Gwern's Reviews > McNamara's Folly: The Use of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War

McNamara's Folly by Hamilton Gregory
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(Ebook; ~2h. See also Gregory's 2016 talk & Low-Aptitude Men In The Military: Who Profits, Who Pays?, Laurence & Ramberger 1991.) It’s not well-known, but one of the most consistent long-term sponsors of research into intelligence has been the US military. This is because, contrary to lay wisdom that ‘IQ only measures how well you do on a test’ or book-learning, cognitive ability predicts performance in all occupations down to the simplest manual labor; this might seem surprising, but there are a lot of ways to screw up a simple job and cause losses outside one’s area. For example, aiming and pointing a rifle, or throwing a grenade, might seem like a simple task, but it’s also easy to screw up by pointing at the wrong point, requires fast reflexes (reflexes are one of the most consistent correlations with intelligence), memory for procedures like stripping, the ability to read ammo box labels or orders (as one Marine drill instructor noted), and ‘common sense’ like not indulging in ‘practical jokes’ by tossing grenades at one’s comrades and forgetting to remove the fuse - common sense is not so common, as the saying goes. Such men were not even useful cannon fodder, as they were as much a danger to the men around them as themselves (never mind the enemy), and jammed up the system. (A particularly striking non-Vietnam example is the case of one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever, the Port Chicago disaster which killed 320 people - any complex disaster like that has many causes, of course, but one of them was simply that the explosives were being handled by the dregs of the Navy - not even bottom decile, but bottom duo-decile (had to look that one up), and other stations kept raiding it for anyone competent.)


Gregory’s book collates stories about what happened when the US military was forced to ignore these facts it knew perfectly well in the service of Robert McNamara & Lyndon Johnson’s “Project 100,000” idea to kill two birds with one stone by drafting recruits who were developmentally disabled, unhealthy, evil, or just too dumb to be conscripted previously: it would provide the warm bodies needed for Vietnam, and use the military to educate the least fortunate and give them a leg up as part of the Great Society’s faith in education to eliminate individual differences and refute the idea that intelligence is real.


It did not go well.


The main value of the book is providing many concrete examples of what a lack of intelligence can mean (useful for people who spend their whole lives in high-IQ bubbles and have no idea of what that means; more examples in Gottfredson's "Why g Matters: The Complexity of Everyday Life"), the difficulty of implementing social welfare programs (McNamara’s education fantasies never materialized for lack of funds & the enlistees not being smart enough to qualify in the first place), and a forceful denunciation of the harms & cruelty committed by a willful blindness to the fact of individual differences, harms which fall on those least able to understand or withstand them. (“…He was perpetually angry and aggrieved, and he talked back to the sergeants. When they cursed him and threatened him, he would say angrily, ‘I just wanna go home! Why don’t you let me go home?’”) The phrase “banality of evil” comes repeatedly to mind in examining the ramifications of McNamara’s blank-slatism through the military system.


Gregory himself received an early introduction into the topic when he showed up for boot camp and was put in charge of one of those conscripted men: to his bafflement, his scrawny ward ‘Gupton’ was illiterate, couldn’t understand the idea of a war or basic training, couldn’t memorize his serial number, didn’t know who Hitler was nor what state he was from nor his grandmother’s name/address (apparently he had no parents or didn’t remember them), was terrified of injections, endlessly fascinated by the dog tags he was required to wear, and thought a nickel was worth more than a dime because it was bigger, and routinely got into trouble because he couldn’t keep ranks/honorifics straight or (hopelessly literal) understand humor or military slang in commands, and while he was unable to learn to make his bed, another recruit was able to eventually teach Gupton to at least tie his shoelaces. The cruelties began early on when Gregory accompanies several of “McNamara’s morons” & Gupton to their barracks where they are ordered to leave their backpacks out, all their money is stolen in the night by the sergeant, who then tells them to ‘report’ the crime to him rather than the MPs, which they guilelessly do; Gregory notes that the sergeants appeared to have been targeting the morons routinely and getting away with it every time. (Life is hard, but it’s much harder when you’re dumb.)


