If you served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War draft years, did you ever hear of McNamara’s Project 100,000? It was expected to beef up the military, but did it really help? Read on and leave your opinion in the comment section.

By Preston Ingalls

We were barely able to source the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq by requiring multiple deployments from individuals and units.  The average deployments per individual were 1.6 for the Army and Marines and 2.1 for the Air Force.  In Vietnam, Army and Air Force deployment was one year while the Marines were thirteen months.  A second or third individual deployment was most often voluntary for career soldiers or Marines.   Also, it was rare to activate a National Guard or Reserve unit for action in Vietnam whereas many National Guard and Reserve units had multiple deployments during Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, during Vietnam, joining the guard was a popular method to avoid the draft; during America’s recent wars, the National Guard and Reserve made up nearly half the forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. No doubt we have spread ourselves thin as the largest military in the world.

With the Chinese rapidly expanding their military (according to SIPRI data, China has increased its military expenditure by almost 800 percent since 1992), and a long list of known adversaries like North Korea, Russia, and Iran always threatening action, could we see a time when the US military could outstrip its all-volunteer military and resort to the draft to provide necessary recruits?

Yes and No?  

When running for reelection, Richard Nixon stated he would eliminate the draft to secure more votes from the Baby Boomers. It worked. He was re-elected and the draft went away.

The origins of his actions were the serious resistance to the draft during the Vietnam Conflict.  In fact, of my generation, the Baby Boomers, 9% served during Vietnam while 91% didn’t.  For those who didn’t serve…. someone had to go in their place. The US was staffing numerous bases, forces in South Korea, Europe as part of the Cold War, and, of course, in South Vietnam, with up to half a million at one time requiring rotating the majority out after a year.  This required over 10 million servicemen during the Vietnam Era.  During that Era, 26 million American males were eligible to serve; however, half or 13 million sought and successfully acquired deferments to avoid military service. 

So, if few wanted to serve, what did we do?

In 1967, I enlisted in the US Army, following a tradition that went back to the Civil War in my family. When I was being tested at the AFEES station in Charlotte, a sergeant jumped up on the platform in the large room of over a hundred recruits.   He then asked for a show of hands of all those who could not read or write.  I thought he was kidding…after all, it was the 20th Century…who couldn’t read or write?  I looked around and was stunned to see about 25 hold up their hands.  Now, half appeared to be Hispanic, but the other half didn’t appear to have English as a second language.  These guys were ushered into a separate room for oral testing. 

Certainly, the Army wouldn’t accept illiterates, but they were because they were part of Project 100,000; Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s effort to lower the standards to meet recruitment needs.   The resistance to the draft was creating a major shortfall with conscription and recruitment efforts.  The program would later be referred to as McNamara’s Morons. I trained with several in my Basic Training platoon at Ft Bragg. Several were literally called ‘mouth-breathing dimwits.’ This picture shows me in the third week of Basic Training at Fort Bragg in September 1967.

Unlike Forest Gump (who was a fictional part of that same group in the novel and movie), many didn’t survive because of their mental challenges…think more like Forrest’s buddy, Bubba, instead of Forest, but both would have been part of Project 100,000.

If you ever watched Stanley Kubrick’s movie, Full Metal Jacket, you would recall the sad portrayal of the dim-witted Private Lawrence (nickname “Private Pyle’) who was brutally tormented by Gunnery Sergeant Hartman because of his inabilities.  He was a classic Project 100,000 recruit.

For those old enough to remember, Gomer Pyle, USMC, was a comedy that portrayed the antics of a slow-witted Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, California.  It played during the mid to late 60s while Vietnam was in force.  Ever wonder why Gomer, as a Marine, was never sent to Vietnam?  The producers found it would be difficult to maintain a comedy in a war and did not want the American public to believe we would ever send mentally challenged men to fight…but we did. 

Here is an extraction from Wikipedia on Project 100,000:

It was a 1960s US military program to enlist persons who were in lower military mental or medical standards.   Project 100,000 (also McNamara’s 100,000), also known as McNamara’s Folly, McNamara’s Morons and McNamara’s Misfits, was a controversial program by the United States Department of Defense (DoD) to recruit soldiers who would previously have been below military mental or medical standards. Project 100,000 was initiated by Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in October 1966 to meet the escalating manpower requirements of the American government’s involvement in the Vietnam War. According to Hamilton Gregory, author of the book McNamara’s Folly: The Use of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War, inductees of the project died at higher rates than other Americans serving in Vietnam and following their service had lower incomes and higher rates of divorce and suicide than their non-veteran counterparts. The project was ended in December 1971 and has been the subject of controversy, especially during the manpower shortages of the Iraq War. McNamara thought he could turn below average soldiers into above average soldiers through use of technology and learning by use of video tapes.

