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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Reading Progress

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

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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 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.

message 8: by Gwern (last edited Sep 13, 2020 09:30AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Gwern Some relevant examples comparable to Haiti are provided in "BEYOND REASON: The Death Penalty and Offenders with Mental Retardation: II. MENTAL RETARDATION: AN OVERVIEW", giving anecdotes of the kind of profound deficits which are consistent with nevertheless being able to feed & dress oneself etc: a death row inmate asking his lawyer what he should wear to his funeral; a rapist unsure why rape is wrong, suggesting either he didn't have 'permission' or it was 'against her religion'; and a murderer explaining that when you stab someone to death 'the breath leaves their body' but doesn't know what happens if you shoot them instead. Like the illiterate (who are often dyslexic), the retarded can learn to conceal their deficits by various strategies and deceptions: one defendant's lawyers signed him up for college calculus despite his complete inability - he had gotten his little sister to do all his schoolwork for him previously.

If the nickel/dime anecdote sounds improbable, Selentelechia on Twitter gives a comparable example from her own teaching ( ):

"There is an anecdote early in the book about a recruit the author knew in basic training. The other men would play pranks on him. The one I'm thinking of, they would ask him if he preferred a nickel or a dime (worth more in the 60s). He'd choose the nickel, because it was larger. One of the kids I worked extensively with is 21 years old. And will still fall for this. He, unlike the recruit in the above anecdote, can read. I and his other tutors probably spent dozens of hours over several years trying to teach him to distinguish coins from one another. He has a high school diploma. I know another young man. I didn't work with him personally. I was cornered by him at a Christmas party when he kept trying to hold my hand. He was 18. Barely verbal. Was led around by para-educators in high school by the hand. Never learned to read beyond recognition of the alphabet and his own name, as far as I know. He, too, has a diploma."

message 9: by Guy (new)

Guy Venturi Thanks for the great reviews. I was drafted in early 1969. I enlisted so I could finish my semester of college, plus have some choice of training. I was able to get into the Army Signal School and was able to test out of basic electronics. This also upgraded my training to a longer and better course. Upon graduation, I was selected as an instructor and spent the rest of my active duty teaching the course I had taken. Although there was a higher intelligence level at the school, I found a wide variety of education and experience with the students. I spent most of my time with only a few who had more difficulty. Some could not understand some of the more complex concepts, but did well on the equipment. Some understood basic functions but did not understand how to troubleshoot the equipment. A few picked it all up quickly. But virtually all were sent to Vietnam anyway. One went to Germany.

The basic training experience was much like the book described.

Gwern A curious case: It seems like they may have gotten themselves very lost and confused, made some foolish decisions, and then overly rigidly followed rules they had been taught:

"This behavior, however, was consistent with what Weiher's family members described as a lack of common sense arising from his mental disability; he often questioned why he should stop at a stop sign, and one night he needed to be dragged out of bed while his bedroom ceiling was burning in a house fire since he was worried about missing his job the next day if he left his bed.[9]...It is assumed that once they found the trailer, the other three broke the window to enter. Since it was locked, they may have believed it was private property, and may have feared arrest for theft if they used anything else they found there. After Weiher died, or the others believed he had, they perhaps chose to attempt to return to civilization by different routes, overland, on foot.[6]"

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