“Life is Like a Box of Chocolates”

The 1994 film, Forrest Gump, was a moving and humorous portrayal of a man who was diagnosed as a child with both physical and intellectual disabilities. As the highly romanticized saga of his life unfolds, Forrest attends regular public school (thanks to the persistence of his mother), becomes a college football star, is decorated as a Vietnam War hero, and becomes a spiritual cult figure. The most famous line in the movie comes in its first scene, as Forrest offers a chocolate to a woman sitting next to him at a bus stop. He explains, “My momma always said, Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get” (Finerman, 1994). This comment and others throughout the movie, however, are strikingly different from those in the book by Winston Groom (1986) on which it was based. Groom's reflection about chocolates actually reads:

Let me say this: Bein a idiot is no box of chocolates. People laugh, loose patience, treat you shabby … I been a idiot since I was born. My IQ is near 70, which qualifies me, so they say. Probly, tho, I'm closer to bein a imbecile or maybe even a moron, but personally, I'd rather think of myself as a half-wit, or somethin', not no idiot—cause when people think of a idiot, more'n likely they be thinkin of one of them Mongolian Idiots— the ones with they eyes too close together what look like Chinamen and drool a lot and play with theyselfs. (p. 1)

Another distinctly contrasting portrayal of Forrest Gump in the movie compared to Groom's (1986) book comes in the experience he has when inducted into the army. The movie dialogue between Forrest and a drill sergeant is:

Drill Sergeant: Gump! What's your sole purpose in this army?

Gump: To do whatever you tell me, drill sergeant!

Drill Sergeant: Goddammit Gump! You're a Goddamn genius! This is the most outstanding answer I have ever heard. You must have a Goddamn IQ of 160. You are Goddamn gifted, Private Gump. (Finerman*, 1994)

In Groom's (1986) book, the exchange between the sergeant and Forrest is quite different. Forrest and his mother report to a U.S. Army Induction Center, and his description of his encounter with the sergeant is:

The big ole sergeant be hollerin and yellin at everybody and momma goes up to him and says, “I don't see how you can take my boy—cause he's a idiot,” but the sergeant just looked back at her and say, “Well, lady, what do you think all these other people is? Einsteins?” (p. 41)

There are many jokes about the character and purpose of intellect in military environments. References to the term military intelligence as being an oxymoron, being self-contradictory, are commonplace. What is not commonly understood, however, is the ambivalence that has existed for almost a century regarding the meaning of measured intelligence and the need for troops in times of war. This was particularly true in the United States during the two “great wars.”

World War I and the First “Great” Testing

During the summer of 1917, the psychologist Henry Goddard participated in a project that was to have far-reaching social consequences in American culture. He was enlisted by fellow psychologist Robert Yerkes (who shared his interest in both mental testing and of the heredity of intelligence) to help in the design and construction of mental tests for the U.S. Army; the tests were to be used for the classification of recruits during World War I. The instruments were titled the Army Alpha and Beta tests. The Alpha was a written test for use with literate recruits, and the Beta test contained pictures in order to test those who could not read. More than a million and a half men were given these tests by the end of the war (Smith, 1985).

The results of this massive screening of the intelligence of American males were published in several army reports beginning in 1918. Goddard presented data indicating that 45% of all the recruits had mental ages (MAs) below 13 years. On this basis, he projected that 45% of the entire population, if tested, would be classified no higher in intellect than that of “morons” (otherwise known as “high-grade” defectives). He concluded, given that the average American adult had only the mentality of a 13-year-old child, almost half of the population was even less intelligent. He argued, therefore, that the prospects for universal education for American children were poor, because 45% did not have the capacity to go beyond elementary school, and 70% could not be expected to be successful beyond the eighth grade (Goddard, 1920).

There is little evidence, however, that the Alpha and Beta tests had a significant impact on the actual selection and assignment decisions made by the military during World War I. In fact, Bliss (1919) indicated that examining boards at induction centers often accepted the “high grade moron,” even though he had been rejected by a psychologist on the basis of test results. By the end of the war, an Army regulation had been issued specifying that “a feeble-minded individual who has the intelligence of a child of eight years may be accepted to service in the Army” (Bliss, 1919). This may be an indication that soldiers who had been tested and classified as feebleminded had, in contradiction to the label, performed successfully during the war. Scheerenberger (1983) pointed out the irony that following the war many soldiers who had earlier escaped from institutions, and who served with honor in the military, were recommitted to those same institutions upon their return to civilian life.

