Three Meter 

Zone: Common Sense Leadership for NCOs. Welcome to the world of the noncommissioned officer, 

the ultimate in hands-on, front-line leadership: the three meter zone where the work of the 

soldier occurs. ... a full fledged study of leadership for NCOs, by an NCO.
Three Meter Zone | JD's Bunker | Poetry | Chapel | American Journal



Dennis Foley wrote one hell of a good book (Special Men - -Random House/Ivy Books) which I was privileged to write the introduction.

A lot of you have ask that I put the introduction out on the web because it has a fair number of good training lessons.

Feel free to copy it. Stick it in your training notes and your junior leader's heads, the contents, that is..

Foley's book is available everywhere in paperback. And can be ordered in hardback from Doubleday's Military Book club. It is a great read. Dennis spent 17 years with LRRP, Ranger, Special Forces and Airborne units and is a walking junkyard with all the metal he totes around.


by David Hackworth

I can remember the day Dennis Foley reported in to my parachute battalion in Vietnam as clearly as I remember the day my first child was born. Dennis was a tall, lanky infantry second lieutenant with no special skills except that he was qualified as a 7-1542: Airborne infantry platoon leader. His service record indicated that he was just another untried lieutenant joining his first combat unit. Yet there was something about him. It wasn't his youthful eagerness - most shavetails are eager - or that he was the son of a distinguished combat officer - many of the officers in the battalion were warrior bred and reared - or that he had risen through the enlisted ranks and graduated from Fort Benning's tough infantry officer candidate school (OCS), which as a rule produced the most combat-ready platoon leaders. On the surface, there was nothing special about the twenty-one-year-old, but my sixth-sense antenna told me he was worth watching. I decided to keep him close at hand. I assigned Foley to the battalion's elite Airborne Ranger special operations unit, the Tiger Force. (The first TOE LRRP unit formed in Vietnam which was modeled after my Korean War Raider unit.)

Like most former sergeants, I had little use for second lieutenants. They could get a platoon in trouble faster than a stroll through a minefield. George Patton is reported to have said that an officer wasn't worth a pinch of salt until he'd been with troops for ten years, and I share the same view.

I never could figure out army logic. The leadership of an infantry platoon is the most demanding and dangerous job in the armed forces, yet the infantry platoon is commanded by the most inexperienced and least qualified guys in the military. I believed, and still do, that a lieutenant should serve in the infantry enlisted ranks for at least three years, and if he doesn't prove himself a leader by at least making buck sergeant, he should not go on to a commissioning school such as West Point, Annapolis, ROTC, or OCS. In sum, a lieutenant should shovel shit before he rides the horse. This approach will teach him to be street-wise and have respect for his men, because he will have been there and done that.

Over the bullet-splattered months that followed, my reading on Foley was proven to he dead on. He was an exception to the green-lieutenant rule. The something special my antenna picked up was his great heart, which pumped out a keen spirit; his extraordinary brightness, which allowed him to make complex things simple; his pit bull-like tenacity and unflinching loyalty to his troops and then to his bosses - in that order - which is the way it should be.

Foley was an up-front kind of leader and I frequently found myself on his flank sharing a foxhole in a hot firefight. There, at the bottom line of the soldiering business, I observed firsthand that he was capable, cool, and not afraid to take the high risks that came with his chosen life and death profession.

As is the way with old soldiers who see rare ability in young leaders, I became his mentor. He had the potential of becoming a senior officer and winning battles without taking hard lumps. I tried to pass on my knowledge and give him the assignments that would round him out.

He eventually commanded the Tigers after its skipper, Medal of Honor winner Jim Gardner, was shot down. Later, at Dak To, one of the most fierce, longest-running battles of the Vietnam War, he learned that skippering a battalion in combat is a flat-footed son of a bitch. I was my own operations officer, Foley was my assistant, and through twenty-one sleepless days and nights our battalion kicked the bejesus out of an enemy regiment that was four times bigger, but not one inch badder. Foley learned more there than he could have learned in two years at staff schools or skippering a battalion in peacetime. I believe that soldiers learn by doing, and by God he did a lot of doing in those three long weeks that saw our battalion lose almost half its officers and troopers while killing four times that number of North Vietnamese regulars.