The story of Gupton has a relatively happy ending: while eventually graduating boot camp and sent to Vietnam despite Gregory’s attempt to get him safely discharged, he apparently was sheltered by a sergeant (who had a mentally handicapped sister of his own and understood), survived his tour, and returned, eventually dying at age 57. (But note that this is still far short of a normal male life expectancy: the IQ/all-cause mortality correlation is substantial, particularly at an extreme.)


Other stories did not end well. Some were trapped in boot camp: Gregory describes how many would be sent to remedial training, repeatedly failing the exercise requirements because they didn’t understand how to correctly execute actions; in swinging from monkey bars, they would try to swing one bar at a time, coming to a halt each time; in running an obstacle course, they would have to pause in front of each arrow and think about what an arrow meant before understanding which direction to go, costing them too much time to ever beat the deadline; they would insist on throwing grenades like a baseball directly to the target, not understanding that throwing up in a parabola would gain them the necessary distance; and in the mile run, they would sprint as fast as possible at the start and be surprised when they became utterly exhausted long before the finish line. One mutinied from the drills, under the impression that being sent to the ‘stockade’ meant ‘going home’, until it was explained to him that the word meant ‘jail’.


One thing worth noting is that many of the short or unintelligent people came from very poor environments. In thinking about the past, it’s easy to forget how poor the USA was until recently; the USA during Vietnam (to say nothing of earlier: "The life of American workers in 1915") was what we would consider a Third World country. Gupton, for example, was very thin, ate ravenously during training, and had abscessed teeth because he had never seen a dentist in his part of Appalachia; one enlistee considered himself blessed to be in the Army rather than Mississippi, where he could eat meat every day (indeed, every meal! of which there were three!), got beautiful new clothes, free doctor & dentist visits, and was even paid money once a month; another enlistee was thrilled about how he could suddenly see people’s faces now that he had glasses, after an Army doctor gave him a vision test. (Nevertheless, the improved environment of the Army appears to have made little difference.) It is not surprising that McNamara’s morons could be spotted on sight because of their shortness, funny-looking faces, and general ugliness - to the point where Gregory goes into detail about the one exception, the handsome Freddie Hensley, who nevertheless was not the sharpest tool in the shed, to the surprise of everyone interacting with him and discovering things like his reflexes being far too slow to shoot a rifle or believing that there was no connection between thunder and lightning; Hensley was sent into combat and died:



'I was not surprised to discover that he had been killed in combat. With his good looks, he probably was assumed to be “normal” and was moved along to Vietnam and sent out into the field…Before long, she was expressing grief and anger and bewilderment. She told me that when Freddie received his draft notice, she and other family members went to the induction center and explained that Freddie had been in EMR (educable mentally retarded) classes in school and had not been able to drive a car and that it would be a mistake to draft him. In response, a sergeant reassured the family that Freddie would not be put into danger - he would just do menial jobs such as sweeping floors and peeling potatoes. “He was a good boy,” she said. “When he was little, we used to go everywhere together. He was my Little Man.” She began to sob, and she lamented, “Why did they have to draft him? I want to know why.”'



