Salvaging the Deficient for the War Effort
BY HAMILTON GREGORY
One morning in the summer of 1967, I sat with more than a hundred men in a room at the Armed Forces Induction Center in Nashville. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and I had volunteered for service in the U.S. Army.
A sergeant walked into the room and announced that all of us soon would travel to Fort Benning to begin our Army training. Then he asked, “Is anyone here a college graduate?”
I raised my hand. He motioned me to follow him. He took me down a hallway and introduced me to a young man sitting on a bench. (To protect his privacy, I have changed his name to Johnny Gupton.) The sergeant told me that Gupton also was being assigned to Fort Benning.
“I want you to take charge of Gupton,” he said. “Go with him every step of the way.” He explained that the young man could neither read nor write and would need help filling out paperwork. Then he added, “Make sure he doesn’t get lost. He’s one of McNamara’s Morons.”
I had never heard the term, and I was surprised that the sergeant would openly insult Gupton. In a few weeks I would learn that “McNamara’s Morons” was a term that many officers and sergeants used to refer to low-IQ men who were taken into the military under a program devised by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
The sergeant left us for a while. When he returned, he gave me a sealed envelope that contained my personnel records and Gupton’s. I was instructed to give the package to the sergeants when I arrived at Fort Benning.
As we traveled by bus and by plane, I tried to make small talk with Gupton, but he didn’t say much. I asked him what state he was from, but he didn’t know. I later found out that he was from the Appalachian Mountains in eastern Tennessee. He was very thinunhealthily thin.
I was surprised that he knew nothing about the situation he was in. He didn’t understand what Basic Training was all about, and he didn’t know that America was at war. I tried to explain what was happening, but at the end, he remained in a fog.
In Basic Training, he was helpless. Another trainee and I had to make his bunk for him because he couldn’t do it to Army specifications. I tied his boots for him every morning until another trainee had the patience and time to teach him how. He didn’t know his left from his right, so he had trouble with basic commands like “left face” and “right face” and he had trouble with marching. When the sergeants screamed at him, he became terrified and confused. On the rifle range, he was erratic and dangerousthe sergeants feared he would accidentally shoot himself or someone else. Finally, he was put on permanent KP.
Gupton was not the only low-IQ man I observed at Fort Benning. After being hospitalized for heat exhaustion, I spent time in the Special Training Company, which was made up of trainees who had failed Basic Training because of injuries or inability to pass the physical or rifle tests. I got to know dozens of men who tried to pass the Physical Combat Proficiency Test but failed miserably, partly because of physical weakness but mainly because of mental limitations.
Part of the test was throwing five non-explosive practice grenades. You had to throw each grenade ninety feet onto a huge canvas target that lay flat on the ground. It resembled a giant dart board, with a bull’s eye and concentric circles. The scoring was similar to that of a dart board, toothe closer you came to the bull’s eye, the more points you got. In order to simulate combat conditions, you were required to stay on one knee while throwing.
Most of the Special Training men could not even reach the target, much less hit the bull’s eye. Because of the heaviness of the grenade, they needed to throw it in a high arc, like a centerfielder throwing a baseball to home plate, but most of the men failed to grasp the concept. They would try to throw the grenade in a straight line like a pitcher throwing a ball to the catcher, and the grenade would plop down far short of the target. Despite all the sergeants’ explanations and demonstrations, they could not understand the concept of a high arc.
I wondered why in the world such men were taken into the military. Later, I researched it. In 1966 the U.S. war in Vietnam was heating up rapidly; McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson faced a problem. The armed forces needed more and more troops for the war effort, but there was a shortage of men considered fair game for the military draft.
There were plenty of men of draft age in America, but most were unavailable. Many were attending college and using student deferments. Others had found safe havens in the National Guard and Reserves, which by and large were not sent to Vietnam. Still others were disqualified because they scored poorly on the military’s mental and physical entrance tests.
How could McNamara and Johnson round up enough men to send to war? They realized that they would anger the vote-powerful middle class if they drafted college boys or if they sent National Guardsmen and Reservists to Vietnam. So they decided to induct the low-scoring men, whom Johnson referred to (in a secret White House tape) as “second-class fellows.” On October 1, 1966, McNamara launched his program, which he called Project 100,000 because he wanted to induct that many low-aptitude men each year.