After Dak To, on another battlefield with a different unit, one of my rifle companies needed a swift leadership transfusion. I put out the word, and with the power of my two-star boss, found Foley, who was about to be assigned as a starched briefing officer in some Disneyland east HQ and scooped him up. He quickly transformed a hard-luck company into a hard-core force and started kicking some mean Viet Cong ass.

Then one day I asked him and his tired unit to go that extra mile. They were due to go in reserve and rest after a grueling campaign. Just when they were about to be lifted out, hot intelligence targeted a Viet Cong heavy-weapons outfit in his zone. After a heated argument in which Foley stood tall against going because his troops were too bushed, he launched; lieutenant colonels always win over captains. But it was a bad win on my part. Foley got blown out, and the hot intel target disappeared.

After our hitch in the hard-core battalion, we never served together again. But from the sidelines I watched him climb onward and upward toward the stars that blinked in the distance. And then well, that's his story, which he tells beautifully in the following pages.

After Foley got shot up, I recorded the following notes about infantry lieutenants. Since little changes in infantry combat except how fast you go and how loud the bang, these observations are just as applicable today as they were back in 1969:

The average infantry lieutenant who joined my battalion was not prepared to lead a rifle platoon. He was not completely trained in the theory of combat in Vietnam; was extremely weak in soldier management, leadership, practical knowledge, small unit combat operations; and was almost devoid of actual field experience. The old saying, "Good judgment comes from experience and experience is gained from bad judgment" is certainly applicable here. Out of sixty-eight infantry lieutenants who joined the battalion, only two had ever stood in front of a TO&E platoon before. The rest were out of service schools, training centers, and other non-TO&E assignments. As a result of having no experience in the art of handling a platoon, these young and, on the average, well-meaning officers were completely lacking in self-confidence and were, with rare exception, almost valueless as platoon leaders without at least a thirty day OJT period with a "stud-type" platoon leader.

The biggest shortcomings of the young infantry leaders were their failure to be demanding and their reluctance to ensure that their men did the basic things which would keep them alive on the battlefield.

I believe one of the reasons for this deficiency is that many of the social values acquired as a civilian conflict diametrically with what is expected of a leader. A case in point is just one civilian-instilled value that drastically conflicts with combat leadership: popularity.

Great emphasis is placed in the American society to instill the "virtue" of being a popular fellow. The formal part of this training starts at kindergarten when the importance of socializing is first introduced and is thereafter never ending. The informal training begins even earlier, and hence, the young man, when first entering the army, has had about twenty years' indoctrination of "being a nice guy." After four years of college ROTC/military academy training or about a year of basic infantry and OCS training, he is supposed to be the well-prepared leader who always places the welfare of the troops just below the accomplishment of the mission. Wrong. The average leader has a virtual Pavlovian instinct toward being popular. He must be a good guy! Thus, he becomes a "joiner" instead of an "enforcer."

In Vietnam, good guys let their people smoke at night and take portable radios to the field, allowed night ambushes to set up in the abandoned hooch so they could have protection from the rain, and left only one guard by the door so everyone else could get a good night's rest. Good guys let their men leave their boots on for several days, resulting in inordinately severe immersion foot. Good guys didn't check to ensure that their men protected themselves against mosquitoes or took the required malaria pills and salt pills. Good guys ended up killing their men with kindness.

The average young leader in my battalion generally knew what was required, but did not have the moral courage to enforce the rules. He preferred to turn his head and look the other way rather than make vigorous on-the-spot corrections. Deficiencies such as dirty ammunition and weapons, improperly safed weapons and grenades, incorrect camouflage techniques and the improper use of terrain (not using natural cover to provide protection from small-arms fire), and not staying alert to stay alive was common. The end result of this was that the soldiers' habits became sloppier and sloppier, and carelessness ran amuck. This resulted in casualties-casualties that could have been prevented had the leader checked and demanded the small things be done well.

My experience has been that soldiers in combat will only do what is required of them and, if under weak, nice-guy leadership, will try to get away with everything they can. This results in the violation of every basic rule in the book. As an aside, I believe that all the while they are placing their lives in jeopardy, they know they are wrong and will respond to the requirements of a positive, ass-kicking leader. Results: fewer casualties and greater respect for the leader who cares enough for his men to make them do it right.