Not all the 350,000 of Project 100,000 participants were mentally handicapped or on the Autism spectrum like Bubba and Forest.  Some were functionally illiterate while some had physical restrictions like childhood asthma, bone spurs, hernias, vision restrictions, as well. In fact, as a 117-pound high school dropout, I might have been classified as one. The minimum weight for Army entry was 128 pounds for my height.  Fortunately, I scored high with my General Technical (GT) at 121 (AFQT Testing) but lack of high school education and the scrawny frame may have qualified me as part of the ‘New Standards Classification’. Somehow, knowing the standards were lowered to accommodate folks like me isn’t appealing, just realistic.

As DOD studies showed, Project 100,000 recruits were five times more likely to die in Vietnam than their counterparts and 3–4 times more likely to suffer from substance abuse, divorce, homelessness, and suicide on their return.

Remember, many of us who served were against the war as well, but as citizens, we still had to honor our nation’s request to serve.  I had a close friend, Mike, a friend since the third grade, who refused to serve and would use the feeble excuse of,” Well I am against this war” to weasel out of his obligation to our nation. It was like saying, “I will wait until a war comes along that I believe in.” Right!  Funny—he never found one that met his requirements.  When faced with a high-risk circumstance, the choice is fight or flight.  Mike’s choice was flight.

I saw most of the war resistance as purely draft resistance, perpetrated by the left-leaning academia and press. It seemed to be a weak argument to not assist the defense of a country (South Vietnam) against the invasion of a one-party totalitarian regime intending subjugation.  But we are a nation that supports war when we, as individuals, don’t have to go. After all, we have been at war 93% of our existence. No other nation has that distinction. 

Remember, 25% of the Greatest Generation had to be drafted to fight in WW2 and that was after our nation was attacked by a foreign power. Previously, despite our nation being assaulted internally and states being invaded and turning on each other; in the North, 86,700 men paid a $300 fee, while 73,600 provided substitutes to get out of the draft during the Civil War. But the most common form of draft evasion was failing to report during the Civil War. More than 161,000 of the 777,000 draftees simply did not show up for service. There were even anti-draft riots in the North where hundreds were killed. We did not have an ‘opt-out’ ability in the South which is why my great-great-grandfather, a migrant dirt farmer from Maine, was conscripted to fight for the Confederacy.  

I recall telling my buddy Mike many of us who went were also unsupportive of the war, in general, BUT we still served because we fought for our nation—not a questionable cause or a foreign country. 

To prove the point the opposition to the war was primarily oriented toward draft resistance, I NEVER recall seeing that same level of resistance or opposition to the invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan. Do you recall any major protest marches?  Outside of the one held on February 15, 2003; do you recall any? Of course not.  The reason is simple: it is because we had an all-volunteer military by then. Look at how weak the justification argument was to invade Iraq (WMD—give me a break). Where were the mass riots to protest that event by those same experienced folks who protested our involvement back in the ’60s? Where were they when we invaded Afghanistan to take down their government and stay twenty years? I mean we had some seasoned protesters who knew how to garner public support. My contention is they were no longer personally threatened with conscription, so it didn’t matter, in their eyes. The anti-war movement appears to be what most felt it was; an anti-draft movement every way you look at it.

Our nation does not hold elections or referendums to see how many support the varied military ventures we assume (102 major ones since our founding) …and we shouldn’t. Our nation provides us with all the freedoms we appreciate but often take for granted. I didn’t go to fight for South Vietnam; heck, I didn’t even know geographically where it was.  I went because my nation called for able-bodied men and I was a citizen. I didn’t join to get a college education either. As stated earlier, I was a high school dropout—college was an impossibility at the time. However, I did use my GI Bill later to help toward my two undergraduate and one master’s degree—I guess you can say I saw the light.

We didn’t have a crystal ball with the ability to forecast the inevitable outcome of the Fall of Vietnam back then, so the rationale Mike eloquently fabricated to justify why he didn’t serve his nation in the time of its need replayed over and over in his mind. He would defend it repeatedly and adamantly with statements like…  “I knew we would lose,” or “I was against it and that is why I didn’t want to serve” or “It was a civil war that we had no business in.”  I think that was a cop-out and used to soften his guilt for not serving his nation in need. The fear of loss of life or limb or the inconvenience of disrupting an early career certainly was the answer to “Fight or Flight” decision.

