3,4 and a tightly integrated blended learning pedagogy that is supported by low cognitive load visual models and color-coded text5,6,7 Students, including the author of The Soldier, disentangled emergent and always already intertwined emotion, reason and morality with the assistance of a remarkably accessible neuroscience text8
In The Soldier the author critically reflected on a decisive moment of his career in the NZ Defense Forces. He was in command of a team operating from a forward base in Afghanistan, and his team had suffered casualties. One of them was serious, and the surgeon wanted his consent to perform an immediate double amputation of both legs. The author described his decision making process as a battle among primitive emotion, reason and morality. His narrative is brief (less than 3,000 words) but includes four stanzas of poetry and seven pictures. Key issues are summarized in two models and linked to theoretical perspectives. The conceptual analysis includes more than 40 page-specific references about decision behaviors, including visceral emotions, perceptual narrowing, loss aversion, regulation of emotion, deliberate calm, creative associations, problem restructuring, and the process by which information overload and dilemmas of personal vs impersonal problem framings are resolved.
One of the models takes the form of multiple tables or grids. The grids have been employed to analyze the perspectives of three stakeholders (surgeons, author’s team, author) at three points in time (before, during, and after the decisive moment). Arrows and a gold star have been added to the ‘after’ grid to identify aspects of the decision making process that, in the author’s opinion, have approached those identified in the Habermasian ‘Gold Standard’ of excellence.
The soldier: The campaigning season
Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be, For my unconquerable soul...
William Ernest Henley - ‘Invictus’ 1st stanza
We are a highly specialized group of military operators conducting missions in the furthest reaches of Afghanistan. It is 2002, the environment was austere, punishing, and we operated for extended periods at high altitudes against an enemy desperate to re-infiltrate and reassert itself from wintering safe-havens outside Afghanistan. This is the campaigning season, when the enemy seek to inflict vengeance and rage on those who sought an alternative narrative to that imposed by the rule of violence. Guided by an extreme interpretation of a belief system, they sought to destroy anyone and anything not conforming to their narrative. We saw and felt this in the suffering of the people, the desolation of the regions and the destruction of their history.
We had been operating at high tempo for some time, conducting long range endurance missions and I had just 24 hours previously led the preliminary entry operation and insertion of the team. The team was now deployed and conducting their tasks, while I relocated back to the command group to maintain operational oversight. Changes to the situation are common and we prepare for these. We also prepare for the worst outcomes and one was about to unfold and become My Decisive Moment.
The soldier: My decisive moment
In the fell clutch of circumstance, I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance, My head is bloody, but unbowed.
William Earnest Henley - ‘Invictus’ 2nd stanza
The message comes in; the team has taken a hit. We have three casualties, one in very bad shape with extensive lower limb injuries and the team is prepping them for evacuation. The team is a long way out and we immediately activate the recovery plan and await the arrival of the wounded. At the same time we are evaluating the situation and seeing how to provide support for the rest of the team who remain on task and under threat. This is getting up there with regards to how bad it can get but not beyond what we have prepared for. The helicopters land, I am there to take charge of the wounded and confirm their condition as it’s me who will be calling back and talking with their loved ones and telling them what’s happened to them and what I am doing about it.
All thoughts seem pushed aside as I see the wounded taken by stretcher from the helicopters and we move quickly with them into the surgical facility. This is bad, two look OK but have been rocked by the overpressure from very close, high explosive detonations and suffer numerous contusions and hearing damage. The third person is a soldier and he is in a bad way having taken the worst of the explosive blast. His legs are a shocking mess, he is heavily sedated, drifting in and out of consciousness and is not lucid or aware of where he is and what’s going on. He loses consciousness again.
I focus fully on him and two of my command team focus on the other wounded, comforting them while the medical team work in front of me to stabilize the soldier. I knew he was injured badly and when I saw him I needed to see how bad; I wanted to know, I am his boss, I had gone through training with him, I knew him, and I was responsible for him. This was professional, this was personal, this was everything at once and I had the same duty of care, for the team still out there.
