Imagine sending a five-year-old into combat

Saturday, January 11th, 2020

Hamilton Gregory, author of McNamara’s Folly, discusses the use of low-IQ troops in the Vietnam War:

I mentioned McNamara’s Folly when Gwern reviewed it.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    There are certain people who won’t tolerate any criticism at all of the mentally disabled. Their justification: “they can’t defend themselves.”

    US efforts in Vietnam were hampered by stupid sentimentality in many ways. The first rule of victory is: do what works. The corollary is: don’t do what doesn’t work. But the best and the brightest threw this out the window because reasons.

  2. Kirk says:

    I’ve been over this before, but not all those McNamara’s Folly guys were actually, y’know, mentally-handicapped. A bunch were just guys with dyslexia who hadn’t been identified because dyslexia wasn’t a thing, and whose minds were perfectly fine, just not able to process the administrivia of modern life.

    I’m sure there were some that were actually mentally deficient, but all the ones who were still hanging around the Army when I entered it in the early 1980s were firmly in the second category of “book-dumb, yet perfectly capable” soldiers. The ratio of mentally disabled to those guys? I have no idea, but I do know that more than a few of the guys labeled as such were not stupid people, by any means. At least one of them made it to become a very effective Command Sergeant Major, and was functionally illiterate the entire course of his career. A couple of others did not do so well, but they did manage to eke out decent careers and make it to retirement in a lot of cases, and did so by adapting the Army to their needs. By my initial enlistment, most of them were co-opting “smart guys” to demonstrate things to them when new equipment came along, and so long as they got the right information during a demonstration, they actually did better than the “smarter” soldiers–Mainly because they were better a taking up the demonstration and converting it into practice. Some people just don’t learn well from books, which leaves them crippled in a non-YouTube society. They did pretty well back when, before the late 19th Century and all the emphasis on literacy.

    I’m still not sure what the hell it is we’re going after with the IQ testing regime, because I’ve seen wildly different results come out of people with similar scores. Some high-IQ types are actively dangerous in their feckless stupidity, and more so than their lower-scoring brethren, because that score lends them credibility and trust they never actually had, while the lower-scoring guys with common sense and good instincts for the possible never make it through the sieve.

  3. Kirk says:

    Harry Jones;

    One of the problems with the way our “system” of dealing with the people it spits out as “mentally handicapped” is that it refuses to avoid dealing with them on honest terms. You get that label of “handicapped” at some point in school, and you’re going to be sloughed off into the backwaters, never to be properly educated in any way whatsoever.

    Me? I’m of the opinion that a lot of the folks who’ve been saddled with that label should have been allowed to find their own level through experience, not assessment. Some of the Down’s Syndrome folks I’ve run into actually strike me as being a lot smarter and way less f-ed up than their MENSA-member equivalents–Which leads to the question of which group is the on we ought to have segregated and ostracized from society. Some of the crap I’ve heard come out of the MENSA set, like plunking down for eugenics and socialism…? I’d rather have that lot institutionalized than the Down’s Syndrome types.

    The biggest part of our problems in society stems from the utter lack of actually examining the effects of about 99.9% of what we do, and then cold-bloodedly acting on what we should clearly see in those examinations. Frankly, if we were doing what we should be doing, the vast majority of these idiot social engineers would have been fired, rendered political non-participants, and then ignored forevermore, because most of what they’ve espoused or put into effect since the 1950s simply hasn’t worked. But, because the silly twats “do well on the tests”, they’ve got this insane amount of credibility and power that they’re given.

    Me? If it was me, looking around at the ruins of Detroit, San Francisco, and Seattle? I’d tell these idiots the deal in very simple terms: “Look around, dumbass… Is anything you’ve tried actually working? Is any of it improving the situation? No? You’re fired, and banned from any political or administrative function within these United States, forever…”.

    We don’t do that, and keep wondering why these shitholes are happening around us. Look not at their f**king test scores, but at the effect of their carefully-planned programs. Do they work? Act accordingly.

  4. Ezra says:

    The man talks about the appalling casualty rate of those inducted under the “Project”. He does not mention the possibly appalling casualty rate of those serving with the Project 100,000 folks.