War, Testing, and Eugenics

Although Army Alpha and Beta testing had limited impact on the actual selection of soldiers in World War I, the influence of the tests in political and social policy arenas was enormous. Goddard, Yerkes and others sounded alarms, based on the test scores, and called for eugenic measures to control the further dilution of the American intellect. These assertions lead to increasing numbers of people being institutionalized and sterilized. The data from the testing of World War I recruits also fueled the push for restrictions on immigration and fortified the arguments for racial segregation and miscegenation laws (Smith, 1985). Indeed, the World War I testing contributed greatly to what Trent has termed the invention of the feeble mind (Trent, 1994). In many ways the interwar period of the next 2 decades was the zenith of eugenic thinking and its impact on people who were controlled and contained in its name: those who were believed to be a threat to society and have little to contribute to the common good.

It is interesting to examine how eugenic influences began to change in dramatic ways during the next “great war.” The powerful message of hereditary mental defectiveness was being articulated with authority at the moment of the first involvement of the United States in World War II. Edgar Doll, one of the most influential voices in mental retardation at the time, was convinced that it was largely an atavistic condition, a reversion to a more primitive stage of physical and cultural development that reflected an earlier step on the ladder of human evolution. These people, he argued, were not suited for living in a modern world, and institutionalization was best for them and for society (Doll, 1941). To the contrary, it likely came as quite a surprise to the superintendents of some of the institutions for people classified as being hopelessly mentally deficient when they found that parolees and escapees from their facilities were successfully enlisting in the military (Gelb, 2004).

World War II, Retardation, and the “Greatest Generation”

World War II brought a demand for men that often overshadowed inductee selection according to strict and inflexible criteria. At the beginning of the war as many as a thousand men a day were sworn into the military. Soon the army was accepting enlistees who could not read or write as long as they were able to follow simple orders in English (Gelb, 2004; Menninger, 1943). Gelb presented an analysis that clearly showed that the military was much less likely than schools and institutions to label a man as mentally retarded and, thereby, lose a soldier. These were the same men who had been assigned the label for commitment or special education placement for years. The emergency of war and the shortage of recruits changed the perception of the competence of these men. To put this difference of perceived competence into an easily understood context, Gelb pointed out that African American males were almost 100 times more likely to be identified as mentally retarded by schools in some southern states in the 1970s than by the military in World War II (Gelb, 2004).

A report in 1946 on males who had been described as mentally retarded and enrolled in special classes before the war, and yet who had made significant contributions as soldiers during World War II, is revealing of how they were perceived in two different social contexts. Their recorded IQs ranged from 52 to 83, and they had received what was referred to as limited academic training. They had attended special classes for an average of 4.75 years, and 80% had left school as soon as they reached 16, when they were no longer required by law to attend. In 1943, McKeon found that almost 55% of these young men were on active duty with the military. Another 15% were working in defense-related jobs or were waiting to be drafted. In conclusion according to McKeon (1946), “In brief, it may be said that they were found to be a self-respecting group who had responded in creditable fashion to the war emergency” (p. 55).

Mental Retardation and Saving Democracy: Predictions and Reflections

In an address to the American Association on Mental Deficiency in 1944, Edgar Doll, then director of the Department of Research at The Training School at Vineland, continued with his pessimistic view of the role of people with mental retardation in the war effort. Without citing data or references, he said:

Many mental defectives have entered the armed services by one route or another, some with the approval of some of us, and some over the protest of others. It is safe to say that the earnest hopes of the former have been seriously disappointed, while the grave fears of the others have not proved entirely justified. The mental defective at best rarely makes a first-class fighter. (p. 66)

Equally pessimistic about the military promise of men who had been classified as mentally retarded, the views of other institutional professionals on the war, mental retardation, and eugenics included, however, the following remarks made by Ramsey, 1942:

War takes the fit and leaves the unfit. The eugenical impact will tell in future generations when the moron is left unsupervised at home to beget the succeeding generations of our citizens. Logical reasoning can only tell us that such a course results in lowering the general intellectual level of the people of the nation and will argue more strongly than ever for the inauguration of a more definite control plan for the prevention of the defective stocks.

