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History Of Viet Nam

General Hieu, a Combat Fighting General?

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A Rare Commodity in the Vietnam War

When asked who were competent generals in the North Vietnamse Army, Bui Tin advanced the following names: Vo Nguyen Giap, Tran Van Tra, Hoang Van Thai, Le Trong Tan, Nguyen Huu An, Hoang Minh Thao.

Le Trong Tan was considered as "The Most Competent Combat Fighting General in Viet Nam", and Nguyen Huu An "A Battlefield General".

In the ARVN, among the more than 160 generals, those viewed as competent were: Do Cao Tri, Nguyen Viet Thanh, Ngo Quang Truong, Le Van Hung, Ly Tong Ba, Le Minh Dao.

Furthermore, General Westmoreland called Do Cao Tri "Viet Nam Patton"; the American military and media considered Do Cao Tri and Nguyen Viet Thanh as two outstanding fighting generals (David Fulghum, Terrence Mailand, South Vietnam on Trial - The Vietnam Experience, Boston Publishing Company); and General Schwarzkopf viewed Ngo Quang Truong as The Most Outstanding Regimental Commander while Colonel James H. Willbanks called him The Most Brilliant Commander.

As for the American Army, those often mentioned were General Westmoreland, General Abrams, General Kinnard and General Weyland.

However, if a combat fighting general is defined as a general officer who has commanded and fought battles at divisional and higher scale and has won at least a couple of battles, not only due to a superior number of troops but rather due to outsmarting the enemy, then it is hard to place those above-mentioned generals on the list of combat fighting generals.

People often try to draw up an image of a combat fighting general by awkwardly pinning appellations that sound great, such as "a general of hot battlefields", "a battlefield general", "the most competent combat fighting general of Viet Nam", "an outstanding general of Viet Nam and the Whole Word", "a Viet Nam Napoleon", "a Viet Nam Patton", "a Viet Nam Zhukov"; but if one looks close into the drum, the inside is empty or contains only some small scale battles, like in the case of General Le Trong Tan who was attributed with the battles of "Binh Gia, Dong Xoai, Bau Bang-Dau Tieng... South Laos Route 9, front Tri Thien Summer 1972, Tet Mau Than 1968, commander of the eastern coastal military prong"!

Why was there a shortage of combat fighting generals? There are several reasons. The first being that the invading army - North Vietnamese Communist - chose to run a guerrilla warfare at battalion and below scale and only assembled and launched relatively big battles just a few times such as Pleime-Iadrang in 1965 (Chu Huy Man - Vinh Loc - Kinnard), Khe Sanh in 1968 (Cushman - Westmoreland - Vo Nguyen Giap), Dakto-Kontum in 1972(Ly Tong Ba - Hoang Minh Thao), Quang Tri in 1972 (Ngo Quang Truong - Le Trong Tan), An Loc in 1972 (Le Van Hung). The South Vietnamese Army, the defensive side, for its part, was able to engage the unwilling enemy in a few big battles such as the battlefront of Toan Thang Cambodia in 1971 (Do Cao Tri - Nguyen Viet Thanh), the battlefront of Lam Son 719 Lower Laos in 1971 (Hoang Xuan Lam), and the battlefront of Duc Hue in 1974 (Pham Quoc Thuan). When the North Vietnamese Communists decided to launch big attacks in 1975, the South Vietnamese Government side chose for tactical retreats in II Corps and then in I Corps, resulting in only the last big battle at Xuan Loc in April 1975 (Le Minh Dao - Hoang Cam). Therefore, not many generals from either side had the opportunity to conduct a big battle so that people could admire their combat fighting trait.

The second reason was the terrain configuration in South Vietnam which was rather narrow and did not allow for the simultaneous deployment of all the units of a division (which comprised three regiments together with its two battalions of artillery and armor and its engineer unit. General Vinh Loc wrote:

The terrain and the location of our country, in terms of search and destroy the enemy operation, do not provide the opportunity to deploy simultaneously three Regiments together with support units. Looking back from the day the Division was created to the Highlands' debacle, no Military Tactical Region had launched an operation that used a whole division, that is, all 3 Infantry Regiments, with Artillery, Engineer and Armored Cavalry Battalions, etc. Even if one would like to, one did not have enough space which would allow the deployment of a whole Division, not to mention that very few commanders underwent proper training in Large Unit command. (Letters to an American Friend, page 71)

Oftentimes, when it was mentioned that a battle involved two or three divisions on each side, the reader would have the impression that t it was exactly so, but a closer look would indicate that only a few units of each division were committed at the same time.

In the above quotation, General Vinh Loc also advanced another reason for the shortage of combat fighting general in the ARVN: "not to mention that very few commanders underwent proper training in Large Unit command". See ARVN Generals, Graduates of USACGSC.

It was the same among the rank of NVA generals, typically in the situation of General Nguyen Huu An. He recounts in his memoire "Chien Truong Moi" that he twice missed the opportunity of going abroad for higher military education; the first time in 1963, he was about to go to Russia when he was ordered to cancel his study to join the battlefield in Lower Laos; and the second time in 1964, he was readied to go to China but was retained back to head the 325th Division to march into war in the Highlands. Therefore, the NVA seemed to be suffering the same handicap wherein "very few commanders underwent proper training in Large Unit command." Furthermore, the NVA suffered an additional weakness in that a great number of its generals were issued from the peasantry and possessed a very low level of education - such as, according to Bui Tin, General Nguyen Chi Thanh (a peasant with no education), General Doan Khue (grade two under the French colonization) or General Le Quang Hoa (peasant with a 6th grade education).

In the case of the American Army, besides General Westmoreland who served 4 years (6/1964-6/1968) and General Abrams also 4 years (6/1968-6/1972), the other American generals underwent a one year revolving door policy in the command of a division. They wasted the first three months to familiarize themselves with the new job and the last three months to arrange preparation for their successors. And thus they lacked sufficient time to make great plan for a major attack and to leave their combat fighting legacy, not counting on the fact that the Viet Cong avoid confronting the American troops.

Being the attacking party, the NVA should have been able to produce more combat fighting generals, having the luxury of choosing battlefield's time and location. And yet in reality, it did not have a general who was worthy with that appellation, including General Vo Nguyen Giap. During the period of "fighting against the Americans", he did not achieve any victory; the all out attack of Tet Offensive in 1968 was a flop. And during the period of "fighting against the French", his myth of a combat fighting general, in particular in the battle of Dien Bien Phu, had dissipated in smoke when declassified Chinese documents emerged to reveal the main invasive role of Chinese advisors in all of the victories achieved by Giap and the Viet Minh against the French, namely Jiaoshing, Chen Geng and Wei Guoping. After the Chinese advisors had left, Vo Nguyen Giap did not achieve any victory, on the contrary, just defeats (Pleime, Khe Sanh, Tet Offensive 1968, etc...)

A third reason for the shortage of combat fighting generals had to do with politics. The American generals were confined to fight within the South Vietnamese boundaries and were not permitted to pursue the enemy into Cambodia and Laos; when President Nixon allowed the American troops to operate across border into Cambodia in April to July 1970, a thirty mile limit was imposed. The American policy forced the South Vietnamese generals into a defensive posture and did not facilitate offensive initiatives since it only provided defensive weaponry (no Cobra helicopters, for instance) and dated from the WWII area; furthermore, the South Vietnamese troops were equipped with weapons comparable in power to the Viet Cong's on a retarded schedule, such as M16s versus AK47s.

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