By Hamilton Gregory
One morning in the summer of 1967, I was among about 100 men at the Armed Forces induction center in Nashville. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and I had volunteered for the Army. A sergeant walked into the room and announced that all of us would leave soon to begin training in Fort Benning, Georgia. Then he asked, "Is anyone here a college graduate?"
I raised my hand, and he motioned me to follow him. He took me down a hallway to a bench where I was introduced to a young man I'm going to call Johnny Gupton, to protect his privacy. Gupton was also assigned to Fort Benning. "I want you to take charge of this man," the sergeant told me. "Go with him every step of the way." He explained that Gupton could neither read nor write, and would need help in filling out paperwork when we arrived at Benning. Then he added: "Make sure he doesn't get lost. He's one of McNamara's Morons."
I had never heard the term, and I was surprised that the sergeant would openly insult Gupton. But I learned quickly that "McNamara's Morons" was a term that many officers and sergeants used to refer to thousands of low-I.Q. men like Gupton who were taken into the military under a program devised by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
The sergeant handed me a sealed envelope that held my personnel records and Gupton's. I was instructed to give the package to the sergeants when I arrived at Fort Benning.
As we traveled by bus and by plane, I tried to make small talk with Gupton, but he didn't say much. I asked him what state he was from, but he didn't know. I later found out that he lived in Eastern Tennessee, in one of the Appalachian Mountains' isolated "poverty pockets." He was very thin — unhealthily thin. He knew nothing about the situation he was in. He didn't understand what basic training was about, and he didn't know that America was in a war. I tried to explain what was happening, but I could tell that he was still in a fog.
In basic training, he was virtually helpless. We had to make his bunk because he couldn't follow Army specifications. I tied his boots for him every morning until another trainee took the time to teach him the skill. He didn't know his left from his right, so he had trouble with basic commands like "left face" and "right face" and he had trouble with marching. When the sergeants screamed at him, he was terrified and confused.
On the rifle range, he was erratic and dangerous in handling his rifle — the sergeants feared he would accidentally shoot himself or someone else. Finally, he was put on permanent kitchen duty, cleaning and scrubbing in the mess hall all day. (Later, he was sent to Vietnam, and he survived because he was protected by a sergeant who gave him jobs away from combat. The sergeant was sympathetic because he had grown up with a sister whom he described as "mentally handicapped.")
Why were Gupton and other low-aptitude men inducted? In 1966, the war in Vietnam began to heat up, and McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson found themselves short of men to fill the ranks. Johnson and McNamara could have drafted college students, but they didn't want to anger middle-class voters. They could have sent men from the National Guard and Reserves, but that, too, would have been politically unpopular.
There was one group of men who had been beyond the reach of the draft — those who had been disqualified because they failed the military's mental test. Desperate for warm bodies, Johnson and McNamara decided to induct the low-scoring men, whom Johnson referred to (in a secret White House tape) as "second-class fellows."
On October 1, 1966, McNamara started a program called Project 100,000, which lowered mental standards for 100,000 men each year. By the end of the war, McNamara's program had sent 354,000 "substandard" men to all branches of the armed forces. The Army got 71%, the Marine Corps 10%, the Navy 10%, and the Air Force 9%. Among the troops, these men were often known as McNamara's Morons, the Moron Corps or McNamara's Boys.
Military leaders — from William Westmoreland, the commanding general in Vietnam, to lieutenants and sergeants at the platoon level — viewed McNamara's program as a disaster. Because many of the Project 100,000 men were slow learners, they had difficulty absorbing necessary training. Because many of them were incompetent in combat, they endangered not only themselves but their comrades as well.
Barry Romo and his nephew Robert served in Vietnam at the same time. "I loved Robert like a brother," Barry Romo said. "We grew up together. He was only one month younger."
Barry was an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam in 1967-68, and he saw a lot of combat, winning a Bronze Star. During his tour, he learned that Robert had been drafted and was being trained at Fort Lewis, Wash., to be an infantryman, destined for Vietnam. Barry was alarmed because Robert was "very slow" and had failed the Army's mental test. But then came Project 100,000, lowering standards and making him subject to the draft. A host of people — his relatives, his comrades at Fort Lewis, his sergeants, his officers — wrote to the commanding general at Fort Lewis, asking that Robert not be sent into combat because, as one relative put it, "he would die."
But the general turned down the request and Robert was sent to an infantry unit near the border of North Vietnam, one of the most dangerous combat areas. During a patrol, he was shot in the neck while trying to help a wounded friend. He did not die instantly, but heavy gunfire kept a medic from reaching him. "He drowned in his own blood," Barry said.
At the request of the family, Barry was given permission to leave Vietnam and accompany Robert's body home to Rialto, California. The aluminum coffin was sealed and draped with a flag, and the family was not allowed to view the remains. (It was Army policy to discourage or forbid viewing when a body was badly mutilated.) In a speech 42 years later, Barry Romo said that the family had never recovered from losing Robert: "His death almost destroyed us with anger and sorrow."
A total of 5,478 low-I.Q. men died in the service, most of them in combat. Their fatality rate was three times as high as that of other G.I.s. I knew some of these men at Fort Benning, and I was sickened and furious when I discovered their fate because they never should have been inducted, and they never should have been sent into combat.
As the war correspondent Joseph Galloway wrote, "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?"
Hamilton Gregory is the author of "McNamara's Folly: The Use of Low-I.Q. Troops in the Vietnam War."