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The Westmoreland mind-set

NONE OF THE many newspaper obituaries about General William Westmoreland exhumed one of the most important things he ever said:

''The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner. Life is plentiful. Life is cheap in the Orient."

Westmoreland said that in the Oscar-winning 1974 Vietnam documentary ''Hearts and Minds." The quote so stunned director Peter Davis that he gave Westmoreland a chance to clean it up. In a 1997 guest letter to The Washington Post in response to criticism that he cherry-picked the quote to push his antiwar agenda, Davis said, ''When we filmed the interview, Westmoreland paused after making that statement, yelled 'Cut!' and said he wanted a retake because that wasn't how he meant to express himself.

''In the second take, the general began saying exactly the same thing but we ran out of film. We then gave him a third chance to amend his remarks -- much the way Ted Koppel gave Al Campanis of the Los Angeles Dodgers a chance to change what he was saying about nonwhite baseball players lacking the 'necessities' to be managers -- and Westmoreland repeated the statement about the 'Oriental.' I used the third take, since the statement was most complete."

The quote was important because it spoke to a military and White House that assumed in Vietnam they would overpower an inferior people. Assumptions of cheap life in the East led to bombing without a conscience by the West, admitting no mistakes along the way. President Johnson boasted in 1967 that everything was moving along nicely as we were outkilling the North Vietnamese forces 10-1. Ultimately, it was the American people who decided that the price was too high for the war to continue.

Westmoreland is dead, but he lives on in our invasion and occupation of Iraq. President Bush makes no sweeping statements that Arabs or Iraqis do not put the same high price on life as Americans. But he makes Americans into unassailable saints.

''We're dealing with an enemy that has no conscience," Bush said on the campaign trail last year. ''Today, if you noticed, there was a car bomb near a school. These people are brutal. They -- they're the exact opposite of Americans. We value life and human dignity. They don't care about life and human dignity. We believe in freedom. They have an ideology of hate. And they're tough, but not as tough as America."

This righteousness became twisted paternalism. We originally invaded Iraq to save ourselves from a future attack by Saddam Hussein using his weapons of mass destruction. We learned quickly that they did not exist. The White House switched to saying the invasion was to save the Iraqi people from Saddam.

That was ironic, since we have bombed and killed thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of Iraqi civilians to ''save" them. The right wing loves to hound liberals and the left, claiming that they ignored Saddam's prior carnage to his people. But two years after the invasion, the hawks have still not answered why two massacres -- however careful our soldiers tried to be -- make a right.

It is clear that the real reason we switched to the bomb-the-Iraqis-to-save-the-Iraqis excuse was because, as we keep learning, the White House knew well before the war that the evidence of WMDs was far too skimpy to merit Bush's claim that Saddam was buying uranium from Niger for nukes. It was too thin to warrant Vice President Dick Cheney telling America before the war: ''Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, our allies, and against us."

We will never admit it, but our bombs spoke Westmoreland's words. The administration believed Iraqi life was cheap and plentiful enough so the people left standing would not complain about those lowered into the grave. This was best expressed in Cheney's boast the Sunday before the invasion that ''we will be greeted as liberators." That was the same day that Cheney also said the White House believed Saddam had reconstituted nuclear weapons, even though the International Atomic Energy Agency said there were none.

Exaggerated claims for war. Bombing the innocent to defeat our opposites. Westmoreland failed in Vietnam, playing the enemy for cheap. Iraq is failing, with Americans discovering how cheaply their president played them. There is yet no director in this remake to yell, ''Cut!"

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is

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