HANOI, Vietnam—HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Vo Nguyen Giap, the brilliant and ruthless self-taught general who drove the French out of Vietnam to free it from colonial rule and later forced the Americans to abandon their grueling effort to save the country from communism, has died. At age 102, he was the last of Vietnam’s old-guard revolutionaries.
To tell the truth, I had no idea Giap had lived this long. He was certainly one of the most remarkable military leaders thrown up by the wildfire of wars of national liberation that followed World War II. The arduous effort he crafted to besiege and ultimately force the surrender of French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 is one of the military epics of the 20th Century.
I never bought the Giap-as-military-genius meme, though. He made a lot of critical mistakes and his forces took massive casualties. The Tet Offensive of 1968, was a military disaster for the North Vietnamese and especially for the Viet Cong forces. (There are some who argue that Tet wasn’t Giap’s baby, but he certainly offered the post-operation rational for it).
It’s easy to credit him in hindsight with the psychological victory that grew out of Tet, but my assessment is that he was lucky. America’s political and military structure at the time couldn’t articulate a clear strategy or end game and the cultural ferment was such that the war became a focal point for deep-seated domestic conflicts.
Giap didn’t intend to win by losing; it just worked out that way. While the initial surprise was a real achievement, especially the creation of an American fixation on the siege of Khe Sahn, Tet destroyed the Viet Cong as a fighting force and could have cost Giap the war. A willingness to take heavy, heavy casualties for questionable gains is not the mark of genius.
I’m no great fan of Gen. William Westmoreland, but I think his 1998 assessment of Giap is right on the mark:
“Of course, he [Giap] was a formidable adversary,” Westmoreland told correspondent W. Thomas Smith, Jr. “Let me also say that Giap was trained in small-unit, guerrilla tactics, but he persisted in waging a big-unit war with terrible losses to his own men. By his own admission, by early 1969, I think, he had lost, what, a half million soldiers? He reported this. Now such a disregard for human life may make a formidable adversary, but it does not make a military genius. An American commander losing men like that would hardly have lasted more than a few weeks.”
Still, Giap was tenacious and he won in the end. And now that long savage, bloody war is fading into the mists of time.