Everyone is familiar with Gen. George S Patton, Jr., old blood and guts, known to many as the unstoppable and swearing Third Army tank commander, the twin-gunned, six-shooting and winningest general in World War II. He is a larger-than-life figure, an American folk hero and the subject of a critically- acclaimed Hollywood motion picture starring George C. Scott.
Yet few people up until recent are familiar with his quiet counterpart in Southeast Asia, Gen. Nguyen Van Hieu, the Vietnamese patriot, and unsung hero of the ARVN.
There is no doubt Patton was the greatest general of WWII and probably of modern times--at least in terms of knowledge and accomplishment. Gen. Hieu, on the other hand, while amiable with associates, quiet and reserved in thought, was arguably the chief strategist to be found south of the DMZ (although he was little utilized) and most reliable general to have ever fought in the Vietnam War.
Hieu and Patton: these two generals, one widely known and the other neglected, seem at first glance to be as far apart in style of leadership as one can possibly imagine. East and West never meet at this point. Yet upon close examination, these two capable officers are found to be so very much alike in the conduct of their general commands. In fact the similarities between the two soldiers are striking-- so much so that the case can be made that Gen. Hieu must have read Patton's book, studied it, and taken it to heart.
Always earnest in the art of war, Patton possessed an unsurpassed encyclopedic knowledge of the history of battles, an exceedingly thorough understanding of the ways and thoughts of the enemy, and a peerless, masterful, intuitive comprehension of the roadways and terrain (ancient and modern) on which the offensive army campaign was to sweep.
Hieu, for his part, was quiet in deliberation yet decisive in execution, an accomplished staff officer who was a master of maps and briefings yet thoroughly tactical in the field, multi-lingual, communicative with allies, comprehensive on the larger plan yet good with details, possessing a technological edge.
Both men believed in the virtue of loyalty in troops, especially from the top down.
"There is a great deal of talk about loyalty from the bottom to the top," writes Patton, and the need for enlisted men to obey their officers. Yet: "Loyalty from the top down is even more necessary and much less prevalent." (346)1
Gen. Hieu had to experience this bitter truth close up and at first hand many times during his military career that spanned the Vietnam War in the 1950s, '60s and early '70s.
In Saigon, the southern capital along the Mekong where the governmental strings of power were located, always it seems, no matter who was in charge of military defense, frustratingly, there could be found here and there circles and certain officer promotions that were based more on someone's politics than on his true talent and worth, a situation existing whereby men of lesser ability were able to attain the highest ranks of the ARVN general command through cronyism. Indeed such was the officer career environment in the ARVN: especially after the murder of the long- standing President Diem and the rise of the extremist "Young Turks". This situation eventually brought Gen.Thieu to the seat of power at the presidential palace. Now "democracy" is shattered in the mad rush and phenomenon of colonels competing and conspiring with ARVN generals to wrest away from the old guard the top political positions in the government.
Hieu was strictly apolitical however--and much like Patton who in many ways was his role model--all his mind and energy was spent on sharpening his skill in weaponry and fulfilling to the utmost his military obligations. Strikingly one of Hieu's outstanding qualities as a general and a soldier amongst those who knew him was his incorruptible service both as an officer and a gentleman, and he held out this virtue both in his relations to higher and lower command, to brass and rank and file alike. Hieu really excelled at this.
Like the memorial Gen. Robert E. Lee who wore throughout the Civil War a mere colonel's insignia and who ate the food of the lowest private, Hieu never took more than his allotted portion in food or any other provision. He could not be bribed.
Both in victory and in retreat Hieu could be counted on to be where he was supposed to be, on time, and in a fighting spirit. Never would this general allow his men to ever be put in harm's without a good plan or a fighting chance of success.
As Anti-Corruption Minister he did not hesitate to go after the highest level of wrong doing, even if doing so placed his career or even his very life in jeopardy.
As an officer he was outstanding, a model of perfection, as he was both a competent and incorrupt general, humble in his own estimation, yet exceedingly effective in strategy and tactics, and always loyal in practice.
Patriots of the Republic of South Vietnam, you have a right to be proud of Major General Nguyen Van Hieu.
All fighting men in good spirit should respect him.
In the art of war it is important that discipline and an esprit de corps be maintained at all times. The lack of moral is something that the enemy is sure to exploit.
General Hieu, in his role as the commander of a combat division, was an outstanding example of the disciplined soldier. He exuded leadership qualities and he inspired a sense of camaraderie among the troops. Always meticulous in his attention to dress detail and to the practice of arms and to the study of all kinds of weaponry.
General Patton, old blood and guts, the great Army commander of World War II, understood more than anyone of the need for such sturdy- disciplined soldiers. As he comments in his book, War as I Knew It, on the need for discipline to win battles, the general remarks that "There is only one sort of discipline -- PERFECT DISCIPLINE -- Men cannot have good battle discipline and poor administrative discipline."
"Discipline," writes Patton, "is based on pride in the profession of arms, on meticulous attention to details, and on mutual respect and confidence. Discipline must be a habit so engrained that it is stronger than the excitement of battle or the fear of death." (378)
"Discipline can only be obtained when all officers are so imbued with the sense of their awful obligation to their men and to their country that they cannot tolerate negligence. Officers who fail to correct errors or to praise excellence are valueless in peace and dangerous misfits in war."
"Officers must assert themselves by example and by voice. They must be pre-eminent in courage, deportment , and dress." (379)
"One of the primary purposes of discipline is to produce alertness...."(379).
In the midst of the Vietnam War, the ideal of such a perfectly-disciplined officer was found strikingly in the person of Major General Nguyen Van Hieu whose "good qualities include dedication, experience as combat leader, ability to stimulate and maintain morale, and ability to control those in his command." According to John G. Hayes in an evaluation report dated Feb. 7, 1970: Hieu "demands high standards of conduct and discipline".
And Colonel Nguyen Khuyen wrote of him: "He was really a competent general and especially incorruptible. The image of a young General, handsome and yet simply dressed."
In intelligence, quick thinking and alertness -- no one in the theatre of war was Gen. Hieu's superior.
Precisely this quality was noticed by Richard Tregaskis in his Vietnam Dairy, 1963:
"the Vietnamese Deputy Chief of Operations...Maj. Nguyen Van Hieu...[is an] alert, well- scrubbed individual."
In fact, Gen. Hieu was not only alert soldier, decisive and methodical in his various general commands over the years, but he was also acute in strategy, meticulous over detail in the planning of an attack. A Lieutenant Colonel of an Engineer unit respectfully said of him: "You can fool other generals with technical arcana in order to avoid obeying a difficult order, such as building a field force bridge across a rive in an enemy controlled area, but you would not dare use the same tactic with General Hieu, because he mastered all details, even technical minutia, and you know...well, he only gave an order that he knew could be carried out".
Gen. Hieu was brave, fearless in adversity -- his own personal courage and discipline in the face of enemy fire was also well-known To ease tension, deporting himself perfectly he used to joke about any close stray bullets that happened to hit the aircraft he was riding in. His own helicopter pilot used to dread going out with Gen. Hieu to inspect the battlefield situation.
It was discipline.
(to be continued)
1 George S. Patton, Jr. War as I Knew It: The Battle Memoirs of "Blood 'N Guts, Annotated by Colonel Paul D. Harkins, (bantam Books: 1980).