Four Dead in Ohio
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,Go watch the video. I’ll wait.
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
— Neil Young, “Ohio”
Yesterday marked the forty-second anniversary of the Kent State Massacre. I feel a very personal tie to this event, whether deservedly or not. Let me tell you my thoughts.
It was a different time. Rocked by racial tensions, America seemingly could not extract itself from a bloody, unpopular, and unnecessary war. Protests on our college campuses, and riots in the streets of our cities contrasted with an explosion of artistic expression and new-found sexual freedom. The assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King still burned like open wounds.
I, an impressionable young person, had worked on the campaign of Bobby Kennedy in my own small way. As a sixth grader in 1968, my capabilities were limited, but at least I talked him up with my classmates, most of whom spent their time arguing whether the Beatles were better than the Rolling Stones. Bobby’s assassination changed the nature of my political consciousness. It robbed me of my political innocence.
Amid the tensions and the violence, the world still held infinite possibilities. The first men walked on the moon in the summer of 1969. The Who released Tommy that year. Doctor Christiaan Barnard had performed the world’s first heart transplant only two years before that. We stood embedded in a moment pregnant with history, at the end of a tumultuous decade that had seen JFK and the creation of Medicare and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, Selma and George Wallace and school desegregation.
Richard Nixon promised an end to the Vietnam War in the election campaign of 1968. In November of 1969, American troops slaughtered over 500 civilians, mostly women and children, in the little village of My Lai. The draft lottery began in December, the first American draft lottery since World War Two. The war had appeared to be winding down; the lottery signaled a new surge. President Nixon ordered American troops into Cambodia, and began “secret” bombings there (“secret” only from Americans — the Cambodians certainly knew they were being bombed).
A series of protests broke out on college campuses across the country. Quite naturally: young men of that age would be most directly affected by the war and the draft. They died by the tens of thousands.
Controversy raged across the nation. Conservatives insisted the protesters were simply unpatriotic cowards who didn’t want to defend America. The protestors pointed out this particular war had nothing to do with defending America, since Vietnam was not, and could not be, any sort of threat. True patriotism, they insisted, rested in pointing out when your country was making an error, and helping to correct a terrible course.
We heard, however, that there was something unpatriotic, and perhaps seditious, in criticizing the decisions of a wartime president.
The campus of Ohio’s Kent State University saw protests in early May of 1970. There’s an excellent history and summary of the events here. The protests were mostly peaceful, but there were sporadic incidents of confrontation and violence. The governor called out National Guard troops to contain the protests. On May 4, 1970, in a confusing series of events, perhaps due to the inexperience of a junior officer, the Guard troops opened fire on the protestors with live ammunition.
Four college students died of gunshot wounds from American National Guard soldiers.
I remember the date. My birthday is May 4. On May 4, 1970, I turned fourteen. I spent the evening listening to the news reports.
The headlines on May 5, 1970: “Four Dead in Ohio.”
In two years, my older brother would be eligible for the draft. Three years after that, it would be my turn. The lesson was clear to this fourteen-year-old: it seemed as dangerous to protest the war as to allow oneself to be pulled into that meat grinder. The world had already become The Hunger Games.
My dad told me a story when he came home from work on May 5. For months, a particular coworker had been critical of the teenagers protesting the war and the draft. Conversation around the water cooler (they still had those then) focused on Kent State that day. This particular fellow was almost gleeful. “It’s about time!” he said. “We have to stop these protestors!”
Dad looked at him for a moment. “We’re killing our children.”
The man had no response.
Dad walked away.
It’s easy to get caught in the political give-and-take, the contest of who is on top and who can win. But politics is about people. It’s about lives. It’s about our children and our parents and our brothers and sisters -- and our friends' children and parents and brothers and sisters, and the brothers and sisters and parents and children of people we'll never meet. If we forget that, then our souls have already died.
I’m sure there are parallels each of you can see in my story, parallels to Iraq or Afghanistan, to the Tea Party protests or to the Occupy people, to George Bush or Barack Obama. I want to express an opinion on that, but I’ll refrain. At heart, I’m a novelist. The purpose of a novelist is to tell a true story, and to let the reader decide how that tale relates to his or her own life.
What I know for certain is that my birthday is forever colored by tragedy and fear. Deservedly or not, I have a tie to four college students who died at Kent State, at the hands of America’s National Guard, because a criminal of a president insisted on prolonging a war he had promised to end.
Go listen to the video again. I’ll wait.Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?