I believe that another serious shortcoming is the failure to teach leaders the importance of supervision and the techniques of supervising. The average small unit leader seems to take for granted that what he wills will be done, so there is no need to check.

The nature of combat in Vietnam greatly extended this problem because small units normally operated on a widely decentralized basis in rugged terrain that restricted inspection visits from higher headquarters. These conditions generally prohibited the more experienced senior NCOs and officers from checking the platoon and passing along "tips of the trade." Without an experienced, demanding leader, a carelessly led platoon is headed for a violent collision. The infrequency of combat in Vietnam (as compared to World War II or Korea) and the seemingly good security of many areas had a tendency to lull soldiers and leaders into a false sense of safety. Consequently, alertness and security became relaxed and the likelihood of enemy attack increased proportionately. (Mao: "When the enemy is weak: attack.")

The leader must be inculcated with the burning need to keep his people alert and never let their guard down. The leader must be instilled with the need to supervise his people twenty-four hours a day. He must check: fighting position for adequacy; if soldiers know the mission, situation, and where the LPs are; if proper field sanitation is being practiced, if all battlefield debris is destroyed to deny the enemy a source of supply; if his people are all sleeping under cover and protected from "first-round bursts"; if his subordinate leaders are "heads up" and demanding that their men are alert and tightly controlled. A never-ending list of little things must be checked: magazines cleaned, weapons test-fired, LPs and claymores out, sectors of fire known; medics looking at feet, monitoring salt tablets, and malaria pills and watching out for "jungle rot"; stand-to being conducted, to name a few. But the main thing is the leader has to constantly check, following the adage: "The best fertilizer in the world is the boss's footsteps . . . they make things grow."

Small units must train not in the classroom, but in the bush. Here warriors must be taught the gut fundamentals of infantry combat. The basics must he drilled in employing the same instructional techniques as those used in Airborne training. Every block of instruction should be reduced to the salient "points of performance," and each soldier should be required to demonstrate his knowledge by ruthless practical examination. Rommel said, "The best form of welfare for the troops is first-class training, for this saves unnecessary casualties." First-class training means hard work and sacrifice. "The more sweat on the training field, the less blood on the battlefield" is an adage I have always followed, and I'm convinced it keeps the casualty list short.

Cadets and new leaders who show ineptitude should he eliminated and not "recycled," such as that atrocity, Lt. William Calley, who caused the massacre at My Lai. Calley was recycled three times after being found wanting in leadership. He was commissioned in order to show a "low attrition rate" to higher headquarters. The shame of My Lai, more than any major enemy victory, caused the American people to withdraw support for the war effort. They said, "Enough is enough."

Dennis Foley's story is an inside view of the United States Army from perhaps its finest pre-Vietnam hour to its darkest period when the Vietnam War almost destroyed it, to its slow post-war turnaround that set the stage for its magnificent performance in Desert Storm.

The army that Private Foley joined in 1962 was, in the vernacular of the day, STRAC--ready to go any time, any place, anywhere, and kick butt big time when it got there. Many of the senior NCOs who trained him wore the Perfect Attendance Badge (Combat Infantry Badge with one star-WWII and Korea) and most of these hard-core mothers, who are the steel backbone of any army, ran their outfits with total professionalism. These were the days before political correctness, "be kind," and "consideration for others" became the order of the day. These hard noncoms were straight out of "From Here to Eternity". They soldiered hard, played and drank hard, and kept their units on their toes with tough love and tougher discipline. Their war experience taught them how to survive and win on the battlefield, and they passed this knowledge on to their young warriors and officers by making them do their soldier drills over and over again. "If you don't get it right in training, you won't get it right in combat and people will get killed," they barked. These were the days when few soldiers or junior officers were married. Soldiers lived in the barracks with their sergeants, and a duty day started at 0500 hours and frequently ended with the last notes of taps. It was a harsh life, but it prepared young Foley and his comrades for the harsher challenges of a distant battlefield, where too many of these wonderful noncoms were wasted in a war that only the people down in the rifle units understood; the generals and colonels who passed blindly through their units to get their tickets punched seldom asked these old pros.

So the brass, flying overhead in their choppers, went on failing to understand the nature of the war, and finally, three years after I first met Foley and he joined me in the Delta, there were few regular noncoms left. They were all dead or so shot up they weren't fit for regular infantry duty or, after having two or three wars under their pistol belts, hung up their rifles and joined the ranks of the retired army.