Imagine the situation. One day a man is unqualified for military duty, but the next daylo and beholdhe is deemed qualified. By the end of the war, McNamara’s program had taken 354,000 such men into the armed forces71 percent in the Army, 10 percent in the Marine Corps, 10 percent in the Navy, and 9 percent in the Air Force. Among the troops, these men were often known as “McNamara’s Morons” or “the Moron Corps” or “McNamara’s Boys.”
What happened to these men? Many of them should have been discharged and sent home. In fact, some company commanders tried to have incompetent men discharged. But they usually failed because the Army and the Marine Corps were facing serious manpower shortages in Vietnam in 1966-71 and were reluctant to discharge anyone. Most of the war’s 58,220 dead and 321,704 wounded occurred during those years, leaving many units short-handed. In addition, hundreds of thousands of men were going AWOL. In 1970 alone, wrote Marine Col. Robert D. Heinl, Jr., “the Army had 65,643 deserters, or roughly the equivalent of four infantry divisions.”
Reacting to pressure from their superiors, some training officers and NCOs finagled to graduate men who were clearly unsuited for combat. For example, in my Basic Training company, low-scoring menincluding Johnny Gupton, the man I accompanied to Fort Benningscored high on the physical, mental, and rifle tests because young-looking sergeants shaved their heads (to look like trainees), swapped shirts (with nametags on the front), and took the tests for them. In their records, these men were superb athletes and experts with the M-14 rifle, and they were sent down the path to Vietnam.
Cheating also took place at recruiting stations and induction centers. Recruiters and examiners fudged testing and screening so that the Army and the Marine Corps could induct men blatantly unfit for military dutymen who in normal times would be turned away because of mental limitations, psychiatric disorders, criminal records, and physical defects.
Some people wonder: What was McNamara thinking? Why was he so cruel? Part of the answer lies in the fact that McNamara loved technology. Like many Americans in the 1960s, he was dazzled by the exciting new world of computers
When he launched Project 100,000, McNamara puffed up his program with rhetoric, claiming that he would “salvage” and “rehabilitate” the men and raise their level of intelligence. Although the men may have failed in school, they would succeed now because the military was “the world’s greatest educator of skilled manpower,” and it possessed an impressive array of multimedia teaching equipment.
He believed that he could raise the intelligence of low-ability men through the use of videotapes. “A low-aptitude student,” McNamara said, “can use videotapes as an aid to his formal instruction and end by becoming as proficient as a high-aptitude student.”
This idea was ridiculed by many educators and psychologists. Yes, of course, video can be a useful aid in helping students learn, but it cannot magically raise a person’s IQ by twenty points. Deborah Shapley, a biographer who wrote a book about McNamara, said that, in regard to Project 100,000, he was “a naïve believer in technological miracles.”
Were his videotapes capable of producing miracles? We’ll never know, because very few men in Project 100,000 actually received video instruction and remedial training. There was no time, and adequate funds were not provided. A bloody war was raging, and training centers were under great pressure to get troops to Vietnam as quickly as possible.
Military leadersfrom William Westmoreland to lieutenants and sergeants at the platoon levelviewed McNamara’s program as a disaster. The Project 100,000 men had difficulty absorbing the necessary training because they were slow learners. Many were incompetent in combat, and they endangered their comrades as well as themselves.
Most of the 354,000 men in Project 100,000 went to Vietnam, and about half of those in Vietnam were assigned to combat units. Their death toll was appalling. A total of 5,478 of these men died while in the service, most of them in combat. Their fatality rate was three times that of other GIs. We don’t know exactly how many were wounded, but it is estimated at around 20,000. Some of the wounded were permanently disabled, including an estimated 500 amputees.
Some officers and sergeants protected low-IQ men by keeping them out of combat and giving them relatively safe jobs away from danger. Johnny Gupton, my low-IQ platoon mate, was sent to Vietnam, and he survived because he was protected by a sergeant who gave him non-dangerous jobs. The sergeant was sympathetic because he had grown up with a sister whom he called “mentally handicapped.”
