Infantry School as an MBA

By David Smith

Though Dad Smith had but a high school education, he impressed on his three boys the value and importance of all kinds of education and his readiness to pay for graduate school, provided we focused.

Buddy (Forrest, Jr.) took Dad’s offer, went to medical school at Pennsylvania and became a pediatrician. Paul (Bim) took it as well, went to law school at Texas, passed the bar, and became an attorney (do not call him a lawyer). Dad suggested that I go to Wharton School of Finance after getting my BBA at Texas, but I decided I needed to go to work as soon as I finished my two years of active duty in the United States Army.

Things I learned at Infantry School and the company officers course at Fort Benning were more fun and more interesting than the total four years at The University of Texas at Austin.

At Fort Lee, VA, I spent many hours riding horseback, checking out nearby Civil War battlefields, and immersing myself reading the classics of Douglas Southall Freeman, especially his R. E. Lee, which tells of Lee’s leadership of the Army of Northern Virginia. These books helped me decide to transfer from Quartermaster School at Fort Lee to Infantry at Fort Benning and my request was accepted, especially since “the Korean Conflict” was still a very hot war.

I was ordered to Infantry School at Fort Benning, GA, where I took the six-month company officers course on managing the terrible but still sometimes necessary business of war, which General William Tecumseh Sherman defined in three short words: “War is hell.”
Looking back, I posit that we are making small but appreciable progress eliminating war when “swords shall be beaten into ploughshares,” as set forth by Micah the prophet. Meanwhile, our United States must sometimes accept the role of resident policeman in today’s world.

(Here are concepts I learned from Infantry School and set forth as aphorisms.)

(1) Take the Offensive to Win
This overriding principle of warfare is that you must take the offensive to win. You cannot win a battle or a war, play sports, or any endeavor by only responding with a defense.
There have been numerous efforts throughout history to construct some form of an “impregnable” defense that will withstand all invaders. None were ultimately successful. The Maginot line of France and the Great Wall of China are classic examples. Defense alone never wins.

(2) If You Finally Must, Carefully and With a Plan, Fire and Fall Back
There are times in war when perforce of circumstances it is expedient to “fire and fall back”, and as it may be essential for civilians to take up a better position or to “fire and fall back.” These days individually we may face a bad (but no longer so terrifying) disease like cancer. We may gain months or even years of life if we have the will and courage to “fire and fall back,” especially with cancer which more than one in five of us will ultimately face, and probably die from.

In war the enemy may have superior numbers to hurl at us as did the Chinese in North Korea in the ’50s. (For them, life was/is cheap.) What then?

(3) Be Ready to Use the FPL (to Decimate Your Invader), But Only if You Must.
“What is the FPL?” you ask.

It is short for “final protective line” which Infantry officers must continuously plan for but hopefully only take up for a short time. Rifles, automatic rifles; indeed, all weaponry, especially machine guns, are paired so that all weapons of the command take up FPL, continuously firing down a single pre-planned but narrow lane. Each FPL overlaps with another so that lines of fire intersect but three to five feet above ground level. This is almost certain to stop or kill any man or horde of men trying to cross the bands of fire.
I know. It’s not pretty to think about, and it is terrible. But think of it as your “Sunday Punch” in boxing, if you prefer. Final Protective Fires were effective decimating invading Chinese hordes in Korea as long as the ammunition lasted and the gun barrels did not melt, though I was not there.

(4) Counterattack
Remember that the easiest time to resume the offensive is immediately. If you’ve been forced off a hill or to fire and fall back, regroup and then counterattack!

(5) A Good General Always Has Enough Troops
Substitute for “general” whatever rank you find yourself in life: colonel, major, lieutenant, sergeant, or private. Whatever your rank, a good soldier always has enough troops. In civilian life this aphorism echoes with an older admonition: “Go with what you’ve got.” Don’t we often find ourselves lacking in time, in money, in education, in intellect, in psychological energy, or some other category?
It is more than incidental to pray for adequacy of resources. In my experience prayer is efficacious. The next time you’re inclined to bemoan your scant resources, remember that you’re the general in command of yourself and a good soldier always has enough troops! Go with what you’ve got is a splendid corollary.

(6) Never Take a Weak Front
In almost any profession or line of work, there is some “unforgivable sin,” some no-no that is absolute. Violate it, and you’re fired; your career is terminated.
The chemical manufacturing business, my life’s work, is somewhat dangerous and requires attention 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Its standards are high, but its fatality rate is quite low, lower than that of cab drivers.
Taking a weak front in war is like taking the bait of a trap, a weak front being the pretended front line of the enemy that is made to appear thin and weak when forces engage in battle. The attacking party, on meeting little resistance, foolishly pours through the hole; that is, takes the weak front. Thereupon the attacking party discovers the real force of the enemy is further back or higher up, strong and well positioned to mow you down. By then it’s too late to regroup. If you’ve taken the bait of a weak front, you may well be decimated.

