This has always been the defensive weakness of a mercantile society

Sunday, March 21st, 2021

This Kind of War by T.R. FehrenbachThe average man of the infantry companies was a selectee, T. R. Fehrenbach notes (in This Kind of War), and rapidly, he was becoming a special sort of selectee:

The first draft call, in the summer of 1950, was a vacuum cleaner — sprung without warning, it took skilled and unskilled alike, high-school senior and college teacher together; there was no time to escape.

The Army got a great number of highly skilled men, which it badly needed. Throughout all history, only the pinch of poverty or the pressure of the draft board has made men in large numbers enter the ranks; this has always been the defensive weakness of a mercantile society, whether Carthage, Britain, or America. But by 1951, there was little poverty, and the draft pressures had relaxed.

Thousands of young men, with no stomach for infantry war, entered other services to avoid it, generally in the following priority: Coast Guard, which could pick and choose the best; then Navy and Air Force, where skills were more at a premium, and combat dangers — in this particular war — less. The Marine Corps, which had written some of its most glorious history at Changjin, and which kept its standards high, had difficulty recruiting up to authorized strength. For as one high-school student, who had been at the reservoir as a reservist, returned to his old school and said: “For God’s sake, watch where you enlist — the Marines will kill you!”

There was exemption for students, and anyone who could get into college and keep his marks up, or join ROTC, had it made. Parenthood — even ex post facto — was a good out.

Understandably, with an unpopular war that had little public enthusiasm or support, the quality of men left over for the Infantry declined.

By May 1952, of over 5,000 new trainees entering the 1st Armored Division at Fort Hood, Texas, slightly over half had Army General Classification scores of 80 or under — by Army standards unfit for training at any Army school, including cooks and bakers. It seemed an unmistakable trend that only those too stupid to figure an out were coming into the ground forces.

The General Classification Test was designed to have a mean score of 100, like an IQ test, but with a standard deviation of 20, rather than 15.


  1. Vetrani Sui Sunt Circuli says:

    Historically true, the reverse is true for decades.

    The Army Ferenbach wanted has been the army since the 1980s. A high quality, no dregs or trouble allowed all volunteer force. We won’t take or keep drugs, any but one minor criminal offense like bar fighting or speeding tickets [2 speeding tickets a bar to enlistment, true!] and won’t take the bottom quintile [fifth] by ASVAB.

    Ferenbach is literally the author of the all volunteer force.

    As to the inevitable question of ‘why don’t we [you] win wars’; we don’t lose the fighting part, or even the pacification part. We lose the part where we try to make them into white suburbanites, or white urban college campus drones. We can’t it seems kill them or bomb them white.

    Then again we can’t arrest, shoot, jail, educate, job train, rehab or indoctrinate American Blacks or even most American Rednecks ‘white’ either.

    White being defined as WEIRD; White, Educated, Intelligent [on paper], Rich and Democratic.

    So we ‘lose’ wars the same way we ‘lost’ Civil Rights. It’s not possible.

  2. Altitude Zero says:

    And of course, despite all of Fehrenbach’s many (wholly justified) complaints, the old draftee army did manage to “win” the Korean war (in so far as victory was the goal), and won Vietnam militarily, as they never lost a battle. The problem with our lack of victory in war lies elsewhere, with our senior military leadership,and in D.C., although with the changes going on in our current military, I wonder how long this is going to be true.

  3. Kirk says:

    Intelligence as tested in written tests given in classrooms ain’t all that, unfortunately. They’re tools that can give you broad strokes snapshots of someone’s intellectual potential, but… They’re not everything. Not. At. All.

    I was there in the Army for the transition from the “All-Volunteer Force” that wasn’t “working” on paper–The one where the vast majority of applicants and enlistees were the “dregs” of the tested. It was, I will grant you, a different force. I was one of the first of the men that Fehrenbach might have looked at and said “Yeah, that’s the ticket… That’s who we need in Combat Arms”.

