Saturday, May 5, 2012

Four Dead in Ohio

Tin sol­diers and Nixon com­ing,
We’re finally on our own.
This sum­mer I hear the drum­ming,
Four dead in Ohio.

— Neil Young, “Ohio”
Go watch the video. I’ll wait.

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.
 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?
Go lis­ten to the video again. I’ll wait.