[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]
Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam by James Warren is one of those books that does not fit neatly into a category. It is part biography but even more it is strategic history. It does neither very well but taken as a whole it tells a very interesting story and presents the events it describes in a unique and thought provoking manner. To be fair, the author admits in the preface that getting hard information about what Giap actually did and where he was at during his life is difficult as there is not much available from open sources. He has made the most of what information is available and freely notes the instances in which he uses logical conjectures.
The book itself is 218 pages of text and includes and index, notes for each chapter, and a selected bibliography. The text is divided into eleven thematic chapters that run in chronological order of the events of the war.
Now to get to the central assertion of the title; that Giap defeated America. This is a sticky one because arguments can be made that he did as well as arguments that he did not. This reviewer can appreciate both arguments and I think that rather than being at odds the two arguments are in reality two sides of the same coin. There is no doubt that Giap defeated the French militarily, if you take the Clausewitzean view that defeat is convincing the enemy they cannot win. Giap not only defeated the French on the battlefield, he convinced the French political leadership that the cost of achieving victory was more than they were willing to pay. Victory was within the grasp of the French if they had been willing to invest more resources, both military and economic.
What happened to the French did not happen to America. Many historians and veterans of the conflict would disagree and say that Giap repeated to America what he had done to France. Objective facts say otherwise. In the First Indochina war against France Giap managed to take and retain effective control of most of what would become North Vietnam as well as inflict several crushing defeats on French forces. Dien Bien Phu is only the largest and most famous defeat. The author details the way in which the French conceded defeat in the battles of the frontiers and then for all of North Vietnam outside the Red River Delta and the French could not even maintain effective control in the delta either.
In the fight against the ARVN and US the NLF and later NVA could generally beat the ARVN but could achieve only fleeting and transitory battlefield success against American troops. Where the war was won, if it was won at all, was in the perception of the war by the American public. In this the communists were aided and abetted by elements within the US that almost actively worked to provoke protests against the war. We cannot forget the Jane Fonda episode either, in which she visited North Vietnam itself in a propaganda triumph for the communists.
US troops were never defeated militarily, the closest the communists ever came to battlefield victory was the TET offensive of 1968 and after some initial reverses they were soundly defeated. TET saw the Viet Cong virtually destroyed as a fighting force and led to the North committing larger and larger numbers of troops to sustain the fighting.
Eventually, public pressure to end the war became so great that the US had no choice but to withdraw all combat troops from Vietnam after Nixon signed the Paris Peace Accord in 1973. Nixon’s resignation in disgrace ensured that when the final communist offensive began in 1975 the US would essentially stand idly by and watch the South Vietnamese government fall.
To give credit where credit is due, Giap was the architect of northern strategy to conquer South Vietnam and he saw it through despite the horrendous casualties suffered by the Vietnamese military and civilian population. He can be regarded a victor because when the conflict ended, his side held the battlefield. It is irrelevant that the battlefield he held was a significantly depopulated wasteland of shell holes, craters, mines, munitions, and abandoned villages. He held it.
The overarching theme of the book is that Giap, who was largely self-taught in military arts, somehow intuited the correct strategy to ensure victory for Vietnamese communism. Mr. Warren makes an intriguing case, but I don’t think he has proven it. Giap won in the end yes, but at best he achieved a pyrrhic victory from which his country has yet to fully recovery. I would not characterize Giap as brilliant. He was implacable, pragmatic, stubborn, and ruthless but not brilliant. At least not in a military sense.
In conclusion, Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam is a good read and presents some interesting things to ponder. As a strategic history of post-World War II Vietnam it is unmatched for its clarity and incisiveness. As far as making the case that Giap was a brilliant military commander, this reviewer thinks it falls short. That does not mean this is a bad book. It is a very good book and presents the Vietnam War in a perspective vastly different from most histories of the war. For that reason alone it would be of interest to historians and laymen interested in the war but it has more to offer than that.
I definitely recommend this book to anyone who wants to gain a more nuanced understanding of the Vietnam War.