  5. Kirk says:


    That’s certainly a damn good point, along with the added expense/opportunity cost of training those guys. When you’re having to cater to the “least common denominator” in training, that means that a lot of your high-potential types do not get trained to the point where they’re likely to survive combat better.

    I’m ambivalent about the micro-level stuff with regards to IQ testing, but absent the gods-eye view of what you’re actually dealing with in someone who does poorly on the tests…? I have to go with “Do the tests, use them as we have been, and Satan take the hindmost…”.

    The whole thing boils down to pragmatic potential, and if you’re expending crucial training time and mindspace to those who can’t keep up with the rest…? They need to go by the wayside, and maybe be used only for stateside scut work on the various bases.

    It isn’t that they don’t have military potential, but that they drag everything down, and hold everyone back.

    On the other hand, there is the question of what effect we had on the gene pool by effectively removing a bunch of these guys from it via this “initiative”. Net positive, maybe? Who knows. No matter what lens you look through, though… It was fundamentally immoral.

    Of course, if it was me, I’d be taking sperm and egg samples from all our troops, banking them against them not coming back. Then, if someone decides they want to raise a kid using in vitro and donated gametes, guess who goes to the front of the queue?

  6. RLVC says:

    Kirk, what percentage of your “high-potential” military people radically underperform on the tests? And while we’re being honest, how likely is it that a high-potential individual is going to go into the military as opposed to, say, finance, law, or tech? Perhaps it’s just my bubble, but special operations (and intelligence, if that’s a different thing) possibly excluded, it’s difficult for me to imagine cachet accruing to anyone in “generic” military service. And cachet, as everyone knows, is monkey brain crack.

  7. Dave says:

    Kirk, you are smarter than the entire faculty of Harvard University put together. So am I, and so is any non-brainwashed person of three-digit IQ.

    Modern non-STEM education makes people stupider by teaching them false religious dogma. Harvard’s religion is getting more insane at an accelerating rate, and it’s making serious inroads into STEM subjects as well, flooding them with women and non-Asian minorities and dumbing down the coursework so they can pass.

    The correlation between education and IQ is falling fast and could even go negative. A college degree just doesn’t tell you much about an applicant’s ability to perform cognitive work.

    All across the economy, critical industries are dominated by white men over 50 who got in before affirmative action. When they age out, electricity, running water, and non-radioactive food (thanks to AA hires at nuclear power plants) will become expensive luxuries.

  8. Kirk says:


    That particular marker, “…smarter than the entire faculty of Harvard University put together…” isn’t really that much of an attainment, these days. We live in sadly diminished times, and I fear that we have only to look inward for an idea of whom to blame.

    Mostly, ourselves. And, those who went before in among the ranks of the self-appointed “elites”.

    See, the thing is, we, as a society, do not hold these creatures responsible for their work. All you ever hear from them is the latest and greatest intellectual and social fad ideas, while nobody out in the public ever goes “Hey, we listened to you last time… Why didn’t that work? And, since it didn’t work, why the hell should we listen to you now?”.

    In a traditional economic system (I refuse to use the word “capitalist”), the market provides you with feedback. Widget “A” sells, but Widget “B” does not; Widget “A” becomes the market standard, and the producers of Widget “B” go bankrupt. This honest feedback/consequence loop is what makes a market work, not capital, not money–It’s all down to the signal, which is enabled by the money, but not of it.

    Our intellectual sphere has no such mechanism in place. You can be a respected academic, spouting off nonsense that does not work, and maintain your position for an eternity. Nobody is ever going to come tell you that you’re full of shiite, and that your ideas are crap, because there is no feedback loop from reality into the cloistered ivory-clad towers of academia.

    Same-same with politics. These assholes have been gaslighting us for decades about their desire to “help the homeless”, and despite the ever-increasing budgets, the only thing we get more of is more homeless drug addicts. Oh, and highly-credentialed experts on helping them…

    The key problem with our society is accountability. Look at the current fiasco with the FISA courts: Instead of there being real consequences and actual punishments for misconduct and malfeasance of office handed out, they’re currently engaged in an effort to completely sweep it under the carpet. Short-term, that works out for the individuals and the cliques they make up in our government, but how does that shake out ten-twenty years down the line, when nobody accepts the word of an FBI agent for anything? What happens when the very institutions we need for national security and law enforcement can’t get the members of the public to trust or believe them? The purblind idiots running these organizations have no idea what they’re doing, or where it’s going to end. Same with a lot of the police forces in this country, whose casual attitude towards the lives of the general public are becoming almost cliche.