When forced through basic training by hook or by crook, further training generally proved pointless: there weren’t enough funds to pay for the extensive hand-holding, so the fancy education (direct instruction, apparently) McNamara put faith in either wasn't enough or simply never happened in the first place. (Thus demonstrating the iron & brass laws of social programs - as well, program efficacy always declines as it scales up, because it must be run by exactly those people failing at the task in the first place for lack of resources/competence/incentives/meaningful-interventions.) Where education was tried, it turned out to be futile, and those who did train them found them too slow or too dangerous to trust. A man assigned to t-shirt printing shop was unable to understand alphabetization and had to pick out each letter for printing by scanning through the box one by one; a sergeant trained two men to drive military trucks somewhat successfully but they were too dangerous drivers to be used and were transferred out; another simply forgot to get back on the helicopters after a village search forcing a second retrieval mission; another was lucky enough to be sheltered by his sergeant in mess hall duties (until a mortar hit it, killing him); one played a prank on his squad mates, tossing a defused grenade at them two times, but on the third throw forgot to disable it; another wandered away from an ambush and wandering back, was killed by his squad; while yet another almost shot his commander with a LAW rocket when startled; another did kill his commander while on guard duty when he forgot to ask for the password before shooting; another forgot to put his rifle safety on (shooting a squad mate in the foot, who died); another tripped a booby-trap while not paying attention; another was captured by the NVA and went insane, screaming endlessly and defecating on himself while being beaten… It is unsurprising that many of them would be made to ‘walk point’, or ejected somehow, in addition to the constant insults and abuse - a new recruit was told the NVA would kill them all in a few hours, went insane from fear, climbed up a flag pole, and jumped off it; and another was beaten to death in Marine basic training. (McNamara may have had good intentions, but in the social sciences, good results follow good intentions much as the rain follows the plow; which is to say, they do mostly by accident, and we find it easier to tailor our preferences to the results than vice-versa.) Only a few of the stories, like the recruit who was confused by having two left boots and two right boots but no complete pairs of boots, or the one who thought semen was urine, or the extremely-short man who received an honorable discharge & medical pension for contracting the terrible disability of ‘dwarfism’ in a war zone, or the draftee who tried to commit suicide “by drinking a bottle of Head & Shoulders shampoo” could be considered all that funny. Most are painful to read. (But educational, again, especially if you are in a high-IQ bubble and have a lack of empathy for what low intelligence means.) Once you've read some of these anecdotes, other anecdotes, like Scott Alexander's experiences in Haiti no longer seem like such a stretch.


One of the most striking examples is that the My Lai massacre itself may have been directly due to lowered recruiting standards:

He cited Lieutenant William Calley, convicted in the murder of more than 100 unarmed civilians in the My Lai Massacre in 1968. According to Arnold R. Isaacs, the Vietnam war correspondent for the Baltimore Sun, Calley “flunked out of Palm Beach Junior College with two C’s, a D, and four F’s in his first year and reportedly managed to get through officer candidate school without even learning to read a map or use a compass.”97 Marine Corps Colonel Robert D. Heinl said the Army had to take Calley “because no one else was available.”98 His own attorney used Calley’s low intelligence as a courtroom defense: the Army, he said, was to blame for My Lai because if it hadn’t lowered mental standards, men like Calley never would have been commissioned. Richard A. Gabriel, who spent 22 years as a U.S. Army officer, says, “Even the staunchest defenders of the Army agree that in normal times a man of Lieutenant Calley’s intelligence and predispositions would never have been allowed to hold a commission.”99

Gregory concludes:



To justify lowering test scores for entry into the military, Robert McNamara said that Project 100,000 men “were not brain-poor at birth, but only privilege-poor, advantage-poor, opportunity-poor.”151 His description was accurate, but only when applied to those men in Category IV who possessed “street smarts” - a sound native intelligence. They did poorly on the AFQT not because of mental deficiency but because of substandard education, learning disabilities, or weak testing skills. Some of them were successful in the military, as I will show later in this book.


What McNamara failed to see was that many Project 100,000 were incurably limited. They were indeed “brain-poor” for life, with no hope of making huge mental improvements. No amount of McNamara’s audiovisual gadgetry could transform them from slow learners into bright, or even average, citizens. But wait a minute: hadn’t psychologists discovered that even people with serious mental limitations were capable of absorbing much more training than society had previously thought possible? Yes, and it was a valuable insight: mentally limited persons were not hopeless - they were capable of growth and maturity. But here was the problem: they might be able to learn how to make change, but that didn’t mean that they could someday create a spreadsheet. They might be able to learn how to put together parts in a factory assembly line, but that didn’t mean they could someday operate a 105mm howitzer in battle. There was no hope of dramatically lifting the IQ of Project 100,000 men who missed a test question like this: “If a farmer had a bucket of 24 eggs and he stumbled and broke half of them, how many eggs would he have left?”


The men who missed such questions were slow learners who were able to live happy, productive lives if they had a protective environment - a cozy haven with loving parents, helpful friends, and sympathetic bosses. Such was not the case for many Project 100,000 men.



