In Hearts and Minds, a documentary on the U.S. war in Vi :^et Nam, an American general looks directly at the camera and says dispassionately, “The Oriental doesn’t put the same high price on life as does the Westerner. Life is plentiful, life is cheap in the Orient. And as the philosophy of the Orient expresses it: Life is not important” (Davis 1974). Just before the general makes his appearance, the camera takes us to a Vi :^etnamese child crying inconsolably near his dead father. Pulled apart by the contrasting scenes, the tears of the child and the philosophical expressions of the general, one cannot but be outraged; outraged by General Westmoreland’s logic that the Oriental’s humanity is less than that of the Westerner and the insidious implication that in a political conﬂict with the West lives in the Orient are easily dispensable because even they themselves don’t value life that much. But we wonder also if there might be a diﬀerent understanding of life here that
Westy (as the General was reportedly called at West Point, see Whitney and Pace 2005) was somehow onto, even if he couldn’t quite pull it together properly. What if underlying his condescending conclusion was an economist’s measure that was indeed alien to many, if not most humans, especially those on the other side? What if, speaking as Orientals now, we are not used to pricing life or measuring its value based on “plentiful-ness” or scarcity? Does the logic of demand and supply, the-more-the-cheaper, capture the General himself better than the Orientals he seeks to grasp? Here is a General whose outlook was structured around many “mores”—“General Westmoreland had only one response to the course of events: More. More men, more bullets, more bombs.
And that proved sadly inadequate” (Apple 2005)—and a war strategy of “attrition” that involved thinking of bodies and body counts as establishing a relation between various “mores” (deﬁnitely not morals) and “lesses.” His opponent, General Võ Nguyên Giáp, seemed to go by a diﬀerent set of
morals. General Giáp, who “rose from the peasantry to the top ranks of the Communist Party,” unlike Westmoreland’s privileged upbringing (Apple 2005),2
was more hospitable and less presumptuous in his reading of Westy. Calling him a “cultivated soldier who had read many military texts,” Võ Nguyên Giáp is reported to have said, “Yet he committed an error following the Tet Oﬀensive, when he requested another 206,000 troops. He could have put in 300,000, even 400,000 more men. It would have made no diﬀerence” (Sullivan 2005). Without touting any philosophy of the Occident, General Giáp made a simple point about what Westy’s “mores” had missed. More would have made no diﬀerence. R.W. Apple Jr., in his obituary of Westmoreland, points out that the General kept a copy of Võ Nguyên Giáp’s writings on his table, though he is unsure if he ever read them (Apple 2005). What would Westmoreland have found if he had taken the time to read his enemy equally hospitably? Would he have thought of the Orient otherwise? Would those who follow his path and search for lessons from Vi :^et Nam in order to “win” elsewhere give up that fruitless quest? We wonder. But before we come to that, we might need to redo this opening. There are
many words here that don’t quite do justice to the poignancy of the situation.