    I keep telling these idiots that, yeah, sure… Nothing is gonna change. But, one of these days, you’re going to get up, go to work, thinking it’s the same as it always was, and then it suddenly won’t be. The signal may be driving by an overturned cop car that’s on fire in a formerly “nice neighborhood”, and the residents of that neighborhood are standing around and watching the cops trapped inside, doing nothing, just… Observing them burn. Just like they do in the “ghetto”…

    One day, it’s the same as it always was. Then, somehow, it’s different. The inflection point is that sharp, a before-and-after. The trick is to find the contributing factors leading to that inflection point, and fix them before it happens. Which, I’m sad to say, we are simply not doing.

    Today, a degree from Harvard is a big deal. One of these days, the holders of such degrees are going to wake up, and discover that it is meaningless, due to the things we’re all pointing out.

  9. Dave says:

    Kirk, markets cannot provide feedback when banks lose a trillion dollars and the government prints another trillion to make them whole and makes them pinkie-promise not to do it again. With a currency based on nothing, we’ve created an economy without measure, a house built by carpenters whose rulers are all made of Silly Putty.

    The fact that most states (e.g. Illinois, Greece) cannot print money does not impose fiscal reality; it only holds them in thrall to states that can print money.

    Thus the present system will stumble along until a trillion dollars doesn’t buy a loaf of bread. When that happens, things are going to get extremely right-wing, extremely fast.

  10. Kirk says:


    I’ve been waiting for that particular outcome since about the first time they took the deficit over a trillion dollars back under Reagan.

    Here’s what I’ve concluded: We’re in completely unexplored territory, right now. Time was, a king had a finite resource base to call upon. Borrow too much from the bankers, things get real, and your kingdom is toast.

    Now? I’m coming around to the idea that the Long Boom may be real, and the next question is, what the f**k do you do to manage things in what is shifting over to a post-scarcity society?

    Once upon a time, we had 90% of the population engaged in agriculture. What is it, now? I think it’s possible that we have more gays than farmers, these days, and that’s like only 2-3% of the population. What are the implications of that? How much of our population can be idle, and we don’t have basic scarcity issues? How much of our workforce is tied up in stupid make-work like government regulation and other BS?

    Frankly, I have no idea about any of this. I look around, and the main question I have is how the hell this whole house of cards didn’t collapse at some point starting thirty years ago, and I’m beginning to conclude that the rules which were in force as recently as the 1960s may no longer be in play.

    Ask yourself this: WTF happens when Elon Musk decides to “break the world” by hauling back an asteroid’s worth of raw materials? What happens when you don’t have the Chinese monopoly on “rare earth” elements, because it’s all coming in from deep space? How do we manage the whole deal when cheap, ubiquitous fusion energy (or, something completely out of context, like zero-point energy) comes on-line? Did anyone see the fracking revolution coming?

    I’d love to go back to about 1985 and hand someone a detailed perspective on what was going to happen in the next fifty years. Tell them that the Soviet Union was going to fold, take it’s toys, and go home? That the Saudis would host a half-million screaming infidels on their territory, to fight another Arab state they’d sponsored and financed? Describe the US as a net exporter of oil and natural gas by 2020?

    Yeah. If you’d walked in to Reagan’s White House with that as an intel briefing, you’d still be in a rubber room with a thorazine drip.

    Given that? I’m not predicting shit. Ever.

    Hell, at this point? I’d buy off on the Reptiloids from Gamma 12 having been giving economic advice behind the scenes, and that we’re being set up for harvest, or something equally bizarre and unlikely.

    Because, frankly, if all that crap you name really mattered? The whole shoddy edifice should have cratered twenty-thirty years ago.

  11. CVLR says:

    Kirk, you get a hearty LOL from me. It’s rather difficult to disagree, as well. On anything: rubber room, Long Boom, free energy, or Reptiloids from Gamma 12.

