Quarterback versus Coach

A visitor to General Hieu’s Page once commented: "The ARVN had many competent officers at the regimental level and down, but at the divisional level and up, many generals were not competent. The command of a division and a corps requires competency in strategy and general staff. Many generals only knew how to attack as a buffalo, and lacked strategy (i.e. Operation Lam Son 719, Highlands withdrawal of II Corps). I greatly admire the competence and virtue of general Hieu, who had the ability to command with strategy at the divisional level and up." (Pham Khiet, Readers’ Comments #54).

General Hieu did not have any combat experience at the regimental level and down, having been appointed to his first divisional command post’s assignment straight from a long career exclusively in the general staff field . Nonetheless, despite such handicap, General Hieu was a quick learner and in no time was able to become a seasoned divisional commander at the helm of the 22nd Division Command first, and then of the 5th Division Command.

General Pham Van Phu and General Ngo Quang Truong were reputed as formidable battalion and regiment commanders. However, in light of the debacles of the II Corps in Central Highlands and of the I Corps in Da Nang in March 1975, many opinions have been voiced hinting that these two otherwise fine general officers had been assigned to a level of command positions beyond their abilities when they were elevated to the levels of division and corps commanders.

What makes an officer a good regiment commander, and what makes an officer a good division commander? Are the qualities that make a good regiment commander and the qualities that make a good division commander the same? In other words, does a good regiment commander necessarily become a good division commander?

At the risk of oversimplification, one can safely state that a good regiment commander should possess the following skills ratio: 80% tactics and 20% strategy. In the other hand, a good division commander should possess a reversed ratio: 20% tactics and 80% strategy. When a good regiment commander is promoted to a division command post and is not capable of making an adjustment by switching the above-mentioned ratio combinations, he would not be a good division commander.

To take an analogy of a football team, a regiment commander is like its quarterback and a division commander its coach. The quarterback works more directly with his teammates. He is present on the field together with them; he commands them, he sweats with them, he trains with them, he risks physical injuries as much as them. Likewise, the regiment commander is out there in the battlefield with his men; he commands them by example, he runs the risk of death as much as his men, he is out in the frontline with them. The coach, on the other hand, plays a more indirect role in the team. He handpicks and works through his deputy coaches and he stays on the sidelines. He designs strategies and calls tactical shots. Likewise, the division commander works on overall strategies, and gives tactical instructions to his regiment commander in the mist of battle.

Both the quarterback and the coach are important. However, among the two, the coach holds a more important role than the quarterback. Although a quarterback might commands more fame and higher pay than a coach, the role of the coach is a more determinant winning factor of a football team than its quarterback’s.

It is interesting to notice that in the football’s history, no good quarterback has ever become a good coach. And it is obvious that a good coach can never become a good quarterback because of lack of physical strength.

In the military arena, we encounter general officers who are either good tacticians with direct combat experiences - like General Patton - or good strategists with no combat experiences - like General Eisenhower or Collin Powell. General Nguyen Van Hieu seems to be an exception, who was a good tactician with ample combat experiences as a division commander of the 22nd Infantry Division and of the 5th Infantry Division, and at the same time was a good strategist as Chief of Staff of the I Corps and the II Corps, then Deputy Commander/Operation of the I Corps and the III Corps. To use our analogy, General Hieu was capable of being a good quarterback and/or a coach!

General Do Cao Tri, Commander of I Corps before 11/1963 and of II Corps after 11/1963 had Colonel Hieu as his Chief of Staff in both instances. He recognized in his chief strategist the potential and formidable qualities of a tactician. Consequently, he appointed him Commander of the 22nd Infantry Division, prior to relinquishing his II Corps command post to General Nguyen Huu Co in September, 1964; and later on, when he assumed the III Corps command post in 1968, he again entrusted General Hieu with the command of the 5th Infantry Division in August 1969.

General Hieu missed the chance of becoming Commander of the III Corps in February 1971 when General Tri, who had recommended him to this position, died in a helicopter accident. And he missed the chance of becoming Chairman of the Joint General Staff under the government of President Tran Van Huong, because he was assassinated on April 8, 1975. And so, because he was not politically correct under President Thieu’s regime, he was not promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General and was not given the opportunities to use his potential abilities as a tactician/strategist to the fullest.

Nguyen Van Tin
04 August 2000.

Updated on 09/18/2000