Opinion: McNamara’s Misfits, That Time the US Military Used the Mentally Disabled as Cannon Fodder

Chuckles Freely

More than 300,000 low-IQ soldiers were sent to the front lines of Vietnam in a sick experiment dreamed up by Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara

Society’s most vulnerable were sent to the frontlines of Vietnam.(Wikilmages from Pixabay)

It was October 1966. The United States military was sinking into the quagmire of the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson occupied the presidency, and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara paced the halls of the Pentagon.

On McNamara’s mind was a disturbing development: the Soviet Union had just confirmed what they already expected. In an article published on October 2nd in Red Star, a Soviet military newspaper, they admitted to providing military and economic support for the North Vietnamese. Although the war was already escalating out of control after events like the Gulf of Tonkin incident, this revelation changed everything. It was now an offshoot of the Cold War. It would be bigger, bloodier, and much more important in the ideological, geopolitical standoff between the two superpowers. McNamara knew he needed more soldiers.

For 15 months straight leading up to October, the stream of soldiers entering the armed forces had increased. In October alone, 49,300 young men, the most since the height of the Korean War in 1951, had agreed to defend their country or were swooned by the promises of Johnson’s war on poverty, which offered a way out through military service. It wasn’t enough, though.

McNamara was a cold pragmatist. For him, the complexity of war could and should be reduced to a handful of statistics. For example, he measured the success of the war efforts in Vietnam based on a key statistic: body counts. Were we killing more of them than they were killing of us? With this same mentality, in October of ’66, he instructed the Department of Defense to implement Project 100,000. This lowered the intelligence, educational, and physical minimums for soldiers, allowing more soldiers to join the battlefield to meet the growing threat of the Soviet-backed North Vietnamese.

Project 100,000 also created an experiment. The idea was to test if technology-based training could take soldiers of less than average IQ and bring them up to their peers. McNamara believed video tapes were the key. To test the effects of this training, above average soldiers were included in groups of less than average soldiers to serve as a control for the experiment. A team of researchers were employed to observe and document the progress.

In the following months and years, more than 300,000 soldiers with well below average intelligence streamed into the armed forces. The vast majority went to the army, to the front lines in the jungles of Vietnam, where they were undertrained, confused, and vulnerable. Those that survived faced a different hell when they returned home.

The ending of this story is both sad and horrific.

McNamara’s Misfits: the Slaughter

Hamilton Gregory joined the army in the summer of 1967. During his induction in Nashville, Tennessee, the sergeant asked if anyone in the room had graduated college. When Gregory raised his hand, he was ushered into a back room, where he met Johnny Gupton, a fake name to protect a real person. The sergeant explained that Gupton was his responsibility. Gupton could not read. He couldn’t write. He couldn’t fill out his recruitment paperwork. After simple conversation on their way to Fort Benning, Gregory learned that Gupton didn’t know which state he was from. He had never heard of Vietnam. He had no idea what papers he had signed and that he was being sent to war.

Soldiers like Gupton have no place on the battlefield. During basic training Gregory and another soldier had to tie his shoes, make his bed, and help him learn which feet were his left and right. Despite this, Gupton and many others were pushed through basic training (sometimes through outright lying), put on a plane to Vietnam, given a weapon, and sent into the jungle, where they died at 3 times the rate of their peers. It’s estimated that some 5,500 were killed and some 20,000 wounded.

One of the dead was Robert Romo. He failed the Army’s mental fitness examine but was drafted as one of McNamara’s Misfits. His relatives, fellow soldiers, sergeants, etc. wrote letters to the general of Fort Lewis, where he was stationed, to express their concern for his safety. They all described him as “very slow.” These warnings were ignored, and he was sent near the border of North Vietnam, one of the most violent theaters of the war. During a patrol he became confused, tried to help a fellow soldier, was shot in the neck, and shortly after drowned in his own blood. He didn’t stand a chance.

McNamara’s Misfits: the Aftermath

When McNamara’s Misfits returned home, their suffering didn’t end. Authors of a 1989 report compared Project 100,000 participants with people of similar intelligence that didn’t get drafted. The authors claimed thatso.” They also found that McNamara’s Misfits were more likely to be divorced.

Officials in President Ford’s administration saidMany 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.”

So McNamara’s experiment was a failure. He thought Project 100,000 would be a benefit for both the military and the recruits. The military would receive the needed influx of fresh troops, and the recruits would receive the training and experience to do more than they could have otherwise. However, most of McNamara’s Misfits were not able to function as soldiers, and they certainly didn’t excel afterwards.

“Why Do They Always Send the Poor?”

This is a lyric from the band System of a Down, and it’s an important question. The debacle of McNamara’s Misfits isn’t just about sending low-IQ soldiers to die in a foreign country, it’s about the exploitation of the poor. McNamara himself claimed that the program would target the “subterranean poor” and “reverse the downward spiral of human decay.” This is why the majority of recruits came from impoverished inner cities and the hills of Appalachia. The other option was to expand the draft to include the middle class, but Johnson and McNamara realized thatthey would anger the vote-powerful middle class if they drafted college boys or if they sent National Guardsmen and Reservists to Vietnam.”

It’s a common story. In 2017, the military lowered standards to make up for a recruitment shortfall. Due to economic recovery, less people were signing up for service, so the military lowered the amount of Category Four applicants (the lowest performing) they would accept from .6% to almost 2%. Beth Asch from the RAND Corp noted that the 2008 recession made military recruitment much easier.

So what’s the big deal? For one, poor and low-IQ soldiers are less likely to be educated, less likely to be promoted, and therefore more likely to be put in hazardous situations like the frontlines. Many years after the death of Robert Romo, one of McNamara’s Misfits that was shot in the neck, his uncle Barry said that he “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.”

So McNamara’s Misfits is not just a story from the past. It’s an on-going problem, in that some of society’s most vulnerable are still being used as cannon fodder.

Originally published at http://thehappyneuron.com on February 24, 2021.

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Politics and science writer at The Happy Neuron

New York, NY

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