McNamara’s Folly: Project 100,000

At various times in its history, the US military has recruited people who measured below specific mental and medical standards. During the Vietnam war, “McNamara’s Moron’s” as they were called, were barely literate, or could not read or write, or did not speak English. They were underweight, or obese, were too short, or semi-blind, or missing fingers. In basic training, they often could not tie their shoes, button their uniforms, march in drills. Many failed at physical exercise, at tossing hand grenades, could not quickly assemble weapons, or smartly shoot at moving targets.

mcnamara-fields-questions-at-a-press-conferenceThese clearly unqualified men were deliberately sought by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who in 1966 required more troops but did not wish to alarm the middle class. Under Project 100,000, pitched as a way path out of poverty, service entry standards were drastically lowered. In addition to men of low intellect, tens of thousands of other inferior men were inducted, including criminals, misfits, even men physically disabled.

Men in the Moron Corps scored near the bottom of the Armed Forces Qualification Test. But Project men were enrolled in basic training with normal recruits, and held to normal standards. Unable to keep up, they were often demeaned and humiliated by other trainees, drill sergeants and officers. In Kubrick’s 1987 film “Full Metal Jacket” the slow thinking, thumb in mouth, pants round his knees Private Pyle struggles to keep up with his platoon. It is an image of pure degradation, and accurately depicts how Project 100,000 men were treated.

Project men who failed Basic training were sent to Special Training Units, only to endure increased physical and emotional harassment, and punishing physical demands.

Altogether, 354,000 substandard men were drafted–many sent directly into combat. In time, sergeants and officers, even General Westmoreland, called Project 100,000 a disaster. The low IQ soldiers were incompetent in combat, putting themselves and their comrades in danger. Inevitably, their death toll was appallingly high.

Medic’s friend Hamilton Gregory has written “McNamara’s Folly, The Use of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War”, a compelling, fast paced, factual and first person account of Project 100,00. Two excerpts follow:

“Drill Sergeant Stoner told one incident that seemjim-nabors-as-gomer-pyleed straight out of Gomer Pyle, but actually happened while he was checking recruit’s two pair of boots for correct fit by having them stand on a footlocker, which was place outdoors. ‘One recruit I was inspecting appeared on my footlocker wearing two right boots. I couldn’t believe it! I yelled at the private: “You idiot! What in hell are you doing wearing two right boots?’ He replied “Sir, thee must have been a mix up and the private was issued two right boots, sir!’ I immediately got right into his face and screamed ‘Private, get your dumb ass back inside and get the other boots and get back here right away. Do you understand me?’ ‘Sir, yes sir!’ and off he went to the Quonset hut. Moments later he was back. He jumped up on the footlocker, this time wearing two left boots. In a very exasperated voice he said, ‘Sir, the privates’ other two boots were two left boots, sir!’ ”

“In his first day at basic training, Peter Tauber saw a company pass by, running in step as a drill sergeant calls cadence. Twenty yards behind them a whale of a recruit stumbles donofrio-modine-emeryforward, lurching to keep up, falling further behind. On his tail is a small slight drill sergeant. The fat boy runs a jagged route, spinning to his right and his left as he goes, his head lolling from side to side, drooling and wearing an expression of imminent death. From time to time, he closes his eyes, as if to pray for a merciful tumble. Fifty yards past us he falls. We can hear the sergeant yelling at him as he wallows on the ground. But the fat boy, who must weigh what two of us do, just lies there. The sergeant yells some more and tires to pull him up. The next thing we hear is a scream. The sergeant is standing over the fallen boy and is kicking him in the stomach and backside, sometimes prodding, sometimes letting go with a field goal kick. Screaming sobs fill the air, wails of torture and pain. The sergeant takes off his pistol belt and begins to whip his prey. The boy holds up his hands to protect his face and the sergeant kicks them away. The boy pleads then cries and screams for the sergeant to stop, but the sergeant keeps beating him. Eventually the sergeant relents and lets the trainee get up and rejoins his platoon.”

Project 100,000 was highlighted in a 2006 op-ed in The New York Times. Kelly M. Greenhill, a former Wesleyan and Tufts assistant professor, writing in the context of a contemporary recruitment shortfall, concluded that “Project 100,000 was a failed experiment. It proved to be a distraction for the military and of little benefit to the men it was created to help.”

Less understated, Joe Galloway, a war correspondent who won a Bronze Star with V in Vietnam for carrying wounded men to safety at the battle of Ia Drang, wrote a column shortly after McNamara died. Entitled “100,000 Reasons to Shed No Tears for McNamara” he wrote that Project 100,00 men were, “to put it bluntly, mentally deficient. Illiterate. Mostly black 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 would raise hell with their representatives in Washington. The young men of Project 100,00 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 themarmy-firing-range 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 a rate three times higher than the average draftee…The Good Book says we must forgive those who trespass against us–but 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?”

To learn more about this sad and shameful chapter of America’s war in Vietnam, read Hamilton Gregory’s excellent book.

Excerpts by permission of the author.
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McNamara’s Folly