By Karl Reiner
North Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap died last month at the age of 102. The news stories reporting the general's demise brought back memories of the distant rumble of artillery, illumination flares hanging in the night sky, helicopter rides and the clatter of small arms fire. And the chilly remembrance that the situation in Vietnam was far more convoluted than we had been led to believe. Gen. Giap's strategic decisions affected America's 8.2 million Vietnam era veterans in one way or another, especially the nearly 2.6 million that served in the country. By the time U.S. troops departed in 1973, American losses in Vietnam totaled over 58,000 killed and more than 153,000 seriously wounded.
Giap became active in politics in the 1920s, studied law and political economy. At one time, he taught history. He worked as a journalist in the 1930s. A ferocious nationalist, he joined the Communist Party of Vietnam in 1931. Although lacking formal training, Giap began his military exploits resisting the Japanese occupiers in the latter stages of WW II. In a landmark campaign during the First Indochina War in 1954, Gen. Giap overwhelmed the French forces at Dien Bien Phu. His 55,000 troops occupied the surrounding mountains, dismantled artillery pieces were hauled up the steep slopes by hand. The astonishing and complex effort was supported by the toil of 260,000 laborers.