    But there is one thing: don’t self-denigrate; there are some really, really smart people at Harvard. Such as, for example, Dr. Cornel West, perhaps one of history’s most compelling speakers.

    You’re a smart dude.

  12. Dave says:

    Yeah, it’s hard to imagine an economic collapse affecting the most over-fed, over-housed, over-educated, over-medicated, over-entertained people in the history of the world.

    Asteroids are irrelevant because we’re not running out of raw materials, we’re running out of good people. Half the kids in my rural white community have daddies in prison. With no resource constraints, natural selection has been replaced by female sexual selection, causing us to evolve into violent imbeciles obsessed with sex and bling.

    At some point those fecund imbeciles will be breaking more things than competent people are able to fix.

  13. Kirk says:


    Takes fewer and fewer competent people to keep things running. The world has always relied on the “ten percent” of actual doers.

    I have no idea where things are going, but I’m no longer going to allow myself to wallow in the despair of the late Cold War. Had you described the world of today to the “me” of the early 1980s, I’d have thought this some sort of utopian paradise. I’d have been incredulous that the world was no longer split up into a bipolar system between nuclear-armed idiots with their toys on a hair-trigger.

    So, yeah… From my perspective, things aren’t so bad. We’ve muddled through this far, we’ll likely keep muddling along.

    Oh, and by the way…? Consider this: The folks you’re bemoaning the passage of? They are, by and large, the authors of most of our problems, right along with those good things you mention. I’m not sure we should bewail their passing, especially in the elite classes. The amount of damage that the boomer generation and its immediate followers did to the body politic and the intellectual commons is past measurement, and we may do better once they shuffle off into the sunset.

    Or, not.

  14. Isegoria says:

    I’m reminded of C. M. Kornbluth’s The Marching Morons, which inspired Mike Judge’s Idiocracy.

  15. Dave says:

    This explains the persistence of Asperger genes despite their carriers having poor social skills, difficulty finding mates, and a high percentage of useless autistic children.

    Intelligent non-spergs are highly attuned to social expectations. Their fierce competition for status sometimes escalates into a holiness spiral as everyone strives to be more “progressive” than everyone else. Society then becomes a stampede of lemmings racing each other into the sea, leaving the spergs behind to re-populate.

    “I don’t understand! Why don’t you let [the morons] go to hell in their own way?”

    “We tried it once for three months. We holed up at the South Pole and waited.

    “In a week there was hunger. In two weeks there were famine and plague, in three weeks war and anarchy. We called off the experiment; it took us most of the next generation to get things squared away again.”

    “But why didn’t you let them kill each other off?”

    “Five billion corpses mean about five hundred million tons of rotting flesh.”

    So what? Wait another two months and it’ll be one hundred million tons of dry bones that you can crush into fertilizer.

  16. Kirk says:

    Yeah, see… Things don’t really work the way Kornbluth and his fellow elitist scum of that era think they do.

    Think “Mike Rowe”, who’s discovered the reality: The high-functioning Asperger Syndrome types have a role, but it’s not the one they all think they have. Like anything, they’re just tools. When you get down to it, the world runs on about ten percent of the population actually doing anything effective to keep things running and make any sort of progress. The other eighty percent are just along for the ride, with another ten percent who are actively dragging things down.

    Most of the people who think they’re really, really smart… Aren’t. They all want to make believe they’re Elon Musk, but Musk is a once-a-generation sort of phenomenon. The “schmot guys” can do as much harm as the stupid, and, indeed, sometimes can do damage far out of proportion to their actual position in society. Consider the case of Thomas Midgley, Jr..

    Considered him, yet? Do you even know who the hell he was, and what he did?

    Midgley was the “genius” chemist who invented and helped popularize tetraethyl lead as an anti-knock additive to gasoline. His brilliant invention (and, he well knew the hazards of lead poisoning, so it’s not like he didn’t know…) probably lead to the crime boom of the mid-20th Century, and decades of degradation to human mental performance around the world.

    For an encore, he invented Freon.

