Commentary: 100,000 reasons to shed no tears for McNamara

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 7, 2009 

In the wake of the death of one of the main architects of the Vietnam War, former Defense Secretary Robert Strange McNamara — old, gray, frail and full of his 93 years of living — many have rushed to examine and weigh his life and times.

The more charitable, politicians for the most part, have declared that at least McNamara, three decades after his war and Jack Kennedy's war and Lyndon B. Johnson's war ended so badly, had confessed to errors and apologized in his 1995 book IN RETROSPECT.

His acknowledgement that he'd known what the U.S. government was doing in Vietnam was wrong but for 30 years couldn't bring himself to publicly admit that truth, could hardly comfort the parents, children, widows, siblings and friends of the 58,249 young American men and eight young American women who were killed in his war.

Nor were they much comfort to the huge number of Vietnamese — some say two millon, others three million — who were killed in the war an unbelieving McNamara still prosecuted vigorously and defended strongly.

He was a charter member of what LBJ derisively called the "You Harvards," and David Halberstam profiled in The Best and The Brightest — the bright young wizards JFK brought to Washington to help us stand astride the world.

But the ink was barely dry on the pages of those McNamara memoirs before a New York Times editorial writer, on April 12, 1995, dismissed McNamara's apologies and confessions as entirely irrelevant:

"His regret cannot be huge enough to balance the books for our dead soldiers. The ghosts of those unlived lives circle close around Mr. McNamara. Surely he must in every quiet and prosperous moment hear the ceaseless whispers of those poor boys in the Infantry, dying in the tall grass, platoon by platoon, for no purpose. What he took from them cannot be repaid by prime-time apology and stale tears, three decades late."

Amen, brother.

While McNamara was confessing and apologizing he conveniently left out a detail, a damning little detail. They say the Devil is in the details, and he certainly lives in this one.

Who out there remembers Mr. McNamara's — he was the ultimate bean-counter who knew the cost of everything but the worth of nothing — Project 100,000?

If nothing else, Project 100,000 surely guarantees that Judgment Day and eternity will not be very comfortable for Mr. McNamara, now arriving on Track 12.

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?

I can only hope that the last voices Robert S. McNamara heard before he was gathered into the darkness at long last were those of the poor boys in the Infantry, the poor boys of Project 100,000, the poor victims of Agent Orange, the poor Vietnamese farm families whose lives and the very land itself were torn apart by millions of tons of bombs rained on them by the best and the brightest.

Save your tears for them. Bob McNamara certainly doesn't deserve them.

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