(7) Shift Operators, (The Equivalent of Guard Duty) Must Never Sleep On Duty
For a shift operator, sleeping on duty ─ even dozing, napping or drifting off ─ is an unforgivable sin, at least at Texmark Chemicals. Only once have I come upon a snoozing operator. That was several years ago on the graveyard shift, and I fired him then and there.

In the Navy the unforgivable mistake is for a captain to run his ship aground.
In battle the counterpart to this is for a general to take a weak front. “What,” you ask, “is a weak front, and how might one take it?”

I learned of one exception to this rule when I had occasion at Infantry School to meet a major general who had lived to tell about taking a weak front in the Second World War. He was demoted to colonel instead of being discharged, but ultimately his high rank of general was restored.

The Mexican army used to have or perhaps has a dishonorable discharge ceremony in which the person to be dishonored stands alone at attention before the rest of his fellow soldiers standing in formation. The band and buglers play a dirge while the company commander rips the medals and buttons off the poor guy’s coat. Then as an optional parting gesture the commander insults the man, slaps him, and spits in his face.
What is the equivalent of taking a weak front in your line of work? My wife, a teacher for sixty years, tells me the “unforgiveable sin” is to walk out and leave her classroom of kids unattended.

Whatever your line of work, do not doze or sleep when on the job.

(8) If the General Listens Mainly to the Quartermaster, the Army Will Never Maneuver
To this I would add “it may not even get out of the barracks.” This aphorism is a warning not to heed the voices of caution too much. Note that it doesn’t say that you should never listen to your quartermaster, who in the army is caretaker of supplies, food, and clothing. It says don’t listen to his voice of caution exclusively or even mainly. Risk is implicit to most civilian occupations, much as in the military or in war.

In civilian endeavors there are numerous professionals and consultants whose ways of looking at things are valid, but only to a certain extent. Your attorney, your banker, indeed most consultants, are so earnest about their specialties that they may do whatever it takes to compel you to see things from their perspective.
Don’t let that happen.

(9) Have a Primary and a Secondary Objective
Infantry School doctrine of the 1950s said that in battle you should have one clearly defined primary objective, understood by all persons in the unit. In the terrific pressure and confusion of battle, hopefully you will know what hill or town you plan to take as your primary objective.
What about after that?

It was stressed as important to remember that a possible secondary objective was just that, secondary and not to be taken on or considered unless and until the commander deems it opportune, pursuant only after gaining the primary objective with certainty. Even to this day I try to decide my primary and secondary objectives for the day and usually write them on my day sheet.

(10) Clean the Lint off the Helix
“What in the world is the helix?” I hear someone ask. “And what trouble is a little lint?”
This one is not an infantry aphorism but a throwback to the less than happy year I spent in the Quartermaster Corps. In your household you may regard laundry as women’s work or not even know how to work a washing machine.

The point of this aphorism is that little details may be of high importance, with large, possibly secondary consequences if overlooked.

The helix is a little screen on the dryer that catches the lint and frequently has to be cleaned off. I tell you this in case you too are antique enough to remember drying laundry by sunlight. At Fort Lee, Virginia in 1953, I found that doing laundry was one of our jobs in the Quartermaster Corps. Moreover, I found that even though we were newly minted lieutenants at headquarters for the Quartermaster Corps, we had to get our own uniforms laundered and had to go off post to do it.

(Funny, I thought.)
I came up with a great idea during my first week at Fort Lee! I ran an ad in the Hopewell Times for someone to wash our uniforms, found such a person, and made a deal with her, as well as for five of my new Army Lieutenant buddies. It was winter in those days before environmental concerns when the entire post used coal furnaces that belched soot, and lots of it. Little did I know that our contract washwoman lacked a dryer (with or without a helix). She decided to dry our uniforms naturally; that is, by sunshine.

When I got back to the BOQ (bachelor officers’ quarters) I had five neatly wrapped packages of dungarees that we opened to find dense patches of black soot firmly ironed into each of our uniforms!

Smith was not a popular guy, and his buddies were not happy campers ─ correction, soldiers.

So, remember to clean the lint off the helix. And remember, also, that using mechanical methods to dry clothes may work better than drying them “naturally.” Who knows? That lady I contracted with may have been prescient to the Environmental Movement without even knowing it!

Presumably no less than God has a “calling” just for you and just for me. At South Main Church these days we hear a good deal about “calling”; finding one’s calling. Looking back at my flirt with a military calling, I was glad to have put in two years of military service, as both my brothers did before me. It was our duty. However, I never seriously considered it a “calling” or career. But consider this:

After two years in El Paso High School ROTC, I graduated as a first lieutenant.
After two years of ROTC at The University of Texas at Austin I graduated as a first lieutenant.

Then pursuant to two years active duty in the United States Army; 25 months capped by the year as exec officer of the 510th Armored Infantry Battalion, what do you think?
You guessed it — I graduated as a first lieutenant.

(For the rest of this story and more by David Smith’s “Texas Spirit” go to or