This past Friday I posted a piece commemorating the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam war forty years ago. Today I find myself reflecting on another tragic event of that war; not a battle fought in some faraway patch of jungle, but one fought on a small college campus - Kent State University - on a tranquil spring day in Middle America.
It was at the very end of my freshman year in college, a year when anti-war protests on campuses across the country were beginning to heat up. I was attending a small liberal arts college associated with the Methodist Church in Florida and there was very little in the way of protest there. In fact, freshman and sophomore men were required to participate in the Army ROTC program. Don’t get me wrong; there was anti-war sentiment on campus, but it never really blossomed into full-scale dissent and protest against the war.
Many of us did participate in the nation-wide Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, on October 15, 1969. Called as a general strike, most colleges and universities refused to cancel classes that day although it was reported that class attendance was down as students participated in various protests. It was a rather bizarre day at my college as it was a Wednesday and all the male students, including myself, were required to wear their ROTC uniforms throughout the day followed by a general drill in the afternoon. Afterwards I dressed in my “civvies” for dinner and that evening about 300 students (approximately a quarter of the student body) gathered outside the ROTC building for a candlelight vigil and sang folk songs before marching to a nearby meditation garden for some more singing. The next day several Florida newspapers ran stories about the various campus protests around the state. One of our group was quoted: “There is nothing more beautiful than the American flag flying, but I believe there is nothing uglier than an American flag being lowered in a grave on top of a casket.” Despite the faulty flag protocol for burial, the point was made. Pretty tame stuff, but we raised out voices against the war.
The students at Kent State the following spring were far more boisterous than our modest protest, and the Ohio National Guard was called in. Confusion and chaos reigned, the soldiers opened fired, and four students died. Who can forget Paul Filo's iconic photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling and crying beside the lifeless body of Jeffrey Miller? The innocence of my generation came to an end that day. On my way home from Florida to Wisconsin that day I Iistened and wondered where all of this was going to lead. President Nixon said the anti-war protests would not affect his pursuit of an American victory in Vietnam. How could it ever be a victory if the government was resigned to kill its own to accomplish it?
A month after the killings at Kent State, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released their single “Ohio,” an haunting three-minute protestimonial penned by Neil Young.
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
Many radio stations throughout the country refused to play it, but I went out and bought it and played it over and over until the record popped and skipped.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
A truly haunting song. Crosby can be heard as the song fades away at the end. "Four, why? Why did they die? . . . "How many more?" I am sure it was a question many were asking.
And the record’s B-side? Stephen Stills's "Find the Cost of Freedom," an ode to the war's dead.
Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground.
Mother earth will swallow you, lay your body down.
I thought back to that quote by my fellow student on Moratorium Day, and to all the flagged-draped coffins coming home from that remote patch of jungle so very far away.
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