By Dr. Thomas G. Sticht
International Consultant in Adult Education
Over the years, I have observed that while Memorial Day tributes will be given to special groups—the battalions of the Army and Marines, the battle groups of the Navy, the air wings of the Air Force, and others—one group of service members will go largely unnoticed and unappreciated. Indeed, they were unwanted to begin with, and only used when the demands for manpower at the front became so great that the military services had to use them. They are the undereducated, marginally literate young adults who score between the 10th and 30th percentiles at the lower end of the military's bell curve of aptitude, known in military personnel circles as “Category IV’s” and in other, less professionally restrained circles as “dummies.”
Though they have always been enlisted to fight in major wars when bodies are needed in the front lines, to serve as what some derisively call “cannon fodder,” most undereducated, less literate young adults have been excluded from serving in the armed forces during peacetime, when the benefits of medical care, education, training, and travel are available without the constant threat of being killed in war. Perhaps the most pernicious use of undereducated young adults came during the Vietnam War.
In August of 1966, Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara stood before the Veterans of Foreign Wars and announced that in addition to fighting the war in Vietnam, the military was also going to help fight President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, at home. They would start taking in hundreds of thousands of undereducated, disadvantaged young men who were being rejected for service because their Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) scores were at the lower end of the military's AFQT bell curve distribution. Because the plan was to enlist about 100,000 low-literacy recruits a year, it was called Project 100,000. The men recruited under the project became officially known as the New Standards personnel. Unofficially, I was told by Mr. McNamara in an interview in 1985, they were called "McNamara's Moron Corps."
The Project 100,000 recruits worked under the stigma of demeaning stereotypes and prejudice developed in the 20th century for those who score low on standardized mental tests. Speaking at Defense Appropriations hearings in 1965, Sen. Leverett Saltonstall upheld this tradition in a reply to a statement about the "lower mental groups" made by General Earle Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"What you are saying, General, is that, in substance, the great problem that we face throughout this country today when we see these terrible crimes that are being committed everywhere are being committed by the lower mentality which you say, and I agree with you, you have kept out of the Army and, therefore, you have a lower disciplinary area in the Army because they have a higher intellect. Those poorer ones are cluttering up our jails and committing crimes and attacking women today."
These stereotypes of the "lower mentality" persist to the present day, when as recent as February 17, 2006, The New York Times carried an op-ed piece critical of Project 100,000 under the large, bold font title saying, "Don't Dumb Down the Army."
But despite the negative feelings and beliefs about the less literate service members of Project 100,000, an extensive reanalysis of their performance revealed that over 90 percent completed both their basic military and job training with no problems, 97 percent had no problems with military justice, and some 84 percent completed their tour of duty with well over 80 percent being rated as “good” or “highly effective." Over 1,300 gave their lives for their country and presumably their names are on the wall of the Vietnam War Memorial along with the more than 50,000 other names of those who died serving our nation. Among these names there are those of Irish, English, Italian, Jewish, Native American, African American, Hispanic, and other ethnic descent, but there are no names of "morons" on this wall!
Analyses indicate that not only were the Project 100,000 personnel highly successful as military members, they also were successful after leaving the military. They rose from living in poverty before their service to earning incomes and supporting their families well above poverty levels some 20 years later.
In 1966, the same year that Project 100,000 was announced, the U. S. Congress passed the Adult Education Act, which for the first time created a joint federal and state supported education system for out-of-school, poorly educated adults. Nowadays some 3 million adults participate yearly in the Adult Education and Literacy System, which provides the best education services it can with an obscenely low, poverty funding level of less than $850 per enrollee. This at a time when we spend an average of over $20,000 per higher education student and over $8,000 per K-12 student.
This Memorial Day, we should remember the service of those undereducated military men who served honorably, with many giving their lives for the society that has repeatedly cast them off as unfit. We should demand the resources to provide our undereducated adults with the greatest adult education system in the world. When the cry for citizen soldiers goes out, when the time to put their lives on the line comes around, these low scoring citizens of the bell curve are there and they serve their country competently and honorably.
What could be a greater, living memorial to the many undereducated adults who have fought for our freedom than a great educational system in their memory. They deserve no less.