Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Forty years ago this week, a volley of shots rang out and four college students lay dead or dying on the campus of Kent State University.
They had been killed by badly trained, badly led, badly equipped troops from the Ohio National Guard. Nine other students were wounded, some seriously.
Some of the students had been taking part in a rowdy demonstration against the war in Vietnam. Some of the students, including two who were killed, were simply walking to class across the leafy green campus.
None of the students were armed. None of the victims were anywhere near the soldiers. Of the four who were killed, the closest to the soldiers was more than 200 feet away, the other three were all more than 300 feet away. To use a college yardstick, these three unarmed victims were all more than the length of a football field away from the soldiers who claimed to have shot in self-defense.
The killing of American students by American soldiers, on a college campus, sent shock waves through an already deeply divided nation.
Authorities reacted by backing the troops. No adequate investigation was ever done. No real effort was made to assess blame. No legal action was taken. The message from the government was that the students had it coming.
The day before the shootings – following several days of anti-war protests that verged on riots – the governor of Ohio said of the demonstrators, “They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America. I think that we’re up against the strongest, well-trained, militant, revolutionary group that has ever assembled in America.”
Among those who sided with the anti-war demonstrations, feelings ran very high.
Less than a week after the shootings some 100,000 people demonstrated in Washington, D.C., against the killings. College campuses went on strike across the country.
This was truly a nation divided.
It is interesting now to look back 40 years and think of the passions then – of students (and hundreds of thousands of others) demonstrating against a war that had dragged on for years, with no real goal and no real end in sight, a war that killed thousands of young American men.
It is perhaps sad to compare that with our nation now, where those who demonstrate most vehemently are protesting – carrying guns, calling for “revolution” – because they think their taxes are too high.
Those who demonstrate now claim they are protesting against the “arrogance” of a president who has kept a campaign promise to provide health insurance for all Americans. The protesters declare that the president has “ignored the will of the people,” because polls say that many people didn’t like the health care plan.
It is hard, under the circumstances, to ignore the fact that the higher taxes we most certainly do face – higher taxes for decades to come – will be mostly be required to pay off our current war in Iraq.
And it is equally hard to ignore the fact that before that war was started, the president – President George W. Bush – specifically ignored the protests of millions of Americans who took to the streets to make their will clearly known. In New York between 300,000 and 400,000 gathered for a demonstration. In San Francisco, between 150,000 and 200,000.
So it would seem clear that U.S. administrations feel free to ignore even the most vehement expressions of public opinion against wars that the government is determined to fight.
And for now, although admittedly I raised the issue, I am going to steer clear of the question of those who protest against paying taxes to help their fellow Americans, while apparently having no problems with paying higher taxes to wage war in distant lands.
With the Kent State Massacre in mind, however, I want to focus on the fact that the demonstrations against the Iraq war mostly took place before the war was launched.
Although anti-war feelings continued to run high, the numbers and vehemence of the demonstrations fell off sharply. By now, demonstrations are sporadic and fall far short of the passions of the pre-war marches.
In the 1960s and ’70s, however, the demonstrations against the Vietnam War grew steadily in size and number and passion over a period of years.
Part of this was the result of the nature of that war: It started small and grew very gradually, so the protests were simply keeping pace.
But the unyielding intensity of those demonstrations was perhaps largely the result of one simple fact of life: the draft.
The soldiers who fought in Vietnam were mostly draftees – and mostly very unhappy to be there. College students knew that, once they graduated, they were very likely to be next in line to be sent off to fight and perhaps to die.
The possibility of dying in a foreign land in a war that seemed pointless and unjust was a strong motivation for those who might otherwise have shrugged and looked away.
Four young Americans died at Kent State in May 1970. More than 6,000 young Americans died in Vietnam that year.
But now our nation and most specifically the youth of our nation are insulated against the horrors of war because there is no draft.
The end of the draft was celebrated as a great thing when it happened. And certainly the all-volunteer army is better educated, better trained and has higher morale than the unwilling draftees of Vietnam.
There is no question that we owe our current soldiers – men and women now – a debt of gratitude and a vote of thanks.
But at the same time, the existence of the all-volunteer military means that an administration can wage war at will, without worrying quite so much about the impact on the nation.
The families certainly grieve. But those who are killed signed up willingly to take that risk.
And the streets are quiet.
That is something worth thinking about on this anniversary of a bitter day in May 1970.