The surgeon talks with me; he wants my consent to perform an immediate amputation of both legs! On seeing the extent of the injuries I felt an immediate, visceral reaction, everything was silent and I could feel a cold sickening sensation wash through me. The orbitofrontal cortex integrates our visceral emotions into the decision making process and this was going on rapidly8:24. I feel now Plato could have been right and that my emotions could have taken me “like a fool into the world below”8:17. I was in the midst of “perceptual narrowing” focused on the most essential facts and most basic instincts, I felt sick8:98. However it passed and I listened intently to what the surgeon was saying. I wanted to place reason over emotion but I knew there was a battle with primitive emotion going on8:20.
Writing this I am recalling the mass of information that seemed to traffic through my mind as I sought for some better outcome, an outcome that did not hold such appalling loss. Even though I thought I knew nothing my emotional brain did and was trying to tell me something 8:52. I calmed and started reasoning why both legs? My emotional brain had done my initial thinking telling me ‘no;’ there was more to consider, it had bought me time to think and do the most reasonable thing8:99. Was I experiencing loss aversion and just trying to avoid something that felt like loss8:77? Was it some ‘deal or no deal’ scenario where I was pursuing a better offer no matter what8:81? Had my emotions “sabotaged my common sense”8:82? As Aristotle argued I needed to intelligently apply my emotions to “the real world”8:107. I was at a point where it was not that I was not feeling anything but I was now regulating my emotions and my pre-frontal cortex (PFC) was in the game, I was now thinking about my own thoughts8:106.
His injuries were severe; they needed to clean him out and salvage as much as possible including the knee joints which provides better mobility. Wait too long and this may not be achievable. My two guys with me from my command group were now at my back to my left and right waiting for what I was going to do. I worked through the information I had to make the call: perform the amputations or seek other perspectives? Sheffield (2015) lectured us on the need for pluralism where we entertain multiple perspectives and I wanted more than what I was being presented. I had restored “executive control”8:114. My PFC was now in full conductor mode leading the orchestration in my mind8:115. “Chance favors the prepared mind”8:117, and my emotions bought me this chance8:99. I was primed for opportunity and like Dodge in the Mann Gulch disaster, I was searching for another way to beat this fire8:115.
Another surgeon who had been off-roster came in; he was an orthopaedic specialist and heard the helicopters arrive. I asked for his assessment wanting to know what time I had and was there a better outcome than a double amputation? He performed an assessment, I had time to get him to another higher medical facility where he may be able to save one and possibly both legs but we had to move now! We were located at an air-field and could hear all the while the drone of engines in the back ground; a US colleague heard my decision and ran out onto the taxi-way stopping an aircraft. My guy was now on his way to the other facility with the surgeon, two of my team and the chance of a better outcome.
We soon hear that one leg was saved while the other was amputated below the knee, as despite their best efforts the surgical team could not reconnect enough blood supply to sustain the severely damaged lower part of the leg. My gut had been right and it had bought me time and we were able to reason through the options and arrive at a better outcome.
The soldier: Making sense of it all
“Beyond this place of wrath and tears, Looms but the Horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years, Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.”
William Earnest Henley - ‘Invictus’ 3rd stanza
The V shape deals on the left with steps that link with intentions and the right steps that link to outcomes7. Steps 1 to 3 refine and narrow intentions while steps 4 to 6 compile and broaden outcomes7. The why? what? and how? levels represent personal/emotional commitment, interpersonal/moral agreement, and reasoned/technical excellence, respectively7:88. Personal commitment was demonstrated when I decided not to have both legs amputated, and we all committed to getting the best outcome. Interpersonal/moral agreement was demonstrated by the plan to get him to the other facility, and the expectations of team members that he would get the best outcome possible. Reasoned/technical excellence was demonstrated through enacting the plan, and creating the opportunity for a better outcome through the performances of the team, the surgeons and myself.