    First assignment I walked into as a private, the OPS NCO asked me what my ASVAB GT score was during initial in-processing. After I told him, he condescendingly asked me if I knew what it was, because what I’d told him was way higher than he thought was likely. It was a surreal experience to watch him call in all the rest of the platoon sergeants in the company to fight over who got me, based on that one little score, which flatly disturbed the hell out of me. At the time, I think the average for the junior enlisted in the company on that score was around an 89; mine was not that far off the maximum possible. The only person with a higher score was one of the Lieutenants, and I think I was about five points higher than the one our Company Commander had on paper. Since I’m pretty sure he was a CID plant, I’m not entirely certain what his actually was…

    None of that really mattered, TBH. At that time and place, I wasn’t really that much of an asset, aside from the fact that I did really well on the SQT tests and could do most of the technical tasks that the NCOs had trouble with. In terms of fieldcraft, stealth, and pure cunning? I was literally a babe in the woods–There were guys like our low-scoring Cajun and Samoans who could outscore me on the ranges with ease, and who were far more woods-wise and able out on the ground. Likewise, with most of the (again, lower-scoring…) Vietnam veteran mid-grade NCOs–There were all a hell of a lot better soldiers than I was, and I had to run to keep up with the expectations that that “high ASVAB score” gave everyone.

    The test scores ain’t everything, and I think the Army lost out on a lot of things as they over-emphasized them. I’d rather have a squad that was 90% CAT IIIB than one that was 90% CAT I, based on my experiences in the Army-after-that. The guys I had to run, when it was my turn to lead? Oh. My. Gawd. You have no idea what idiocies the “intellectual elite” can come up with until you’ve experienced them for yourself, and have the contrast with the “old days”. You could pretty much predict what the “dregs” were going to do; the “college-fund” types? LOL… No possible way can you do that.

    I remember being in Germany, and getting locked-down because three Intel analysts went missing at the same time and the same place–I think, Augsburg. They were just… Gone. No sign of them, anywhere. Mass fear and panic ensued, everyone in Germany thinking the Soviets had either suborned or kidnapped them all at once.

    Took a week, but they finally traced them to a beach in Florida. Where they had gone for an observance of the Solar Convergence, they being convinced that when it happened, the end times would be upon us, and that beach was going to be the epicenter of it all. The whole lock-down and kidnapping fiasco was, while the most likely thing (or, so the brass thought…), totally not what happened.

    All three of those characters were people with GT scores above 125, and who’d scored somewhere in the high nineties on the QT, easily and comfortably within CAT I territory.

    Gimme nice, predictable IIIB types, any day, with just a leavening of higher scores to even things out.

    I’m not saying soldiers should be stupid, either–Just that the scores and real-world behavior/results ain’t what all the “smart people” think they would be. Fehrenbach included.

  4. Altitude Zero says:


    This is almost certainly true, as long as you don’t get down to the “McNamara’s morons” level. Incidentally my father underwent a similar experience to yours in WWII.

  5. TRX says:

    “Coast Guard… then Navy and Air Force”

    My Dad opened the mailbox in 1952, recognized the distinctive envelope, closed the mailbox without touching the letter, and moseyed down to the Navy recruiter, who told him the Navy wasn’t accepting any recruits at the moment. [which seems strange, given wartime, but the whole "recruiter" system is odd] He didn’t want Army if he could avoid it, so he drove a couple of towns over to the Air Force recruiter. Nobody he knew knew anything about the Air Force, but it wasn’t Army. Some uncles had been Army in WWII, and they had made sure everyone knew how much they’d hated it.

    He never mentioned Coast Guard; he may not have known they were an option.

    He wound up doing 22 years in the Air Force, so I guess he liked it okay.

  6. TRX says:

    “The test scores ain’t everything”

    The ASVAB is one of the most general of the “aptitude” tests, but it’s obviously slanted to bureaucrat / maintenance / rear echelon pigeonholing.

    I’m a bit younger than you, and went through school when they were mad for “standardized testing.” I probably took almost everything over the years — Stanford-Binet and Weschler, MMPI, ASVAB, SAT, and a bunch I was never told the name of. But none of them would have much to do with what I think of as “soldier.” At least, not a successful combat soldier.

    If I was looking to sort potential soldiers from a mass of unknowns, I’d be looking at pattern matching, visualizing in three dimensions, and ability to work in small groups. But those kinds of tests take time to administer and are tedious to score, and if such tests existed, I didn’t encounter them.

  7. Kirk says:

    When I was an Army recruiter, there were a number of times where the young man or woman who wanted to join the Coast Guard would wind up calling us, to try to find out how to contact the single guy responsible for Coast Guard recruiting across most of northern Illinois and a considerable chunk of Wisconsin.