The stories come one after another, making it a gripping read and I finished it in one sitting.


While Vietnam was not lost because of Project 100k (wars are usually won or lost for bigger reasons), Project 100k certainly did not help matters by doubtless doing a good deal of damage the full extent of which will never be known, and arguably, Project 100k was symptomatic of both the ideological delusions of the American politicians & high-level bureaucrats which conceived and pushed through the Vietnam War, and perhaps more importantly, was a stop-gap abused to deal with the fact that they could not justify it to the public sufficiently well to get support for a true population-wide draft which would touch the middle & upper classes. If a war cannot win the support of the populace, perhaps it shouldn't be fought in the first place...


I would have liked more statistical and psychometric details (such as a short literature review of the extensive studies of IQ and job performance especially in the military eg. Kavanagh 2005, how the probability of combat death correlated with lower IQ, why IQ interventions typically fail etc) but it is probably unrealistic to expect that from Gregory, and in any case, given the extensive lying, fraud, falsification of documents, misclassification of members of the 100,000 etc, the statistics would likely greatly understate the true outcomes. Fortunately, it turns out that a thorough statistical study of the available data, and a followup survey, is available in an earlier book, the Low-Aptitude Men In The Military: Who Profits, Who Pays?, Laurence & Ramberger 1991 - as a bonus, Laurence & Ramberger 1991 cover not just Project 100,000 but the almost-too-good-to-be-true natural experiment known as the "ASVAB Misnorming", where the military accidentally and unwittingly engaged in the equivalent of a second Project 100,000 in peacetime.

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Reading Progress

March 19, 2018 – Shelved
March 19, 2018 – Shelved as: to-read
March 22, 2018 – Started Reading
March 22, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-7 of 7 (7 new)

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message 1: by Maru (new)

Maru Kun Thanks for such a great review. I stand amazed that this ever happened, so credit to the author for writing a book on what must really be a quite important topic for the military but one I suspect doesn't get much attention.


message 2: by Mike (new)

Mike You make an excellent point about the casual lack of empathy among those ensconced in high IQ bubbles, which certainly includes the majority of policy makers and bureaucrats, academics and journalists. This (wilful) ignorance of human nature causes no end of grief in the world.

As to the McNamara experiment, according to the RAND report on this program, they did not accept men in the bottom 10% of the IQ spectrum. The anecdotes you cite refer to men in the 11-30% range. Of course, some sub-10% men were no doubt accidentally enlisted since the recruitment was based on only 1 IQ test. I wouldn't expect that many of these recruits were "funny looking kids." The clearest mistake of this program was allowing guys into combat who were so dysfunctional as to be dangerous to their comrades. But, the idea that it was a priori absurd to recruit guys at the 20th percentile (about 85 IQ), is a post hoc judgment and probably not even rigorously demonstrable (it is not clear from the 250 page RAND report). Combat efficacy increases as the soldier's IQ increases with no ceiling. The question is whether there are thresholds that matter. The only clear useful threshold is the point at which lower IQ men become too dangerous to their comrades. Another threshold might be the point at which they become too financially burdensome or too ineffective against the enemy (ie, their mortality rate is higher than the enemy's).

In World War II, the minimum IQ permissible was even lower than it was for this experimental program. They didn't recruit 350,000 sub-89 IQ soldiers; they recruited millions of them.


message 3: by Omni (last edited Oct 08, 2018 05:39PM) (new)

Omni Could you please link your sources for the port chicago incident? About the iq-selection aspect and the raiding for competent personnel. Thanks!


Gwern For that I am going off the Wikipedia summary, which is based on the US Navy Finding of Facts.


message 5: by Koen (new) - added it

Koen Kop Excellent review - interesting links - "Scott Alexander's experiences in Haiti" an eye-opener.


message 6: by Franta (new)

Franta fascinating!


message 7: by Adam (new)

Adam Long The author, Hamilton Gregory, giving a presentation on the book. https://youtu.be/_J2VwFDV4-g


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