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Aug. 25, 1911 – Oct. 4, 2013

Vo Nguyen Giap, the relentless and charismatic North Vietnamese general whose campaigns drove both France and the United States out of Vietnam, died Friday in Hanoi. He was believed to be 102.

The death was reported by several Vietnamese news organizations, including the respected Tuoi Tre Online, which said he died in an army hospital.

Giap was among the last survivors of a generation of communist revolutionaries who in the postwar decades freed Vietnam of colonial rule and fought a superpower to a stalemate.

In his later years, he was a living reminder of a war that was mostly old history to the Vietnamese, many of whom were born after it had ended.

But he had not faded away. He was regarded as an elder statesman whose hard-line views had softened with the cessation of the war that unified Vietnam.

He supported economic reform and closer relations with the United States while publicly warning of the spread of Chinese influence and the environmental costs of industrialization.

To his American adversaries, however, from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s, he was perhaps second only to his mentor, Ho Chi Minh, as the face of an implacable enemy, as ruthless with his own forces as he was with his opponents.

To historians, his willingness to sustain staggering losses against superior U.S. firepower was a large reason the war dragged on as long as it did, costing more than 2.5 million lives – 58,000 of them American – sapping the U.S. Treasury and Washington’s political will to fight and bitterly dividing the country in an argument about America’s role in the world that still echoes today.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam for five and a half years, said Friday in a Twitter message that Giap was a “brilliant military strategist who once told me that we were an ‘honorable enemy.’ ”

Vo Nguyen Giap was born on Aug. 25, 1911 – some sources say 1912 – in the village of An Xa in Quang Binh province, the southernmost part of what would later be North Vietnam.

His father, Vo Quang Nghiem, was an educated farmer and a fervent nationalist who, like his father before him, encouraged his children to resist the French.

A teacher and journalist with no formal military training, Vo Nguyen Giap joined a ragtag communist insurgency in the 1940s and built it into a highly disciplined force that through 30 years of revolution and civil war ended an empire and united a nation.

He was charming and volatile, an erudite military historian and an intense nationalist who used his personal magnetism to motivate his troops and fire their devotion to their country.

His admirers put him in the company of MacArthur, Rommel and other great military leaders of the 20th century.

But his critics said that his victories had been rooted in a profligate disregard for the lives of his soldiers.

– New York Times