|Giap as a young officer.|
This past weekend saw the death of General Vo Nguyen Giap, communist Vietnam's chief military commander from 1941 to 1980, at the age of 102.
Early in World War Two, Ho Chi Mihn appointed Giap to command the military wing of the Vietnamese Independence League, now commonly known as the Viet Mihn. Giap spent the next 34 years leading his forces in a long campaign to release Vietnam from foreign occupation and control. He defeated the French in 1954, turned back the Americans in 1973 and oversaw the reunification of his country in 1975.
The cost of Vietnamese independence was staggering to all those involved. The French lost close to 90,000 killed in the First Indochina War, the United States suffered 58,000 dead during their involvement in Southeast Asia and it is believed that approximately 3 million Vietnamese lost their lives (out of a population of 33 million) during what has been called The Ten Thousand Day War.
As a military leader, Giap knew the Vietnamese people were willing to suffer huge casualties in order to prevail. Conversely, he was convinced that the western powers would ultimately recoil if the cost to them was perceived as too high. To Giap the road to independence was a sheer test of will.
In retirement, Giap tempered his notorious hard-line stance. He acknowledged that Vietnam needed to westernize its economy in order to provide opportunities for its citizens, that rapprochement had to be established with the United States and that the country's growing industrialization should not come at the expense of its environment.
While it can be understood that some may not mourn his passing, I believe that respect is due to a man who, in addition to being a gifted military strategist, also placed his people's independence above any other concern. Former US Republican presidential candidate John McCain, a former navy pilot who was shot down and famously held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, posted his respects on Twitter:
Perhaps with Giap's passing another door can quietly be closed on that terrible, costly war.