August 25 marked the 101st birthday of General Vo Nguyen Giap, probably the greatest living general alive today. At this moment the General lies in a hospital where he has been for almost two years. General Giap master-minded the famous battle of Dien Bien Phu, which won Vietnam's independence from the French, in May of 1954. He was also responsible for Vietnam's winning the war against the Americans, when South Vietnam fell to the Communists in April 1975. The French called him the "snow-covered volcano" for his white hair and fiery composition.
In 1994 I was invited by General Giap to be the only western journalist to accompany him privately to Dien Bien Phu. I had been at his house a few days before, photographing him and having dinner with the family, when he leaned over and whispered the invitation in my ear, telling me not to tell anyone.
Journalists and photographers had been gathering for days in Hanoi wondering if Giap would be visiting Dien Bien Phu for the 40th anniversary of the battle. Now here he was inviting me to go with him privately, the week before the actual anniversary date of May 7th.
But let me digress a moment to explain how it was that I had such an exclusive relationship with this historic figure. My father, Stanley Karnow, the acclaimed journalist and historian of the Vietnam War, had interviewed Giap for the New York Times
in 1990. A couple months later, I went to Vietnam, met with the General, photographed him and his family, and struck up a relationship that lasts to this day....