I've been uncomfortable around numbers all my life. Devised elaborate methods of adding and subtracting in first and second grade. Agonized my way through fractions and long division later on when I'd rather be reading and writing stories. By the time numbers somehow magically became letters—in freshman algebra—I was a basket case. The recent talks here regarding statistics and norms and means and quartiles and percentages confuse me no end. I'm one of those people. And I'm sure that makes me a statistic.
I do, however, have a pretty good nose for bullshit, and the tale I'm about to relate concerns a pile of it.
Back in the last century, towards the middle of it, but nearer to the end than the beginning, there was a foo' named Robert Strange McNamara. He may very well have been surrounded by other foo's, none of whom I knew, but the fact was, Robert Strange McNamara had been appointed Secretary of Defense by both President John F. Kennedy AND President Lyndon Baines Johnson during an occlusion of American history we have come to call the Vietnam War. The Vietnamese called it the American War of Aggression, but that is an entirely different subject. The point is Robert Strange McNamara was the go-to guy. He'd sold a lot of cars as president of the Ford Motor Company, and everybody felt he could magically turn a bad idea into a good one with the application of enough money and manpower. You know: the good old American Way.
Some background (this is where the numbers come in)
Immediately following World War II, an economist at Columbia University named Eli Ginzberg wrote a three-volume study on the problems of the segregated army called The Ineffective Soldier: Lessons for Management and the Nation. Ginzberg and his colleagues at Columbia correlated socioeconomic and educational background and a soldier's performance in combat, and though I'm certain there must be some basic flaw in the whole idea (nose for bullshit vs. numbers here, remember), Ginzberg's study showed that soldiers with some college education were FIVE times more likely to perform well in combat than high school dropouts, and high school graduates were THREE times more likely to perform better than those who hadn't gotten their sheepskins.
The military, in its endless quest for codifying human behavior, initiated a battery of tests which every new recruit ever since has taken, whether he's had enough sleep the night before or not, whether he's ever been away from home before or not, whether he can read, write, or think in complete sentences or not (it's the Army way you hear so much about). An applicant can score in one of five categories. Category V immediately disqualifies a person from military service. Categories I, II, and III are clearly acceptable for service. And then there is Category IV.
Pay attention here. I was category I.
Category IV is where the money was. It so happened during those dark days America was also fighting a war on a second front. The government called this the War on Poverty, and very early on in this conflict it was noted that literally one third of America's young men, if tested for military aptitude, would fail to meet minimum standards. If you'd ever seen this test, this statement would scare the begeezuz out of you. Guess what? A large portion of those non-soldiers came from poor neighborhoods, had little education, and were unemployed.
On August 23, 1966, in a speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars (ahem), Robert Strange McNamara declared in no uncertain terms:
The poor of America have not had the opportunity to earn their fair share of this Nation's abundance, but they can be given an opportunity to serve in their Country's defense, and they can be given an opportunity to return to civilian life with skills and aptitudes which for them and their families will reverse the downward spiral of human decay.
Two months later, on October 1st, as an adjunct to Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, Robert Strange McNamara started inducting into the military men who previously would not have qualified in a million years.
He called it Project 100,000 and it had, one reluctantly admits, a kind of askew genius. A sort of foolish consistency. In the press, the Secretary of Defense gave three main purposes for the project:
- Greater equity in spreading the opportunities and obligations of military service.
- Recognition of the unique capability of the military training establishment to produce fully satisfactory servicemen among culturally disadvantaged men who had previously been deferred.
- Foresighted military manpower planning.
In other words, it was going to be a long and messy pair of wars, Vietnam and Poverty. The time had come to even the odds. The poor bastards (a hundred thousand of them a year!) were all Category IV's from the ten to the thirteenth percentile who had previously been classified as substandard.
Between 1966 and 1968 240,000 substandard recruits were inducted. 41 percent were black. Half had IQs below 85. This was two standard deviations below average, but look what it accomplished:
Lyndon Baines Johnson never had to call up the reserves, that bastion of educated white boys with money and influence, nor would he have to challenge the deferment status of millions of college students. PLUS he got the "undesirables" off the street and onto the battlefield. Away from "the culture of poverty" at last.
Ironically—and I guess this is where statistics and numbers and the stuff I don't understand too well come in— 85 percent of the Category IVs (known as McNamara's Moron Corps to many in the military) who survived Vietnam completed their service in a satisfactory manner, compared with 92 percent of the "controls," the fully-qualified soldiers. The problem, of course, was that many of them didn't survive. Men with the poorest educational backgrounds were the most likely to serve in combat in Vietnam.
Keep that in mind next time you see a guy about my age with a hook for a hand who wants to wash your windshield. He, like me, is probably bad with numbers. But I can guarantee you he's an expert on bullshit.
Lies. Damned lies. And statistics.
A Life in a Year: The American Infantryman in Vietnam, 1965-1972
, James R. Ebert, Novato: Presidio Press, 1993
Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War, and the Vietnam Generation
, Lawrence M. Baskir and William A. Strauss, New York: Knopf, 1972.
Testimony and Report on the
Study of Vietnam War Era
Low Aptitude Military Recruits
Cast-off Adults in America
Thomas Sticht, http://lists.literacytent.org/pipermail/nla/2001/000035.html.
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