The Habermasian Gold Standard is used here to examine the Roles, Relationships and pluralistic, communicative Rationality (R3) of the principal actorsref10. These are shown before, during and after the decisive moment in the figures below.
Roles cover the analysis of Expert, Citizen Behaviors and Decision Maker with these presented as the surgeons, the team and myself respectively. Relationship relates to the behavior of emotion, morality and reason. Rationality is the degree to which behavior meets The Gold Standard.
Personally and as a team we achieved the Gold Standard principles through10:
Respectful discussion between ourselves as we sought to gain mutual understanding as seen in the discussion with the surgeons.
Those who spoke, spoke freely using reason, norms and emotion.
We were free to, and did, question each other.
Power and influence through rank was set aside as we all sought genuine discussion with me not exercising my authority until after discussions.
Personal commitment was seen in the evacuation and deliberations on care for the casualties, social agreement was seen in the decision to seek a better outcome and expectation of others that this would happen, and technical excellence was seen in the successful evacuation of the casualties and the highly skilled treatment of them and particularly of the soldier.
The soldier: Takeaway points and reflection
“...It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
William Ernest Henley - ‘Invictus’ 4th and final stanza
My emotions initially led me before I sought to use my PFC and direct my thoughts from the top-down8:114. I was now getting into a state of “deliberate calm”8:125 with the PFC able to make use of my working memory where I could make sense of “the information streaming in from the other cortical areas”8:127. I was making “creative associations” such as knowing from somewhere that there was an orthopaedic specialist on base and that there was an aircraft preparing for flight which we could hear in the background8:127. The “restructuring phase” followed where relevant information was being mixed together in new ways8:127. My PFC was able to pick up on new insights and realize the answer I was looking for8:128.
With the conscious brain only able to deal with about seven pieces of information my PFC was feeling overwhelmed8:147. Given that working memory and rationality share the same “cortical source” which is the PFC, trying to track lots of information was making me less able to exert control over my impulses and this was the perceptual narrowing I initially experienced8:148.
I had been presented what felt like an ethical dilemma - stabilize him and look to manage double amputations below the knee - or seek an alternative; my unconscious had instantly and automatically generated an emotional reaction to that proposal, my brain had made up its mind and I knew what was right8:167. Now that my emotions had made the moral decision I then started to “activate those rational circuits” in my PFC8:167.
I liken the decision I was asked to make initially being similar to pushing the fat man off the bridge in Joshua Greene's thought experiment; it was a personal moral dilemma8:171. The decision then became an impersonal moral dilemma as it now would rest with the second surgeon and the team at the higher medical facility as to whether the legs could be saved or not8:171. I felt sympathy for the soldier and knew how bad it was for him and how he would feel about the situation he was in and I now understand this as “fellow feeling”8:176. This sympathy created a drive to seek fairness for him and it felt good pursuing a better outcome8:176. I related to him through feeling not thinking as my mirror neurons allowed me relate to him through what I was experiencing by being there with him8:178.
Through personal examination and reflection I now think my decision making could improve by conscious application of these five key conclusions:
Simple problems require reason, as anything more than four variables can overwhelm the rational brain8:223. It’s good to exercise our reason to check our feelings however I did not know this and thought my emotions could be letting me down as I could not explain them.
Novel problems also require reason, as we need our working memory to tackle a real dilemma if it really is unprecedented8:235. I need to develop awareness that this is what is actually happening as it would have helped knowing I was doing the right thing at the time.
Embrace uncertainty and extend my process of decision making8:235. I will do this deliberately now as there are two things to aid me; firstly to always allow competing ideas, and secondly always remind myself the things I don’t know8:236. Using this quote by Colin Powell I can apply this to my thoughts; “Tell me what you know. Then tell me what you don’t know, and only then can you tell me what you think. Always keep those three separated”8:236.
