May, 1970 was a turbulent time in the U.S. with students protesting the war in Vietnam on campuses all around the country, most infamous among them, Kent State University (Ohio), where National Guardsmen killed four students and wounded another nine. No arrests or convictions ever resulted from the incident and, to my knowledge, the soldiers remain anonymous.
Having been out of Vietnam for less than three years, seeing fallen American citizens on American soil forced me to realize how fragile my own psyche had become. The paragraphs below follow no particular order. Rather, they are a stream of what I recall as my consciousness at the time.
Students. I was in my final semester, a month away from graduation. One of my courses, the last elective I had, was “Government and Politics in the Far East.” There were no anti-war events on my campus, ever, that I was aware of. About to enter the civilian workforce as a teacher, I thought I had gotten my life pretty much back on track. As if Vietnam didn’t really happen, didn’t really affect me. Kent State forced me to recall wicked thoughts. Over there our jungle fatigues identified us as U.S. soldiers, and every day we encountered any number of Vietnamese in civilian white or black “pajamas.” Some could have been VC, we just never knew. Just so at Kent State, young men in military garb identified them on campus as soldiers, not one of the civilians, however, not one was an enemy.
Citizen Soldiers. America has a long-standing tradition of fighting wars with so-called citizen soldiers. Think “draft.” The National Guard now carries that burden ever since the institution of an all volunteer military. Although many NG units deploy to our various war zones today, that was the exception during Vietnam. So when the NG was called out to do whatever they were supposed to do at Kent State, I’m pretty sure that they were not trained to do it. They were certainly not trained in riot control, as proved by their use of lethal force. Drilling one weekend each month does not a combat soldier make. But carrying a rifle–in this case with fixed bayonets–often changes the bearer’s perspective. The “we” versus “them” mentality starts to take over. And as in actual combat, “they” become nameless, faceless, demonized enemies. I believe the weekend warriors got scared.
Anonymity. A whole bunch of draft age males in the ’60s and ’70s decided to enroll in college to attain the 2-S (student) deferment. Ironically, many of their counterparts thought the way to avoid Vietnam was to join the National Guard. And so it is possible, maybe even likely, that some percentage of the Guardsmen were against the war as much as the student protesters they confronted. It is also possible that some of the soldiers were students themselves. We will never know. The Pentagon decided right at the start that it would not reveal specifics, including names, about this horrible incident. The riot formation took on a life of its own; it wasn’t a group of men. Individuals did not lower their rifles to point blank range and shoot. It was the robotic monolith that reacted to a perceived threat. The government ordered the NG to somehow disperse the growing presence of students gathering on campus to protest the war. The NG is a legal arm of government. Government can decide whether to provide or withhold information regarding criminal investigations. Government has chosen not to reveal any names of NG participants, and apparently it has decided that no crime occurred and therefore there will never be a judicial action in this case. Soldiers in combat zones are briefed for every mission on the “rules of engagement” with the enemy. I wonder if the NG commander issued such orders to his men.
Chain of Command. I am sure that the Governor of Ohio did not authorize or anticipate the actions that resulted in loss of life at Kent State University. But he does have the authority to “call out the Guard” when he thinks it necessary. I can say from experience that riot training is difficult. Maintaining close order formation is critical: no breaches. Projection of potential power, weapons, is also used hopefully to intimidate the rioters. The guys on the outer perimeter with the protective shields are not intended to be shooters. There is a marksman or maybe two inside the human wall: he is the shooter and his orders to fire come directly from the senior officer within the formation. In order to hit 13 human beings with bullets means that respect for the chain of command broke down. Because there had to be more than two shooters firing so many rounds, protocol was ignored–or maybe never learned–and the commander obviously lost control of his unit. Whatever the scenario that actually occurred, the result is more than inexcusable. It is criminal and should have been treated that way, right away.
PTSD. Those who were fired upon or who witnessed the carnage on campus have surely had their sleepless nights. What about the National Guardsmen? Imagine carrying around the knowledge, for nearly a half-century, that you shot and killed an unarmed student. Imagine that you have to keep this knowledge to yourself, talk to no one about it, have no way to process the entire episode. Try this totally fictitious profile of a Guardsman: Tom, male, Caucasian, 20, PFC Army National Guard for six months, part-time truck driver, part-time college student, girlfriend, lives at home with his widowed mother. With whom does he confide? How does he cope: drugs, alcohol, social withdrawal, anger? Does his sense of guilt go away, ever? Should it?
Lessons Learned. The Kent State Massacre reminds me of what normal, law abiding citizens can do when they find themselves in extraordinary situations. The National Guardsmen did not set out to go on a shooting spree on a college campus that day. But they did. The men in uniform were sent on a mission they were not prepared to conduct. But they followed orders and showed up in all their regalia. People die in wars, but we don’t expect that our soldiers will kill our own people. But they did. Most important to me is the lesson we should learn. Politicians and warmongers tend to decry those who oppose war by calling them “anti-soldier.” They are dead wrong. Those same politicians and warmongers are not “pro-soldier,” they are “pro-war.” Wars are not fought for the sake of the soldier. But soldiers die for the sake of those who send them.