There’s a scene in the film Full Metal Jacket where a raw recruit joins the platoon and is instructed not to leave the path. He is of limited ability and unable to follow instructions. No sooner does he join the platoon than he leaves the path and is skewered in a Vietcong man trap.
In Apocalypse Now there’s a scene where the young soldier, hardly able to follow any orders, wasted on dope, starts shooting wildly. He is out of control, as much a terrified observer as an active combatant.
And in Forrest Gump the hero joins the army and miraculously manages to survive and do well despite being odd and below average in IQ. The way things work out well for him are fantastical. That’s a device used repeatedly in the film.
The war in Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, and Forrest Gump is the Vietnam War.
You might wonder how men of below average IQ ever got into the army. I knew that people from poor backgrounds, disproportionately black, were most likely to be drafted, but I didn’t wonder at all beyond that. I just watched the films.
But today I watched a talk by Hamilton Gregory, a man who volunteered for service in Vietnam. He was a college graduate, so he could well have avoided the draft. Many middle class young men did. They didn’t have to try hard; there were exemptions of which they could take advantage.
But Mr Gregory volunteered and as chance would have it, he was ordered to escort another recruit to Fort Benning in Georgia. That recruit was educationally subnormal. He didn’t know that America was at war. He didn’t know in which state he had been born.
Hundreds of thousands of men like him were drafted under Robert McNamara’s Project 100,000. That was the project under which young men of poor IQ were inducted each year.
Robert McNamara was the U.S. Secretary of Defence, so it was his call. The army couldn’t get people to go to Vietnam, So McNamara lowered the IQ requirement. He said that the army was one of the world’s best educators, and it could raise the IQs of the draftees. So people who were previously unfit to server were now fit.
In battle they were too slow to react, too slow to understand what was going on, two slow to formulate a plan. They were poor marksmen, erratic and a danger to themselves and their fellow soldiers. And they died in Vietnam at three times the rate other soldiers were killed.
Unofficially, the soldiers in McNamara’s Project 100,000 were called McNamara’s Morons.
Hamilton Gregory was so appalled by Project 100,000 that after the war he gathered evidence and wrote McNamara’s Folly: The Use Of Low IQ Troops In The Vietnam War. And that is what he was talking about in the video I watched.
So now I wonder whether the makers of Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now, and Forrest Gump knew about Project 100,000 and whether they were making a reference to it?
Escape In The Mind
I didn’t really like Forrest Gump that much. I know there was some homegrown wisdom peeking out of that character, some humanity that would not be denied. But I wasn’t fond of the fantastical element because I knew that being saved and prospering is not what generally happens to people like Forrest Gump.
Sure, it has to happen by random chance to someone, even to a person with limited abilities. But still, it seemed like a cop-out, a way of making the audience think that things are good, when in truth they are not.
In contrast, there’s the film Brazil. It’s fantastical in that the world depicted in the film is odd, odd like in a Kafka novel, but yet near enough for us to be able to recognise it. Life could be like that with just a bit of a shift sideways.
There are the scenes in Brazil where a ninja appears out of nowhere to save the main character. He does so repeatedly. He sweeps in just when things look bad. But in the final scenes, in the end we see that these rescues were an illusion, an attempt by the main character to escape mentally from the horror of torture.
Brazil is depressing. The baddies win and there is no redemption. It’s 1984 in film. But I can live with that more easily than being fed a diet of heroism from characters that were three times more likely to die in war than their fellow soldiers.