Vietnamese Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, one of the leading military figures in contemporary Asian history, died Oct. 4 at the age of 102. Mr. Giap was instrumental in the defeats of France and the United States during the decades-long war to unite Vietnam.

Those victories are a reminder of the critical importance of spirit and its ability to balance raw power. A country that is fighting for its survival and its sovereignty is a formidable opponent. That energy, properly directed as Mr. Giap managed to do, can prove insurmountable.

Born to a family of rice farmers, Mr. Giap was steeped in a fervent nationalism that yearned for Vietnamese independence from the French. He earned degrees in law and political economics, then taught at a private institution for elite Vietnamese. He is said to have been especially vocal on the subject of the French Revolution.

Mr. Giap had no formal military training when he was chosen by Ho Chi Minh, founder of the Vietnamese Communist Party, to lead the Viet Minh, the military wing of the Vietnam Independence League.

An avid student of Mao Zedong, Mr. Giap absorbed a few important lessons from the master of revolution:

First, he grasped the need to combine political and military strategy to prevail in struggle. A leader had to always stay focused on the larger objectives, not just the battle that he was fighting at the moment.

Second, this demanded political indoctrination of the troops so that they appreciated what they were fighting for. Mr. Giap’s magnetism was legendary and he demanded and received great loyalty and sacrifice from his troops.

Third, he understood that the gross mismatch in power between Vietnam and its opponents demanded novel guerrilla strategies. Hearts and minds had to be won, but on occasion terror, too, could prove to be an effective tool.

While controversy surrounds Mr. Giap’s legacy — the human cost of his fighting was extraordinary — the results are clear. His army defeated far superior French and U.S. forces to unite Vietnam under a single government in Hanoi. He is considered by many to be one of the finest military strategists of the 20th century.

Yet for him, a simple logic was at work. As he explained nearly a decade ago, a nation that can unite will always defeat a foreign invader. “When people have the spirit to reach for independent sovereignty … and show solidarity, it means the people can defeat the enemy,” Mr. Giap said. To put it more simply, “nothing is more important than freedom.”

Two battles mark his career. The first was the 55-day siege of French forces at Dien Bien Phu, in the northwestern region of Vietnam. First, Mr. Giap lured some 13,000 French troops, some of them from its elite Foreign Legion, into the area. He then had trenches dug to isolate and starve the French forces. The area was overrun by his own troops after eight weeks.

The final defeat came as negotiators were meeting in Geneva to discuss a settlement, a move that prompted the French to withdraw from Vietnam and split the country into two parts, a communist north and noncommunist south.

For many historians, Dien Bien Phu was a turning point in modern history. The first victory of a colonized people against the West unleashed restive forces that eventually unraveled the imperial order.

The second key battle for Mr. Giap occurred during the Tet holidays — the Vietnamese New Year — in 1968. Then, more than 80,000 North Vietnamese forces attacked dozens of cities across South Vietnam, in many cases coming perilously close to capturing U.S. command facilities. The attack enjoyed some successes, such as seizing the city of Hue for three days, but it was intended to spark rebellions throughout the country. They never materialized.

By that calculus, Tet was a failure. Yet, as in Dien Bien Phu, the attack was a blow to U.S. confidence, exposed the vulnerability of foreign forces fighting for a regime that seemed unable — or unwilling — to defend itself, and prompted the beginning of a withdrawal of U.S. forces that culminated in a final offensive in 1975 by the People’s Army of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front and the eventual reunification of Vietnam. That 1968 assault proved to be the turning point of the war.

The scale of the Vietnamese losses was huge; there is an estimate that Mr. Giap lost some one million soliders. While exact numbers may never be known, it is estimated that the Vietnam War, which lasted from 1954-1975, cost about 2.5 million Vietnamese lives.

Many of those losses were the result of a military strategy that subordinated all considerations to the single goal of victory. To one critic, “a man’s life meant nothing” to Mr. Giap.

The general himself conceded as much in remarks reportedly made after the war with France: “Every minute, hundreds of thousands of people die on this earth. The life or death of a hundred, a thousand, tens of thousands of human beings, even our compatriots, means little.”

After reunification, Mr. Giap waged one last fight. After being eased out of the Politburo as Vietnam made its first tentative steps toward opening and reform, he became a eco-warrior concerned about the impact of economic modernization on traditional ways of life in Vietnam and the prospect of subordination to Chinese economic interests. In his twilight years, he wrote open letters to the government protesting bauxite mining and its social and environmental effects. Mr. Giap remained a fervent defender of Vietnam until his death.

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