    Finding him was not at all easy, even for us–As it was put rather pithily, where your “other branch” recruiters would have to beg and cater to the applicant, in the Coast Guard situation, you had to first find him, and then you had to buy him lunch…

    From BS’ing with him down at the Military Entrance and Processing Station, it was pretty much a case of him telling the applicants “Hey, here’s what you need to do… Here’s your paperwork; fill it out, and we’ll see if we can fit you in…”.

    Basically, if he took someone to MEPS, they were enlisting. Period. If they didn’t, then they were never going into the Coast Guard, period–He could get away with that. The rest of us recruiters… LOL.
    Yeah. We could only dream…

  8. Kirk says:

    “If I was looking to sort potential soldiers from a mass of unknowns, I’d be looking at pattern matching, visualizing in three dimensions, and ability to work in small groups. But those kinds of tests take time to administer and are tedious to score, and if such tests existed, I didn’t encounter them.”

    Y’know… I read this while on the road, waiting for something, and I’ve been thinking about it. I honestly don’t know what the hell I’d test for, were I looking for good combat soldiers. I also don’t know how I’d run the testing, either…

    The one thing I noticed about the ASVAB “brights” who did really well on the test was that they were not what I’d term “second- and third-order thinkers”. They were all “surface” folks, people who rarely went beyond the initial layers of cause and effect. That’s the way they’d been trained and conditioned by our schooling systems.

    The old-path CAT IIIB types, on the other hand? Many of them were similar, but there were more of the sort of guys who would look not at the thing, but the implications of things. As in, “Hmmm… That broken branch means someone went through here not that long ago, and they went off the trail about here… Which is a really good place to set an ambush…”.

    The one guy I’m thinking of, who’d spent his entire childhood roaming the bayous and backwoods of deepest, darkest Louisiana Cajun country? Oh. My. Gawd–Dude would be walking point, and could suss out everything the OPFOR guys were doing, and usually walked us all the way around the ambush sites. After the fact, I’d be asking him “Why’d you do that…?”, and he would point out something that I might have noticed, but didn’t think the implications thereof through “in the moment”. He had, and so we wound up ambushing the ambushers because he noted where they’d left the trail to move up on the flanks to set the ambush.

    I’m not saying that that was some really crafty thing, but it’s the sort of deal that gets at what makes a really good combat soldier–Not just book-smart and able to work the gear, but someone who notices things and acts upon them inside the flow of it all, being able to influence the outcome instead of actually looking back and saying “Eee-yeah… That’s where we f**ked up…”.

    It’s all about the timing–The half-ass solution implemented when it can still influence outcomes is far, far better than the perfect solution arrived at once you’re in the POW camp or after Graves Registration is doing their thing on most of your guys. In civil life, that French term “Avoir l’esprit d’escalier” merely means that you’ve come up with the perfect bon mot to put someone in their place too late to do you any good. In most military scenarios, it means you’re dead, dead, dead, and likely took some of your men with you.

    So… Yeah. Gimme men who can think effectively and decisively on their feet, and who can see the way through the fog of war to what’s going to happen several steps in the future. Figure out how to test for that, and I’ll let you keep all the “smart guys” you can find for the rear echelons…

  9. Sam J. says:

    “The test scores ain’t everything”

    Everyone keeps bitching about these test but…what do you think they pay for each test. A dollar?? For a dollar you can tell a great deal about a person. Sure it’s far from perfect but…a dollar.

    There was a bunch of guys I read one time some researchers said they could hook up a EKG to someones brain and flash a red light while someone was looking at it and get the same results as paper IQ test. I think this was just too weird for people so they never made anything of it. It might very well be that something like this with various pictures flashed where people were expected to think of…something, might be an actual good test.

  10. Kirk says:

    Don’t get me wrong–I’ve never, ever said that the testing regime was useless, or that it shouldn’t be used. If that impression has come across, then I’ve yet again proven my thesis that people who do well on these things ain’t necessarily “all that”.

    What I’ve tried (and, apparently failed at…) is to say that the testing regime is not everything and that while it is a valuable tool, it is at the same time an inherently limited one. One should not say, looking at someone who did really, really well on the artificial tests that “Yeah, you smart… You go head of line, before rest of dunces… You better man than them, more deserving… We dumb, you superior being…”. Because, that manifestly ain’t true.

    IQ testing and the ASVAB are to human intelligence what it is to look at a map, and expect to be able to see yourself on it, waving up at the God’s-eye viewpoint the map reader has simultaneously. The map is a “…graphic representation of a portion of the earth’s surface drawn to scale…”. It is not the terrain itself–That metaphor is something we’ve lost sight of with regards to intelligence testing.

