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In this video, we'll be moving our scope forward in time — from the global catastrophe of World War II to the relatively localised plight of the Vietnam War or what many Vietnamese refer to as the American War. No country is without sin, especially in times of war, though America's involvement in South Vietnam between 1955 and 1975 remains a topic of controversy, and one particular military recruitment program stains the whole thing with pure folly. That's right, we'll be discussing McNamara's Folly, known officially as Project 100,000, in which the United States Department of Defense (DOD), spearheaded by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, sent men previously below mental and physical military standards off to fight and die in Vietnam. In 1966, the US government was calling for more and more young Americans to go and spill their
blood in the jungles of Vietnam, drafting almost 50,000 each month. In this same year, Robert McNamara announced Project 100,000, not so much to meet the escalating requirements to keep America in Vietnam, but to spare America's poor and otherwise disadvantaged from, in his words, "idleness, ignorance, and apathy" by giving them a chance to "earn their fair share of [America's] abundance" and "return to civilian life with skills and aptitudes." Basically, McNamara claimed that one of the primary goals of Project 100,000 was to solve societal issues in America. The men recruited in Project 100,000 were known officially as New Standards Men (NSM) and unofficially as "morons." Though "morons," I think, is a cruel and inaccurate generalisation to make for men who previously fell short of mental or physical military standards. In Project 100,000, all but those scoring in the lowest 10% of the Armed Forces Qualification Test
(AFQT) were accepted. To put it in perspective, more than 80% of NSM were high school dropouts, around 40% read below a sixth-grade level, and around 15% read below a fourth-grade level. As for physical standards, they were not directly lowered, though the Medically Remedial Enlistment Program (MREP) was implemented, allowing those with minor and/or correctable conditions to be enlisted. Such conditions included — but were not limited to — being no more than 10% under the minimum weight, being no more than 20% over the maximum weight, having undescended testicles, having hernias, having hemorrhoids, and having a deviated nasal septum. In a social context, most came from economically unstable homes and non-traditional family structures, with 70% of NSM coming from low-income backgrounds, with 60% coming from single-parent families, and with almost 10% sporting pre-service civil court convictions. Considering these percentages, Robert McNamara's purported goal of giving America's poor
and otherwise disadvantaged a chance to "earn their fair share of [their country's] abundance" and "return to civilian life with skills and aptitudes" makes at least some sense, on paper. To put names to the numbers, the Project 100,000 recruit John Grant, who boasted an IQ of 66, went AWOL fifteen times, and another recruit, Kenny Matts, could not take notes nor spell words properly, having suffered a brain injury in his youth; he also went AWOL. Coming from a broken home and unemployment and with only an eighth-grade education, Gus Peters failed basic training and tank-driving courses before getting released with an Undesirable Discharge and going home no better for it. Hamilton Gregory, US Vietnam War veteran and author of McNamara's Folly: The Use of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War, said he was in an induction centre in 1967 when a sergeant entered and asked for a college graduate. Gregory, a military volunteer and college graduate,
threw up his hand, and the sergeant put an NMS recruit in Gregory's charge, telling Gregory that the NMS recruit could neither read nor write and would need help, ending the conversation with: "Make sure he doesn't get lost. He's one of McNamara's Morons." Gregory then went on to describe "babysitting" the NMS recruit, who he said was "unhealthily thin" and didn't understand what basic training was nor that America was at war. Gregory even made the recruit's bed and tied his shoes and also said that the recruit couldn't tell left from right and became terrified and confused when shouted at by his superiors. On the rifle range, the NMS recruit was dangerous, so dangerous that he was put on permanent kitchen patrol. McNamara intended for NSM to receive the same training as non-NSM soldiers, on top of any necessary "special" training and for them to have access to "the best" technology, primarily in the form of educational videos and multimedia,
which he believed would almost "counteract" their mental handicaps. McNamara predicted that 150,000 NSM would be enlisted each year, with 40,000 being enlisted in the first year of the program. In reality, Project 100,000 enlisted 49,000 recruits in the first year, and McNamara announced to the public that "[it] is succeeding beyond even our most hopeful expectations." This was a shortsighted deduction, if not falsified, deduction. While 94.6% of NSM completed basic training — compared to 97.5% of recruits in a control group — many had difficulty after basic training, particularly in remedial reading courses, though also in other courses. Training NSM not only cost both time and money but also weighed down other, non-NSM recruits, who were forced to wait while NSM recruits received extra attention. While DOD reported that NSM were making satisfactory promotion progress and that 90%
of them were receiving supervisory evaluations ranging from "good" to "excellent," among other positive evaluations, other reports note faulty and inaccurate recordkeeping and other means of cheating. Examples include recruiters and examiners "fudging" tests and screenings and non-NSM soldiers taking physical tests in place of NSM. Despite the costs of training NSM, the US Army was forced to take 25% of its recruitment quota from Project 100,000, while the Marines was forced to take 18%, and the Navy and Air Force were each forced to take 15%. The most common assignments for NSM included infantry and artillery, food service, supply, motor transport, administration, equipment repair, wire communications, seamanship, combat engineering, and military police. These are all assignments which — again, giving Robert McNamara some credit — should develop skills translatable to civilian life. With that said, around 40% of NSM received combat assignments, and 37% of that 40% fought as infantry in Vietnam.
Between October 1966 and December 1971, 354,000 NSM served in the US military, with more than 90% being accepted due to lower mental standards and the remainder being accepted under the MREP. Of these men, whose average age was 20, around 55% volunteered; the rest were drafted. To the American military, Project 100,000 was a disaster. NSM struggled to absorb military training and were outright incompetent in combat, not only endangering other non-NSM soldiers but also themselves, boasting three times the fatality rate of non-NSM soldiers. In total, just under 5,500 NSM soldiers perished in the American War, while some 20,000 were wounded and many deserted or went otherwise AWOL. To say it in another way, around 10% of NSM were killed, wounded, or dishonourably discharged in their first 18 months of service.
Project 100,000 was also a failure back on American soil, as it failed to remedy the societal issue McNamara claimed it would. NSM servicemen failed to learn and/or translate military skills into civilian society and/or find employment, and for many, circumstances became even worse than they were before military service. Many carried physical and emotional wounds which made civilian life impossible. Others were carried home in caskets. War correspondent Joe Galloway wrote a commentary for McClatchy DC after McNamara died in his sleep in 2009. A section of the commentary read: "The young men of Project 100,000 [...] could not be taught any more demanding job than trigger-pulling [...], [so most] went straight into combat [...] “[T]hese 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 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?” In her article Project 100,000: The Great Society's Answer to Military Manpower Needs in Vietnam, Lisa Hsiao suggests the DOD used Project 100,000 to fight the war on poverty in America and the American War in Vietnam simultaneously. She aligns with the view that DOD were serving their own interests while operating under the guise of Project 100,000. What do you think? Was Robert McNamara sincere with his intentions to spare America's poor and otherwise disadvantaged from "idleness, ignorance, and apathy"? Or was Project 100,000 a ploy to bring more "cannon fodder" to the American War in Vietnam?
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