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A review of “McNamara’s Folly,” a book by Hamilton Gregory

by Frank on July 15th, 2015

Many of us–especially Vietnam veterans like myself–know well the basic facts: that an escalation of troop levels began in the mid-1960’s and peaked at about 550,000 by 1968; that all total 2.7 million Americans served in Vietnam during the war years; and that 58,000 American’s died there, mostly in combat situations. But how many know that approximately 10% of those casualties were suffered by low IQ men brought into the service under a plan sponsered by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamera that drastically lowered the recruitment standards in order to fill the ranks? Ostensibly serving to give these low functioning men a chance to better themselves, the program was known as “McNamara’s 100,000” for the number of substandard men to be recruited each year. The men themselves were commonly called “McNamara’s Morons.” While the program did not necessary intend to send those men–many of whom were illiterate–into combat, they often ended up on the front lines, dying at a rate three time higher than their cohorts of normal intelligence.

Haminton Gregory, a Vietnam veteran, journalist and college professor, tells the story with a compelling blend of objectivity and restrained moral force. Gregory went through Army boot camp at Fort Benning in 1967 where, as a college graduate, he was assigned to “look out for” another recruit who happened to be one of “McNamara’s 100,000.” Gregory describes his astonishment at discovering that this young man could not read, write, tie his shoes and did not understand that the U.S. was at war. Such men got through training, Gergory describes, thanks to leaders under pressure to keep the pipeline full who were willing to look the other way. Frustrated officers who tried to resist and send low-IQ recruits home were often rebuffed by the chain of command.

Though the haunting story of this program is full of fascinating anecdotes and statistics, Gregorgy grounds it in the larger social context of conscription during the Vietnam era. The pipeline needed to be pumped full of less-than-combat-capable individuals because so many of the most intelligent young men were managing to avoid this increasingly unpopular war. Sons of the upper-middle class and upper class had no trouble getting student deferrements, and other means of avoidance. All it took to get a medical “pass” was a trip to the right doctor. If you had the wherewithal you could flee to Canada or Sweden, far from the killing fields of Indochina. The argument can even be made that the need to reach lower and lower into the barrel of potential recruits contributed to such tragedies as the My Lai Massacre, where the troops were led by a college dropout.

Aside from a single instance of mild redundancy, this book has the qualities of a page turner–a well-told tale of a compelling situation. Though the subject may have special resonance for those of us who came of age during the Vietnam War era, its message still speaks just as strongly today. Our modern wars in Iraq and Afganistan are being fought by an all-volunteer military. These men and women, however, in return for making their decision to sacrifice for the nation, are being exposed to multiple, brutal combat tours, and they are paying the price. The Vietnam draftee was limited to a single tour. Both then and now, the upper socio-economic strata of our society was and is under-represented in combat. I believe that “McNamara’s Folly” will become a classic in the literature of how a society approaches making war. For its drama and human interest this book deserves to be widely read.

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