    Just as you can use a map to navigate with in the real world, testing can be a valuable tool. It is, however, not the totality of it all. Which we’ve completely lost sight of. It’s like trying to buy a house just using a map–There are going to be things you miss entirely simply because the map doesn’t have the information, or because it can’t be quantified and represented graphically. How do you tell what the view looks like, if the map doesn’t have the vegetation and surrounding buildings on it?

    Trying to evaluate intelligence via testing on paper in a classroom is a lot like that–You get the stuff that the test-writer could come up with a way to quantify, which measures a narrow band of what it is to be “intelligent”, but it misses an awful lot, too.

    The thing I find about all this that makes me see red is the idiotic idea that doing well on the testing is a proxy for virtue–You have a really high score on things, and people are all too willing to trust in you blindly, and oftentimes, try to thrust you into situations that you’re not ready for, experientially. “Oh, he’ll do fine… He’s got a really high score on the tests…”. It’s a double-edged sword, for the person who does well on the tests–You’re automatically chosen to do things that others aren’t, but at the same time, a lot of those things are beyond your actual capability at the time you’re pushed into them. People miss out on how much experience counts in all too many things–You need to have been through some building-block things in order to do really well at more complex tasks, and if you’re shortchanged by the higher-ups ‘cos “smart on paper”, you’re pretty much hosed.

    That last paragraph is representational of a bit of an epiphany I’ve just had about why I loathe the testing regime and how we have come to use it. It’s not that the testing isn’t worthwhile, it is the ends it has been put to, and the misuse. Better, in my mind, that we didn’t have it at all, and relied on other aspects of life like actual performance.

  11. Sam J. says:

    “The map is a graphic representation of a portion of the earth’s surface drawn to scale. It is not the terrain itself.”

    This phrase immediately came to mind,”The map is not the territory”. Maybe you’ve read some Richard Bandler?

  12. Isegoria says:

    Alfred Korzybski famously said that the map is not the territory and believed that ambiguous language lends itself to unclear thinking.

  13. Kirk says:

    This is not the first time I’ve said this, on this site or elsewhere, in reference to intelligence testing.

    Whatever quality it is that we’re talking about when we say someone is intelligent, or a particular act or course of action is “intelligent”, it bears only the slightest relationship to the things that are quantified by your usual run of IQ tests, including the ASVAB.

    I’m reminded of the behavioral psychologists who reputedly set up an environment for testing the intelligence of chimpanzees. They built a total of seven possible escape routes to the reward in their environment. The chimps never used any of those, finding an eighth, ninth, and tenth path to the reward.

    Who was smarter? The chimps, or the Ph.D and his grad students?

    Evaluating intelligence is far more difficult than anyone is really willing to acknowledge inside the industry devoted to it. We’ve warped our society around what amounts to the easily tested and quantifiable features of something that’s far vaster than that which we can test for.

    At this point in my life, I’ve grown so dubious of this entire field that I’m perfectly willing to discount it and ignore the results of any test I’m told of. Look around you–Is our world a better place, with happier people, because of intelligence testing? I would submit that the over-use and over-reliance upon the tests has instead resulted in a dictatorship of the autistic, with people who may do well on the tests, but whose real-world skills and abilities are nowhere near what is necessary, or what was predicted. Smart is as smart does…

    I’ll give you a damn good example, from this morning’s efforts: Reviewing a set of plans from a well-known and prestigious local architect, the HVAC trades guy who didn’t go to college and who “didn’t do well on the tests” and I both discovered that the “did really well on the tests” architect kinda-sorta neglected to account for the installation requirements of the specified forced-air HVAC system this house we’re bidding on requires.

    Award-winning. Prestigious. Did really, really well on the tests at school, has the diploma to prove it.

    Can’t quite figure out that you have to design in room for the mechanicals–And, this ain’t their first rodeo. They’ve been in business for years, and this ain’t the first f**king time we’ve run into this with their designs.

    Yeah, keep right on telling me all about how “IQ testing” and our current regime of “academic excellence” is producing all these workaday geniuses that are making our lives better.

    Frankly, I think I’d rather have a house built by someone who has spent twenty years in the trades, and who has zero academic background. You’d at least have the provisions built in for things like the heating and air-conditioning…

    BTW, those plans? I think I heard that they cost between 20-30,000 dollars. What a value, huh?

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