Fortunately, others went in his place as a proxy…unfortunately many are no longer here or have suffered lasting damage for being there instead of Mike. The majority of the 354,000 men in Project 100,000 went to Vietnam, and about half of those in Vietnam were assigned to combat units. Their death toll was appalling. A total of 5,478 of these men died in action. Their fatality rate was several times that of other GIs. DOD estimated around 20,000 were wounded. Some of the wounded were permanently disabled, including an estimated 500 amputees.

Mike would occasionally write me while I was there and say he attended this protest or that one with the feeble “trying to getcha outta there.” I am sure his argument and opposition were persuasive, back in the ’60s and early ’70s.  He sent me a picture once wearing khaki chinos with creases, deck shoes with no socks, long hair loosely flowing over the collar of his plaid shirt while sipping on a glass of Pinot Noir at the coffee shop near the campus.  I still cringe when I see that picture, knowing the day I received it was the height of the monsoon in September 1969 and I was serving as a radio operator for an infantry unit, mired deeply in the mud of local rice patties. 

In his letter, he was complaining about the government’s choices and presented the logic—I will go when there is a war I believe in! But sir, you are no different than the 25% of the Greatest Generation who had to be conscripted and forced to fight to protect our shores. They had ‘sound arguments’ for their cowardness as well.

I could never bring myself to tell Mike I fought for our nation while he made a choice not to, he knew.  Although we have stayed lightly acquainted on Facebook, I no longer respect him enough to befriend him.   

Society ostracized the Vietnam Vet because left-leaning Hollywood portrayed us as off-balanced and drugged-up losers. However, my favorite sad portrayal was Rambo, a disheveled and tormented Vet who used his military skills to wreak havoc on law enforcement in a small Washington State town.  Ironically, the chief protagonist, John Rambo, was played by Sylvester Stallone, who, in real life, fled to Switzerland to avoid the draft.  

We were often called ‘baby killers’ due to the unfortunate massacre of 109 villagers, led by Army Lieutenant William Calley, at My Lai.  As Seymour Hersh reported in his report, My Lai: A Report on The Massacre and Its Aftermath, ‘Lieutenant William Calley Jr. was a reflection of the type of soldier recruited during the Project 100,000 initiative.’ Calley was a community college drop-out and his men said he struggled with reading the map and compass. 

Our nation felt a sense of distress from having failed to fight the war to a successful conclusion. We were embarrassed about the anti-war movement’s sheer scale was a new experience to the US. We had a sense of shared guilt for deserting our allies, the South Vietnamese, in their time of need, while Congress voted against further financial aid, leaving them to fend for themselves without funds. The Vietnam Vet, or Shunned Warriors, was an embarrassing reminder of an experience we wanted to put behind us, an unpleasant period.  Our image, as a nation, was tarnished by our inability to save a small Southeast Asian nation from the perils of Communism. I believe the Vietnam Vet was an icon of our collective guilt.

I only started wearing my Vet cap in the last year, when I retired, to signal other Vets in my community for the customary “Welcome Home Bro” knuckle bump. The comment ‘welcome home’ is our make-up effort to receive what most of us never did—respect and acknowledgment from those who sent us so they wouldn’t have to go.

According to the Army Times, only 136,000 out of 33 million would join today.  The DOD says only 29% of the 33 million would be eligible for the draft if needed, which is a much smaller pool than in the 60s.  The US has a strong legacy of avoiding military service. Unfortunately, a draft today would have similar dismal outcomes.   But lowering the standards and recreating a new Project 100,000 is not a real alternative.

We need to let those politicians, who never served, know we need to stay within the parameters of current staffing levels. Let your sense of dread prevent a sense of distress, so, no wars can be allowed. 

+Preston Ingalls is a retired consulting firm CEO and served as an RTO and then battalion TOC radio operator for the 1/50th Mechanized Infantry Battalion, assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade and then First Field Force-Task Force South a part of his five-year Army service.  He has authored three books and has written over 90 magazine articles and currently serves as a feature writer for his local newspaper.   

Thank you Preston Ingalls for another fine contribution to this website. If you are interested in reading more of Preston’s articles from this website, click on any of the following links:


Thank you for taking the time to read this. Should you have a question or comment about this article, then scroll down to the comment section below to leave your response.

If you want to learn more about the Vietnam War and its Warriors, then subscribe to this blog and get notified by email or your feed reader every time a new story, picture, video or changes occur on this website – the button is located at the top right of this page.

I’ve also created a poll to help identify my website audience – before leaving, can you please click HERE and choose the one item that best describes you. Thank you in advance!