Who were the men who died in Vietnam? Here is one story. Barry Romo and his nephew Robert ended up in the war zone at the same time. “I loved Robert like a brother,” Barry Romo said. “We grew up together. He was only one month younger.”
Barry served in Vietnam as an infantry platoon leader in 1967-68. He saw a lot of combat and received a Bronze Star for his courage on the battlefield. During his tour, he learned that his nephew had been drafted and was being trained at Fort Lewis to be an infantryman.
Barry was alarmed because Robert was “very slow” and had failed the Army’s mental test. But then Project 100,000 lowered standards and made him subject to the draft. A host of peoplerelatives, comrades at Fort Lewis, sergeants, officerswrote to the commanding general at Fort Lewis, asking that Robert Romo not be sent into combat because, as one relative put it, “he would die.” But the general turned down the requests.
Once in Vietnam, Robert was sent to an infantry unit near the border of North Vietnam, one of the most dangerous combat areas. During a patrol, he was shot in the neck while trying to help a wounded friend. He did not die instantly. Heavy gunfire kept a medic from reaching him. “He drowned in his own blood,” Barry said.
At the request of the family, Barry was given permission to leave Vietnam and accompany the body home to Rialto, California. The aluminum coffin was sealed and draped with a flag, and the family was not allowed to view the remains. (It was Army policy to discourage or forbid viewing when a body was badly mutilated.)
Looking back, Barry said that his nephew “really didn’t have much luck. While others were getting deferments, he was drafted. While congressmen’s sons were getting exemptions for braces on their teeth, Robert was drafted as part of Project 100,000.”
In a speech delivered forty-two years later, Barry Romo said that the family never recovered from losing Robert. “His death almost destroyed us with anger and sorrow.”
Nonetheless, some Project 100,000 men were successful in the military. They may have scored poorly on the Armed Forces Qualification Test, but they had “street smarts” and sound native intelligence, and they adapted well to training and the rigors of duty, even winning awards and promotions.
For most Project 100,000 men, however, the program was a debacle, according to Lawrence M. Baskir and William A. Strauss, senior officials on President Ford’s Clemency Board. “It was a failure for the recruits themselves,” they wrote. “They never got the training that military service seemed to promise. They were the last to be promoted and the first to be sent to Vietnam. They saw more than their share of combat and got more than their share of bad discharges. Many ended up with greater difficulties in civilian society than when they started. For them, it was an ironic and tragic conclusion to a program that promised special treatment and a brighter future, and denied both.”
McNamara had predicted that after they returned to civilian life, Project 100,000 men would have an earning capacity “two to three times what it would have been if there had been no such program.” After the war, however, a follow-up study showed that in the 1986-87 labor market they were “either no better off or actually worse off” than non-veterans of similar aptitude. So much for McNamara’s rosy prediction.
Joe Galloway, a war correspondent who was awarded a Bronze Star with Valor for carrying wounded men to safety at the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley, wrote a column in 2009 shortly after the death of McNamara entitled “100,000 Reasons to Shed No Tears for McNamara.” Project 100,000 men, Galloway said, “were, to put it bluntly, mentally deficient. Illiterate. Mostly blacks and redneck whites, hailing from the mean big city ghettos and the remote Appalachian valleys. By drafting them, the Pentagon would not have to draft an equal number of middle-class and elite college boys whose mothers could and would raise hell with their representatives in Washington.
“The young men of Project 100,000 couldn’t read. They had to be taught to tie their boots. They often failed [in Basic Training], and were recycled over and over until they finally reached some low standard and were declared trained and ready. They could not be taught any more demanding job than trigger-pulling, [so most of them] went straight into combat where the learning curve is steep and deadly.
“The cold, hard statistics say that these almost helpless young men died in action in the jungles at a rate three times higher than the average draftee. The Good Book says we must forgive those who trespass against usbut what about those who trespass against the most helpless among us; those willing to conscript the mentally handicapped, the most innocent, and turn them into cannon fodder?”
What can we learn from McNamara’s Folly? The overriding lesson is that low-aptitude individuals should never be used in a war zone or in dangerous areas. Putting their lives at risk is cruel and immoral. On a sheer practical level, Project 100,000 degraded the effectiveness of the war effort.
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