Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Thoughts on the passing of a man.

Overshadowed by the nonstop coverage of a pop star's death, the more significant passing of Robert McNamara was almost a postscript. McNamara was the architect of the Vietnam War. He became convinced as early as 1965 that the war was a mistake and yet continued to send young men to die by the thousands.

It's enough to make me believe in an afterlife just so I can trust that McNamara will get the justice he deserves.

For those of you too young to have been selected by your friends and neighbors, it was a time that forced you to define where you stood, both politically and as a man.

In those days, you had 4 choices (or so I thought):

1. Believe in the war and serve. An honorable decision.

2. Don't believe in the war and serve out of an obligation to your country. An honorable decision.

3. Don't believe and don't serve. Those who went to jail or Canada sacrificed for what they believed and that was also an honorable decision.

4. Believe in the war but find a way not to serve. There are a lot of men like Dick Cheney who had other priorities, men who let other mothers' sons take their place in the line. These men are not honorable and should be shunned by society. Sadly, they are not.

In April of 1969, I was in Basic Training at Fort Bragg. The great majority of my platoon was made up of young white kids from the sticks and young black kids from the streets. In the unapologetic, GI parlance of the time, the only people in the Army were "niggers, hicks and spics." There were very few like me, a middle class white kid.

I was a political naif, having supported Goldwater in '64 and Nixon in '68. I had hinky feelings about the war, and no desire to die face down in the mud and shit of a rice paddy, but I also came from a family that stressed military service as an obligation for living in a free country.

Now, thanks to a column by Joe Galloway, co-author of We Were Soldiers Once and Young, I've learned there was a 5th category of men, those who couldn't have an opinion of the war and weren't fit to serve. And yet they did. They were the men of McNamara's Project 100,000.

Here's an excerpt from Galloway's column and I hope he forgives me for lifting so much of it:

Beginning in 1965 and for nearly three years McNamara each year drafted into the military 100,000 young boys whose scores in the mental qualification and aptitude tests were in the lowest quarter — so-called Category IV's. Men with IQ's of 65 or even lower.

They were, to put it bluntly, mentally deficient. Illiterate. Mostly black and redneck whites, hailing from the mean big city ghettos and the remote Appalachian valleys.

By drafting them the Pentagon would not have to draft an equal number of middle class and elite college boys whose mothers could and would raise Hell with their representatives in Washington.

The young men of Project 100,000 couldn't read, so training manual comic books were created for them. They had to be taught to tie their boots. They often failed in boot camp, and were recycled over and over until they finally reached some low standard and were declared trained and ready.

They could not be taught any more demanding job than trigger-pulling and, so, all of them were shipped to Vietnam and most went straight into combat where the learning curve is steep and deadly. The cold, hard statistics say that these almost helpless young men died in action in the jungles at a rate three times higher than the average draftee.

McNamara's military even assigned the Project 100,000 men special serial numbers so that anyone could identify them and deal with them accordingly.

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?

Read these columns by Joe Galloway. They're a good way to get your heart moving without the aid of caffeine.
Then go buy Joe's book.


Steven T. said...

I'm ashamed to say I've never read up on our reasons for going to war in Vietnam. Were it not for the war in Iraq I'd find it difficult to see how one could justify such a mess. Shocking to think of how easy it is bring an entire nation to such a decision. I do believe in heaven and hell (though I won't make claims that I've been to either...) and I think Cheney and Bush have a lot to answer for...

JD Rhoades said...

One of the most horrifying things about Project 100,000 is the tactical mindset it's based in, one that decrees that soldiers don't have to be smart because we're just going to keep throwing them at the enemy until we overrun them or they run out of bullets. It's WW2 era Soviet doctrine brought to our own Army.

Thankfully we seem to have learned that soldiers need brains, too. At least for now. Now if we could just impose the same qualification on their civilian leaders...

Graham Powell said...

Man, I never heard of this before. Really disgusting. Thankfully our army is now the most professional in the world.

I read a little about Vietnam. Yeah, we were fighting Communism, but the rulers of South Vietnam were so corrupt, no wonder the people looked for any alternative.

deangc said...

First, a respectful nod in your direction. You're a standup guy, and that is no small thing in this world.

Second, I have never heard of McNamara's 100,000. As I read this, I wondered why I wasn't shocked. Then I realized that it fits right in with the political calculus of the 1960s.

Thank you for pointing me to Joe Galloway.

Tom said...

Because my brother is a Down's Syndrome person, I've been around deficient an damaged people all my life. I knew nothing about this 'project' until today, and I don't know what I'll do with my fury and outrage over it.

I can tell you that a similar story has come to light just recently. Recruiters needed to get their numbers, so they signed up a young man who is known to be autistic. NPR covered it this week.

Gerard Saylor said...

Holy fuck!