In conclusion, physically strong and mentally stable men of moron classification who are willing and anxious to serve in some phase of the war effort should be inducted …. I surmise that Germany now would like to have a million or two men like our stable morons to throw against the Russian lines. (p. 78)

Contrary to these presumptions and cynical views, however, are the available service records of men who had been institutionalized earlier in their lives and who then served in the American military during World War II. Many detailed accounts of their service are available. A few excerpts, however, are further illustrative of their contributions. Whitney & MacIntyre (1944) reported on “boys” with a connection to the Elwyn State School:

The Tech. Sgt., two Staff Sgts. (I.Q. 59 and 75), and two Sgts. (I.Q. 74 and 91), are pre-Pearl Harbor men representing the Air Force, Infantry, Field Artillery, and Medical Corps. The single post-Pearl Harbor Staff Sgt. (I.Q. 60) is an instructor in the Army Air Force. The Corporal (I.Q. 81) won his rating shortly after enlisting because he had worked as a skilled mechanic during the time that he dodged selective service by assuring his draft board that he was feeble-minded. (p. 82).

In another comment, Hubbel (1945) not only portrayed the success of formerly institutionalized men in the war effort, but also expressed skepticism regarding the validity of intelligence testing in the overall prediction of abilities and life outcomes.

Three of our boys have been promoted to sergeants, several have been made corporals, and one is seaman, first class…. It is quite apparent that in the selection of inductees for Army training, too much reliance can not be placed upon the psychometric test. (p. 137)

A larger study of the issue of mental retardation in World War II confirmed these descriptions. In assessing the performance of a group of 8,000 people previously identified as “mental defectives,” Weaver (1946) found that “half of the group adjusted successfully; performed their jobs well; gained new skills; fortified their personality structure; and became functioning members of the military group” (p. 245). Perhaps it is more important that Weaver summarized the most important finding of the study by stating:

We submit, in the light of our survey, the conclusion that a peacetime society and industry can no longer consider the mental defective as useless. … what a potential force of manpower now returns to civilian status! It is our hope that society and industry can recognize the importance of understanding, fortifying, and utilizing to the ultimate, a human being whose assets heretofore have been considered EXPENDABLE ITEMS (Weaver, 1946, p. 246).

“The Lesson”

Even though the World War II reports on the military performance of enlisted men who had previously been identified as mentally retarded are positive, it is important to compare the actual selection procedures for recruits during World War I and World War II. As was mentioned earlier, the Alpha and Beta testing during World War I had little impact on the selection of recruits. During World War II, the screening for “fitness” for military service included the Army General Classification Test (AGCT). The test was administered to all recruits at induction centers. On the results of this test, men were placed into five classes. Classes I and II included those who scored above average (110 or above); Class III was composed of those with average scores (90 to 109); Classes IV and V were composed of men who scored below average (89 and below). Ginsberg (1959a) stated that

Although the numbers of recruits inducted from each class varied during the war and according to the branch of the military services, the use of the AGCT had a profound effect on the rejection rates for recruits … the rejection rate for “mental or educational deficiency” of 9 per 1,000 during World War I increased to 40 per 1,000 during World War II. (p. 45).

In a landmark study, The Ineffective Soldier, Ginzberg (1959b) observed that the increased numbers of rejections were indicative of a major weakness in basing selection decisions on test scores.

One of the difficulties that the Army encountered in assessing whether a man had the ability to become an effective soldier was to distinguish between those whose intellectual deficiencies were the result of their failure to attend school and those who failed to learn because they were actually mentally deficient. (p. 20)

The Ineffective Soldier was published in three volumes all in 1959 and was the result of a study initiated by General Dwight Eisenhower while he served as president of Columbia University. He selected Professor Eli Ginzberg, an economist, to lead the project. One of the questions Eisenhower hoped would be illuminated by the research was whether men who had proven to be ineffective soldiers during World War II had been given adequate schooling earlier in their lives and whether they gave evidence of prior disabilities.