Foley graphically tells this story, which thousands of other young army and Marine officers painfully experienced in Vietnam. Many had to immediately pick up the chips without being able to be pulled along by an old pro sergeant who spoon-fed his new officer boss until he could eat by himself.

Foley's story is a good primer on how a leader develops after he leaves Fort Benning or Quantico with a head chock full of information and the back of his car even fuller with how-to-lead-and-fight books. And with all of this knowledge, how, when he gets on the killing field and the first bullet whizzes over his head, all electricity to his brain shuts off and fear takes over.

School cannot totally prepare a leader for this shock. But isolating the essentials can. If the basics, the fundamentals, are learned by rote, much like a boxer is drilled to counter punch, automatically reacting with a left cross, right hook or "the bomb" right down the middle without a conscious thought clicking through his brain, he'll get along just fine. And after each contact, the light will grow brighter as his experience level grows. It doesn't mean he won't be scared, but at least he won't be in the dark.

War is so simple, yet the military school system makes it so bloody complicated. The key to winning in battle is to sneak up on your opponent and belt the shit out of him from behind as hard and quickly as you can before he figures out you're in the neighborhood, and then scoot the hell out of there.

Besides having experienced noncoms to lead new small-unit officers through the minefields of a combat command, the best way for a new leader to get ready and learn his stuff is to read and reread books by combat warriors who have been there. Rommel's "Attacks", Patton's "War as I Knew It", Sajer's "The Forgotten Soldier", and my book, "About Face", are good starters. Don't bother with Clausewitz's convoluted double-talk, but make "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu your bible. It was written around 400 B.C. and his short and simple lessons of war are every bit as valuable today as they were then. I've been carrying Sun Tzu and reading it almost daily since I first picked it up in 1950. After some good OJT, the knowledge in these books and others will allow you to lead well, fight smart, and take care of your warriors.

A good knowledge of military history, like attending Airborne, Ranger, and Special Forces courses, is a confidence builder. In small-unit leaders, confidence, like fear, is contagious. Troopers can feel it, see it, smell it, and it will rub off on soldiers from a platoon to a division as quickly as a good rumor rumbles out of the latrine.

Confidence produces courage. Most leaders or warriors are not born with a double basic load of guts. Most leaders and warriors are as scared as the next guy in their first or 100th firefight, but if they are confident that they are tactically proficient and their unit is squared away and motivated by a strong sense of duty to accomplish the mission, the courage that is needed to do what many will view as impossible will be there. Mouths may be dry, guts may chum and hands shake, but when the slugs start snapping, the prepared leader will be as cool as Clint Eastwood on the outside and tell his boys, "Let's make somebody's day. Follow me." And no one will know who is scared out of their brain.

Besides being one hell of a job, leading men into battle is the ultimate responsibility. On the battlefield decisions are made in a split second, such as "go left" or "go right" or "go straight ahead," and right or wrong, good or bad, people get killed. Leaders carry the scars of those decisions for the rest of their lives. Later, battle scenes keep playing back. "Why didn't I wait?" "Why didn't I bring in more fire?" "Why didn't I go myself?" haunt the veteran day and night until he checks out of the net. Good preparation, hard training, and attention to detail keep nightmares to a minimum.

Dennis Foley's memoirs of his days as a small-unit combat leader give an excellent inside view of the United States Army during its troublesome Vietnam period, and you can almost feel, as you turn the pages, how a young combat leader grows from a scared, unsure-of-himself liability taking over his first platoon to an old pro company commander who has his shit together.

Foley's story is well told. Each page is alive with what soldiering is about: the relentless drill, excitement, boredom, the highs and lows and the brotherhood that, in the end, makes the whole journey a special trip among special men.

Dennis Foley served his country and men well, and the journey that unfolds in the following pages passes on his combat experience to present and future generations of infantry small-unit leaders.

To be a combat leader in the profession of arms is the most noble, deadly, and exciting occupation going. Its rewards are few, but if, at the end of the day, his men say, "He's a good man," those few words make a pretty good final epitaph for a war fighter.

As I look back on three decades of knowing the author, it's a pleasure to say Foley is a good man, and his primer on war fighting is an equally good read for warriors past, present, and future.