During the 1960s and until her death in 1972, my grandmother took boys into her home from Willowbrook State School on Staten Island. The school served intellectually disabled children but had a horrifying reputation for its treatment of those placed in its care. Boys like the ones my grandmother watched did not suffer severe disabilities and so were placed in the community as part of an effort to alleviate overcrowding at the school.
Although they were older than me, I got to know some of the boys over the years. In fact, I am still friends with one who retired from a job as a dishwasher at a nursing home. Another, John, worked for years as an auto mechanic after leaving my grandmother’s home. The interesting thing about John is that he learned his trade in the Army. He was one of “McNamara’s Boys.”
McNamara’s Boys were so called, because they entered the military under a special program called “Project 100,000,” which Defense Secretary Robert McNamara started in 1966 to meet the Army’s need for more men in combat. In all, 354,000 “low aptitude” men went through the program with most going to Vietnam. Half of that number went directly into combat units where their fatality rate reached three times that of other troops.
Both McNamara and President Johnson promoted the program as a way for disadvantaged youth to learn a skill, work their way out of poverty, and contribute to society. But in reality there existed little political will to send more middle class men to war by ending the college deferment. Despite objections from within and outside the military, the program continued recruiting “second-class fellows” as the president put it.
I remember coming home from school one day to find John sitting at my parents’ kitchen table. He wore a green Army uniform and shiny black shoes. He kept his hat on his lap. My father, who had served in the Air Force during the Korean War, was particularly interested in what John had to say about Vietnam. My mother, not easily impressed, seemed just as taken by him.
As they talked, I watched John, who sat at attention at the table, wondering how he could have been accepted into the Army. I got the impression that he didn’t know, either. But he wasn’t bitter. In fact, I detected pride and a certain maturity in him, which I found fascinating. I may also have been a little jealous. After all, John had grown up before me, and that wasn’t supposed to happen.
When I think of John, I am reminded of another friend who served in Vietnam. Robert wasn’t a McNamara Boy and wasn’t even born in the United States. He and his family fled from Hungary in 1956 following the Soviet invasion. He settled in an exile community in Los Angeles. When the Vietnam War started, he didn’t wait to be drafted but enlisted in the Army and ended up doing search and destroy missions in the jungle.
If you ask Robert why he volunteered for the war when he wasn’t even a citizen, he will tell you that he did it, because he lived under communism and despises it for what it did to him and his family. Then he’ll add, quite seriously, that if he hadn’t gone, someone else would have been drafted in his place and he wouldn’t be able to live with himself knowing that.
There aren’t any winners here. John learned a skill but at what cost to him psychologically? It may not be coincidental that no one has heard from him in decades. The Army did not benefit from having unqualified troops in the field. And the legacy of the Vietnam War continues to gnaw at the collective psyche. In that sense, Vietnam and Willowbrook are linked forever not just in my mind but for many who were affected.
Project 100,000 was a social engineering experiment that went terribly wrong. Even if it had the best intentions, it took advantage of the most vulnerable by lying to them and betraying their trust.
Veterans Day would be a good time to remind ourselves that we are better than that.