Book Review: McNamara’s Folly: The Use of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War by Hamilton Gregory

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

McNamara’s Folly is a book about a topic that needed a separate treatment.  The book itself is not large at 212 pages of text. The book is separated into six topical parts with endnotes called “sources”, an index, and appendices. I wish the book had a bibliography but the endnotes are fairly extensive if you do have to search through them to find the first citation for a full record.

The first two parts of the book are the author’s recollections of going through Basic Training at Ft. Benning, Georgia in 1967. Based on my own personal experiences in Basic Training both at Ft Benning and Ft Knox in 1989 & 1992 the experience was similar with the exception that I and my platoon mates were constantly reminded that we volunteered for the misery we were undergoing. This section is accurate and the book makes the wry accusation that Drill Sergeants and other soldiers were cruel to the “fat, lame, and lazy” out of spite. That is not necessarily true, Drill Sergeants are cruel because that is the job, the whole point of Basic Training is to separate out the non-hackers before they get on the battlefield. That is why Project 100,000 should never have happened in the first place, the human misery, death, and wounds suffered are just additional reasons and evidence of how misguided the program was in the first place.
Parts three-five are the meat of the book and despite the author’s obvious dislike of the military and his disagreement with conscription it is very well written. I have to admit here that overall the book is fairly well balanced. There are some turns of phrase that caused a raised eyebrow a time or two while I was reading but the facts he lays out are mostly well supported.

First, the parts I had issues with . On page 83 the 20th Century American Selective Service Act (the Draft) is explicitly compared to and made out to be equivalent to the 18th and 19th century naval practice of Impressment as practiced by the British. I take issue with the comparison here because comparing the draft, with its deferments and lottery to the press gangs used under British impressment policy is comparing apples and oranges. The two are only similar in that the end result of both is military service and its attendant risks beyond that the comparison falls apart on its own.

The other thing I take issue with is the oft repeated mantra that the poor were overrepresented in the ranks. This is true only to an extent. The poor were drafted at a higher rate than the middle class but middle-class men tended to volunteer at much higher rate while the very rich got out of the draft either using college deferments or joining the National Guard and Reserves. This position on the poor is a political one and poorly supported by the meager statistical data that is available that is mostly based on census data. This is actually an argument that cannot really be proved one way or the other except by inference and data massage. My main issue with it is that the argument is presented as indisputable in the book and that is just not true.

Issues aside, the book is very well written and except for drafting unfit men the story could just as well be about recruitment policies at the height of the Iraq War when non-violent felony offenders, high school dropouts, and low aptitude testers were allowed to enlist in order for the military, but especially the Army, to meet end-strength requirements. The book tells a familiar tale that has occurred in just about every war the United States has fought. When the wars heat up recruitment drops and standards are lowered to keep warm bodies in uniform to allow the nation to stay in the fight.

The book is well written flows quite well. I found the description of Basic Training accurate and the analysis of Project 100,000 to be largely on target and compelling. Given the lack of dedicated scholarship on this issue in Vietnam or any other American war I am glad that a book like this has appeared. That the author has firsthand knowledge of how the program worked in reality makes it that much more compelling. I recommend this book to anyone interested in the methods used by the American army during Vietnam to maintain military end strength and fight the war. This is a good book and worth reading.