What Standards Make Good Soldiers?
... A Veteran of Task Force Smith & Vietnam Speaks

February 18, 1999

Comment: #241

Discussion Thread:  #s 238, 239, & 240


[1] Email from Carl Bernard, Colonel USA Ret. (DSC).  Attached.

Comment #238 described how the military is lowering its educational standards as part of a two-pronged strategy to buy its way out of its recruiting problems (the other is increasing pay and benefits). In Comment #239, the comments of two officers raised the possibility that a H.S. diploma may not be a good standard in any case.

Any combat veteran will tell you that close quarters combat is by far the most intellectually demanding task facing any soldier. In 1949, the U.S. Army posted a four volume series entitled "The American Soldier" that concluded assigning a stupid man to the infantry was tantamount to condemning him to death. So the question of intelligence standards, whatever they may be, is crucially important for humane as well as effectiveness reasons.

I have never been in combat, but I try to learn about it from people who have. Colonel Carl Bernard, a highly decorated combat veteran of the infamous Task Force Smith in Korea as well as Vietnam has been lecturing me for years on how important it is to assign you best people to the combat arms—particularly, the infantry. The email below explains some of the reasons why he holds this view.

Read it closely, Bernard speaks with the voice of hard-earned experience.

[Note to Gunner Cox: Bernard's comments will help to explain why you got transferred from the ASTP program to the 95th Div in 1944.]

Chuck Spinney

[Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, the following material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.]


Email from Carl Bernard (Colonel USA Ret.)

The second threat to the United States is an Army not capable of carrying out national policies. National Service for all Americans could be a critical component for overcoming this situation and preserving our nation's security. Belief in National Service for all citizens has two bases. The most important is to have everyone share in advancing the nation's security and in its well being. My own first and most immediate concern as a soldier is for a long- standing American tradition, a mediocre infantry.

A profound analysis of our "citizen's" Army from War II was published in 1949 in a four volume series titled The American Soldier. Its painful conclusion: "posting a stupid man to the infantry is tantamount to condemning him to death." Simply stated, almost all of our fighter's casualties are in rifle platoons in close combat. ("Fighters" are men who crawl towards some wretch with a working machine gun.) Other military work and assignments are relatively safe. (I've had men with tears in their eyes beg me to let them serve in the "rear," i.e., with the 60mm mortars, about 80 yards behind us.)

The question in a rifle platoon is not are you going to get hit? You are. The questions are when and how bad. But men in this platoon who were Category V (least intelligent) got hit six times, while the persons in Category I (most intelligent) were hit once. And they were doing the same work! (N.B., the research for this work was done before graduate school, the National Guard, and flight to Canada kept gifted persons out of the fighting echelons.) Its proof came when infantry casualties caused the WWII Army to close down its ASTP (Army Specialized Training Program) that lodged talented soldiers safely in universities. Many of these gifted young men were posted to the infantry as replacements.

The research and its conclusions had no impact on the serving Army in Korea or in Vietnam. We did nothing to make our units more effective, i.e., post Category I's to rifle platoons. Denial of the WWII study's findings was far simpler than confronting what they said and finding solutions. Not reading them was even simpler. The Pentagon library's copy was checked out last in 1987. Follow-up work on Korea and Vietnam confirm the earlier work.

Korean era infantry outfits were still loaded with Cat Vs because colonel's drivers must be intelligent; artillery men had to be able to count; radio repairmen had to be competent; and clerks literate. The cost in lives for this failure to have competent fighting units was high; it was also ignored.

This failure was updated in Vietnam. Continuing this policy was a central reason why the "main force battalion" of the 7th Cu Chi was able to keep half a U.S. Infantry Division nearly neutralized (!) for four years. It would take a dedicated conspirator to believe they lured the division's only competent brigade commander into the Bo Loi Woods with one of my prisoners where a booby trapped 155 shell could take him out. Neither his predecessor, nor the successor to this ASTP product warranted this attention, however. Of course, neither of these worthies disturbed the 7th Cu Chi's control of the area any more than did the hordes of USAF craft located 12 miles from their operational area.

This Viet Cong outfit's equipment was 100 years behind that of the U.S. force, i.e., they owned no artillery, tanks, or aircraft. Yet they won. Why? The answer is simple enough. Recall the worst exaggeration of our forces in country: Project 100,000. Our policy of transferring everyone by the time they began to know what they were doing had some prominent place in the Viet Cong's victory as well.

Think about a national service that manned our Army's and the Marine Corps' infantry elements with Cat I personnel. Others from the nation's yearly contingent could serve in the quartermaster, wash airplanes for the USAF, or chip paint in the Navy. Others need not be in uniform to tend our older citizens (catering particularly to those who are balding, nearsighted and more than 72 years of age). Streets need to be cleaned; the domestic and overseas Peace Corps must be manned, and a new CCC would be very welcome in our rural areas.

The walking infantry is another matter, and ours is not up to its tasks and cannot be. Fancy hardware may enrich some contractors; it will only become souvenirs for outfits like the 7th Cu Chi.