In the remarkable summary statement that Ginzberg (1959c) wrote at the end of the study, he included the following observations in a section entitled “The Lesson”:

In times of major crisis such as World War II, a people's strengths and weaknesses come to the fore…. In any large population failures are inevitable. But most of the young men who failed in World War II although normal at birth had suffered serious deprivations in childhood and adolescence…. No society can afford to ignore the fact that one out of every seven men was judged to be mentally or emotionally incapable of serving effectively in its armed forces in time of war; or that a significant … proportion cannot support themselves in time of peace. The cost of failure not only to the individual but to his family, to business, and to the larger community is too high to be tolerated by a responsible democracy. (p. 276)

The fictional character Forrest Gump served as a cinematic icon of what this country can be for its citizens: honoring strength of character, rewarding efforts, and granting the equality of opportunity that is fundamental to our national creed. The sense of hope and human victory portrayed in the movie may be a metaphor for these most important promises of the American culture. Indeed, nearly 50 years later we would do well to ponder Ginzberg's (1959c) stunning observations in concluding a study of the military in a time of war. A “responsible democracy” must do more to understand and address the strengths and weaknesses of all of its people in a time, hopefully, of peace.

References

References
Bliss
,
G.
1919
.
Mental defectives and the war.
Journal of Psycho-Asthenics
24
:
11
17
.
Doll
,
E. A.
1941
.
Notes on the concept of mental deficiency.
American Journal of Psychology
54
:
116
124
.
Doll
,
E. A.
1944
.
Mental defectives and the war.
American Journal of Mental Deficiency
49
:
64
67
.
Finerman
,
W.
,
S.
Tisch
,
S.
Starkey
, and
R.
Zemeckis
.
(Producers), &
. (
Director
).
1994
.
Forest Gump [motion picture].
United States: Paramount Pictures
.
Gelb
,
S.
2004
.
“Mental deficients” fighting fascism: The unplanned normalization of World War II.
In S. Noll. & J. Trent, Mental retardation in America (pp. 308–321). New York: New York University Press
.
Ginsberg
,
E.
1959a
.
The ineffective soldier, V. 1, The lost divisions.
New York: Columbia University Press
.
Ginsberg
,
E.
1959b
.
The ineffective soldier, V. 2, Breakdown and recovery.
New York: Columbia University Press
.
Ginsberg
,
E.
1959c
.
The ineffective soldier, V. 3, Patterns of performance.
New York: Columbia University Press
.
Goddard
,
H. H.
1920
.
Human efficiency and levels of intelligence.
Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press
.
Groom
,
W.
1986
.
Forest Gump.
New York: Doubleday
.
Hubbel
,
H. G.
1945
.
Mental defectives in the armed services.
American Journal of Mental Deficiency
50
:
136
137
.
McKeon
,
R.
1946
.
Mentally retarded boys in war time.
Mental Hygiene
30
:
47
55
.
Menninger
,
W.
1943
.
The problem of the mentally retarded and the army.
American Journal of Mental Deficiency
48
:
55
61
.
Ramsey
,
H. H.
1942
.
How the high-grade mentally defective may help in the prosecution of the war.
American Journal of Mental Deficiency
47
:
77
78
.
Scheerenberger
,
R. C.
1983
.
A history of mental retardation.
Grand Rapids, MI: Brookes
.
Smith
,
J. D.
1985
.
Minds made feeble: The myth and legacy of the Kallikaks.
Rockville, MD: Aspen Press
.
Trent
,
J.
1994
.
Inventing the feeble mind: A history of mental retardation in the United States.
Berkeley: University of California Press
.
Weaver
,
T. R.
1946
.
The incident of maladjustment among mental defectives in military environment.
American Journal of Mental Deficiency
51
:
238
246
.
Whitney
,
E. A.
and
E. M.
MacIntyre
.
1944
.
War record of Elwyn boys.
American Journal of Mental Deficiency
49
:
80
85
.

Author notes

Authors: J. David Smith, EdD (jdsmi24@uncg.edu), Professor, and Kurt Lazaroff, Doctoral Student, Department of Specialized Education Services, School of Education, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, NC 27402