Monday, May 4, 2009

Tin Soldiers

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young--"Ohio" (mp3)
Melanie--"Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)" (mp3)

Next year will be 40 years and they'll probably make some kind of big deal about it, reassess the situation, freshen up the context, etc. But for now, let us simply remind ourselves of the simple facts: American soldiers killed unarmed American students on American soil. It happened 39 years ago. It happened on this day. It happened in Ohio.

The National Guardsmen who opened fire were never convicted of anything. While I don't agree with that verdict, I tend now to see them as victims, too.

Recently, I read the book 1968 by Mark Kurlansky, a history of a year, and how the turmoil of that year spread all over the world, how the lessons and techniques of the Civil Rights movement fueled the anti-war movement, and then from there, the student protests around the world--in France, in Poland, in Mexico, and elsewhere.

The events at Kent State came two years after that, when the dream of non-violent student activism, like non-violent civil rights activism, had somewhat soured, while the killing in Vietnam had continued, while Nixon's secret expansion of the war into Cambodia had become public and, with it, Nixon's stated need for an increased draft. Students were incensed. By 1970, not only did they not want to serve in a war that appeared to be purposeless and brutal, but they also felt that the inclusion of Cambodia was unconstitutional.

The events at Kent State, where 4 students were killed and many others wounded, remain controversial. Yes, there had been violent confrontations with the police in town, yes the ROTC building had burned, but should the National Guard have been called in? Should they have had live ammunition? Did they turn and fire in self-defense? Were their lives being threatened?

I've read some compelling studies on both sides of these questions. But, as is often both my strength and my weakness, I like to zero in on a particular issue or a particular fact and try to base my understanding on one of those.

It doesn't always work, and it may not work here. But here's what still fuels my outrage: the closest student shot by the National Guard was 270 feet away; most of the others were between 300 and 400 feet away. Now, being a high school teacher and having stood at the sidelines of a lot of football games, I'm here to remind you that we're talking about the length of a football field, at the very least.

I know the times could be violent, and I know that the situation was tense, but 28 of the 61 National Guardsmen who felt "threatened" retreated to the top of a hill and turned and fired live ammunition at unarmed (or rock armed, if you will) students a football field away. The best pro quarterback ever would have hard time throwing a decent rock that far. How threatening was the demonstration?

My dad has the Great Depression. To this day, it colors much of what he is and much of how he reacts to our current situation. For my generation, we have the 60's, with its many assassinations and conflicts, and for someone like me who lived in Pittsburgh, so close to Kent State and the events that took place there, the lesson of May 4, 1970 lingers: our government sent our soldiers against our students and those soldiers opened fire and killed.

Looking at these pictures and hearing these songs, it all comes back for me, the tragedy as fresh as ever. It would be extremely foolish for any American to think that these events are reflective of a certain time and place and could never happen again. We've never figured out what to do with rebellion. Notice, in his response, how Nixon blames the victims:

"THIS should remind us all once again that when dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy. It is my hope that this tragic and unfortunate incident will strengthen the determination of all the Nation's campuses--administrators, faculty, and students alike--to stand firmly for the right which exists in this country of peaceful dissent and just as strongly against the resort to violence as a means of such expression."

--President Richard Nixon's statement on the Kent State shootings

Neil Young's superb protest song and Melanie's romantic interpretation of Woodstock are both available at Itunes.

1 comment:

Lee Bailey said...


Great post! A tragic event that deserves to be remembered with reverance and fear in the hopes that history does not repeat itself.