You know more than you know, as we are blind to knowing what happens outside the PFC8:237. It’s our emotions that give us a clue as to what’s going on by giving us a “visceral representation” of the processes we can’t see8:237. I know now that a bad experience is a good teacher as it’s feelings not our PFC that “captures the wisdom of experience”8:237.
Think about thinking, as matching the best thought process to the decision can be a deliberate choice I can make8:238. Do I go with emotion or reason? It depends and I have a better understanding if I understand how I make decisions and “listen to the intense argument” going on in my head8:238.
We continued on operations another four months before coming home at the end of the campaign season and over six months on operations. We would have some respite and be back within another 18 months. This decisive moment was an experience that improved us all and added to the resilience we had developed in our training–we had other moments as well.
I have come to realize at the end of this reflective experience that my decisive moment was a real test and one which I passed. It has allowed me to better appreciate the why what and how of my decision making and the processes at work within my mind as I seek to be as William Henley’s poem Invictus ends - “the captain of my soul.”
The nature of student learning is reflected in the contents of the my decisive moment and making sense of it all sections of The Soldier.
The my decisive moment section conveys an understanding of relevant concepts, such as 'orbito-frontal cortex', 'perceptual narrowing', particularly as regards the role of emotion ('Even though I thought I knew nothing my emotional brain did and was trying to tell me something.') and reason ('I had restored “executive control” '.).
The making sense of it all section establishes: (1) the overall coherence (from left to right, and top to bottom) of the elements in the V-Model; (2) the extended or pluralistic, communicative rationality of the stakeholders before, during and after the decisive moment. It seems clear that: (1) the principles of the Gold Standard were achieved; (2) stakeholders demonstrated personal commitment to an interpersonal/moral agreement for reasoned/technical excellence.
The take-away points and reflection section discusses the value of critical reflection.
The development over time of emotional commitment to a moral agreement for technical excellence is reviewed in the light of a new-found understanding of neural processes. It was the author's emotions that made the moral decision to refuse the terrible loss of a double amputation. ('my unconscious had instantly and automatically generated an emotional reaction to that proposal, my brain had made up its mind and I knew what was right. Now that my emotions had made the moral decision I then started to “activate those rational circuits” in my PFC'). It was 'deliberate calm' and the PFC (Prefrontal Cortex) that enabled problem restructuring and the emergence of a technically feasible plan of action.
The bullet points after 'Through personal examination and reflection I now think my decision making could improve by conscious application of these five key conclusions' apply the key summary section of the neuroscience text to The Soldier. This is no mean feat. A key element is: It’s our emotions that give us a clue as to what’s going on by giving us a “visceral representation” of the processes we can’t see. While the material presented in this part of the assignment is dense, it has since been explicated in conversations with the author about the need for the NZ Defense Force to develop "asymmetric" strategies to contain ISIS.
Like almost all students, the author of The Soldier was positive about the course, and enthusiastic about the neuroscience text and the assignment on critical reflection. Like other students he was surprised to discover that he could explain a lot of his decision behaviors by reference to neural activities unconnected to conscious thought. Perhaps because it is not possible to consciously interrogate unconscious thought, the author of The Soldier was conflicted and confused about the role that values and morality, emotions and intuitions played in rational decision making. While his framing of the problem was inherently pluralistic he did not understand the role of his emotions. He now wants to consciously frame problems via an extended version of rationality based on neural pluralism, and to more consciously listen to 'the wisdom of his emotions'.
It is clear that students obtained value from the biological model and the neuroscience text. These provided a direct understanding of how ‘decision framing’ affects the conversation in our head between what we know (reason) and what we feel (emotion). The author of The Soldier was empowered in the sense that he wrote expressively and with great authenticity about an issue important to his career in the New Zealand Defense Forces. For the first time he was able to articulate the nature of ‘the argument in his head’ when he engaged, critically and creatively, in disentangling claims to emotion, reason and morality.