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Notes from the Boonies
By Paul Wisovaty
Like other readers, I enormously enjoyed Daniel Lavery's review of Hamilton Gregory's "McNamara's Folly: The Use of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War" in the Fall 2015 issue of The Veteran. As Daniel pointed out, "the pipeline to Vietnam needed to be filled with warm bodies regardless of the law." Thousands of otherwise draft-eligible, white, upper middle class males avoided the draft by joining the reserves (eg., George Bush), while others like Mitt Romney and Dick Cheney ran up a lengthy list of deferments for a variety of reasons. Actually, there is some good news here: would you want to have shared a foxhole with Dick Cheney? I don't think so!
Daniel notes draftees who were "too fat, too short, with medical problems, psychiatric disorders, low IQ's, Downs Syndrome, schizophrenics, and even convicted criminals," many of whose very serious disorders led to unnecessary deaths on the battlefield. Obviously, these young men should never have been drafted, let alone sent to Vietnam. But he failed to mention one group, possibly because Mr. Gregory was unaware of them.
I not too long ago retired after 35 years as a probation officer, and remember, a couple of decades ago, crawling around in the Courthouse basement looking through probation files from the late 60s and early 70s. (I had a lot of time on my hands, OK?) What stuck in my mind was a not infrequent recommendation presented by probation officers, to a sentencing court, that a male defendant "enlist in the military service of his choice." I especially like the last three words of that recommendation. The other options were the county jail or state prison. Understanding to begin with that a community-based criminal justice system has absolutely zero to do with any branch of the armed services, I had to ask myself, "Why in the hell would any criminal court judge even entertain such a recommendation?" Had I ever made such a recommendation when I was working, I am confident that a closed door session in chambers would have followed. But I know that it used to happen, and have trouble believing that the process was unique to one small county in east central Illinois. Unfortunately, the attorneys and judges of record in those cases are either dead or lying around in nursing homes somewhere, so that I cannot question them (or at least the attending nurses aides would prefer that I not try). As much as I would like to throw that back into Bobby McNamara's lap, I will have to give him a pass on that one.
Let's start with the proverbial good news and bad news. I remember meeting a couple of guys when I was in the Army who confirmed that, yeah, that is exactly how they wound up there. It was "take your choice — join up or get locked up." I have no idea what were the specifics of their circumstances (anything from shoplifting to child molesting), nor of what happened to them later in their military careers. Ideally, they would have neither gotten killed nor gotten anyone else killed, walked away with an honorable discharge, used their GI Bill benefits to complete postgraduate work, and as we speak are busy writing columns for The Veteran. Like I said, that would be the ideal end of the story. They would have avoided a felony conviction, gotten their acts together, and taken advantage of some veterans' benefits. And please keep one thing in mind: sometimes young people just do stupid (criminal) stuff. I know this. That does not automatically make them bad people. McNamara's self serving intentions notwithstanding, it is possible that such an otherwise indefensible way of handling those cases might have worked out for the better.
Of course, as Gregory suggests, there is no reason to assume that, and a lot of good reasons to consider the alternative: it almost certainly got people killed. A whole lot of the probation clients with whom I dealt had serious substance abuse and/or mental health problems, as may go without saying. Assuming that these issues went unaddressed by the service (the strong probability), then at the least we can picture a whole lot of less-than-honorable discharges. As Daniel correctly suggests, these "created a stigma making it hard to become employed, and many were denied benefits like health care, housing assistance, (and) becoming homeless." I guess that they must have failed to take advantage of what LBJ and Mac were trying to do for them. Daniel notes that the President and Secretary of Defense actually bragged "that this would enable ghetto minorities ... to learn some skill that would help the war on poverty and (allow them to) come back to a job when the war was over." And I am certain that they said that with a straight face.
I realize that what I am adding here is about 10% of the picture; Hamilton Gregory's account is a good 90% of it. But there's a difference. All of the "guilty parties" which he mentions were components of the system — draft boards, medical personnel doing pre-induction physicals, down to commanding officers in the field. It would not be inaccurate to suggest that they were issued very unofficial, undocumented orders to stamp 1-A on the draft cards and go on to the next case, and that their failure to do so would bring consequences. Witness the "doctor who was fired at the Phoenix induction center because he disqualified men with medical problems like gout, diabetes, kidney abnormalities, and heart defects." That is not the case with county-based criminal judges. They are the 800-pound gorillas in the room. A circuit judge can take a direct phone call from LBJ, tell him to stick it in his ass, and return to the bar at the country club without missing a step. Independent prosecution and defense attorneys, like the judge, knew a great deal about every defendant who appeared before them, because they had the benefit of an exhaustive background report submitted by the probation department. If a defendant had serious physical, substance abuse or mental health problems — suggesting that a "sentence" to basic training might not be a cure-all — it was right there in front of them.
Wait a minute; are we talking about the same level headed, call-'em-as-they-see-'em probation department which recommended "that the defendant enlist in the military service of his choice?" Oops. I guess there was a lot of blame to go around in that scenario. Of course, you could say that about a lot of things in the 60s.
Paul Wisovaty is a member of VVAW. He lives in Tuscola, Illinois. He was in Vietnam with the US Army 9th Division in 1968.