    Y’all keep right on thinking that these sorts of functional dolts are key and essential to the functioning of society. Me? I’m gonna vote for guys like my plumber as being more important to keeping civilization running, and less damaging than men like Mr. Midgley…

  17. Dave says:

    Or Norman Borlaug, the genius who abolished hunger, feeding a worldwide population explosion of the hominids least related to Norman Borlaug.

    My earlier comment about “critical industries dominated by white men over 50 who got in before affirmative action” wasn’t so much about inventors and CEOs; I was referring to the sheer numerical dominance of guys like your plumber.

  18. Kirk says:

    Would we be better off, if Borlaug hadn’t enabled the population boom in Third World countries, allowing them to exceed their actual inherent carrying capacity?

    I’m not sure if Borlaug is actually a hero, TBH. If he’d never done his work, all those African invaders on the borders of Europe would never have been born.

    We started testing for IQ back around the turn of the last century. What we should have been seeking out, instead of “intelligence”, was a “wisdom quotient”.

    Some “intelligent” people are dangerous far out of proportion to their places in society, not least because we keep ascribing things to them that they just aren’t capable of. “Expert” does not mean “Knows best”, just that the possessor of that title has been acclaimed as “brilliant” in their field of endeavor–As opposed to “wise in the way of” and “cognizant of the effects”.

    It’s a framing issue; we test for IQ, whatever the hell that is, and frame it as virtue. It’s no such thing; the results of that misapprehension are all around us.

  19. Dave says:

    Testing for IQ, or any other trait, gets really hard as soon as real rewards are attached to the outcome. No test is so well-designed that motivated people won’t figure out a way to game it.

    E.g. if you rank your e-mail contacts by the quality of their spelling and vocabulary, you’ll have a pretty accurate IQ ranking, because smart people tend to read a lot. But you won’t find the nation’s smartest youth at the National Spelling Bee, because its trophies go to kids willing to grind the months away memorizing dictionaries.

  20. Kirk says:


    I think there are some useful things we can tease out of IQ tests, but there are a lot of illusions/delusions about much of the information we think we’ve elucidated from them and developed uses for, across society.

    I’m also very dubious of the proposition that spelling and so forth are good proxies for actual wisdom-intelligence (call it “AWI”, as opposed to “IQ” from the tests). Dyslexia, anyone…? Plus, look at the typical pedantic ass that constantly corrects other people’s grammar and spelling–Does that have a place out of elementary school? Is such a “grammar Nazi” really smarter than the people they correct constantly, or are they just boorish assholes playing one-up games because they’re insecure or OCD?

    The longer I live, the less actual faith I have in things like IQ tests, and the more interest I have in real-life performance evaluation. OK, great–You do well on tests. Wonderful. Now, let’s see how you actually manage to perform, and what the long-term results of your work are. Do you take into account second- and third-order effects? Do you look at the larger picture, and do you appreciate the impact of what you do on issues that are not related to your work on the surface level? How well do you work with others? Are you an effective team player, and what role do you normally play in a team setting?

    This is all stuff that is far more important than some score you achieved on an abstract test. What you achieve has little or nothing to do with how well you do on those damn tests, but we’re using them to cut off people’s potential all the damn time. We’ve turned the IQ test into a self-licking ice cream cone, and we can see the deleterious effect of that all around us in today’s massively warped society.

    Make me king for a day, and one of the first things I’d do is eliminate the entire “test regime” from top to bottom. While tests can be useful, the root issue is that they’re like Marshall McLuhan’s map–They’re a representation of a slice of information about a person’s potential, not the whole of it. Maps are symbolic representations of reality, not reality itself. There’s no little man on a map waving up at you from where you are standing, and the IQ test is similarly assumed to be such a thing, when it is not.

    Until we can test for wisdom and judgment, the whole regime needs to be thrown out, and replaced with a results-oriented evaluation set. Just because you “test well” is no damn reason to think that you’re any more or less fit for some position in society.

    What we’ve basically done is turn everything into a utopia for kids “who test well” and who “do well in school”, and without having taken care to ensure that the tests and the schools are actually reproducing the environment they will have to function in, we’ve utterly warped the hell out of society, because these “do well in school” types consistently try to make society look like school, instead of putting the horse out in front of the cart where it belongs.

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