Monday, May 04, 2015

"Four Dead In Ohio:" A Personal Reflection on May 4, 1970

 I graduated from high school in June 1969. The Vietnam War was at its bloodiest—at least for the United States. Getting drafted into the army didn’t sound like a good career trajectory for me. I mean, almost seventeen thousand Americans died in the war my senior year. While I was morally ambiguous about shooting—really shooting—another human being, I knew I didn't want to be shot myself! I was self-centered that way.

Then came May 4. Just one week before my birthday. Just up the road from where I attended college. On that day members of the Ohio National Guard fired sixty-seven rounds in thirteen seconds into unarmed protesters (the closest of whom was one hundred feet away), some of whom were throwing rocks and National Guard tear gas canisters back at guardsman. Four students died. Nine others were wounded. Two of those killed weren’t even protesters—just students walking to class. One of them was a member of Kent State ROTC!


“Collateral damage,” as the Pentagon says today.

I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that, if drafted, I might be called on to shoot my fellow citizens. I mean, shooting foreigners in a jungle was one thing! But our own people? I also knew I might just do it if they riled me up enough. Throw some rock at me and I might just do more than point my M1 Garand rifle at you. Rock may beat scissors. But a .30-06 bullet beats rock. And kills you.

I was afraid to fight.

I was afraid I might like fighting too much.

That second fear scared the crap out of me. What if I did like it—a lot? And went on a real killing spree—even if it was sanctioned by my nation? I’d read Luke 22:49–51:

When Jesus’ follower saw what was going to happen, Brent said, “Lord, whom do You want me to shoot?” And then Brent fired and struck the servant of the high priest, shooting off his right ear.

But Jesus answered, “No more of this, you doofus!” And He touched the man’s ear and healed him. (NBBV)

Reading the Bible always gets me in trouble.

While I’d always taken my Christian faith seriously (very seriously, for someone who was so bad at it), I began trying to figure out if faith meant something in my day-to-day life. Not in the abstract. Not for others. For me. Especially around the issues of peace and war. A question that kept coming was, Whom would Jesus shoot? The events of May 4 began to work on me subtlety. As did Jesus' words.  Slowly, but inexorably I moved toward peace -- and not as a political stance, but as a religious response.

My move toward peace and away from soldiering was furthered when I came across the words of seventeenth-century Quaker Robert Barclay:

Whoever can reconcile this, “Resist not evil”, with “Resist violence by force”, again, “Give also thy other cheek”, with “Strike again”; also “Love thine enemies”, with “Spoil them, make a prey of them, pursue them with fire and the sword”, or, “Pray for those that persecute you, and those that calumniate you”, with “Persecute them by fines, imprisonments and death itself”, whoever, I say, can find a means to reconcile these things may be supposed also to have found a way to reconcile God with the Devil, Christ with Antichrist, Light with Darkness, and good with evil. But if this be impossible, as indeed it is impossible, so will also the other be impossible, and men do but deceive both themselves and others, while they boldly adventure to establish such absurd and impossible things.

Yeah, the language is stilted, but I caught the drift. I couldn't make those things fit together. For me they were at completely opposite ends of the war/peace spectrum. So what was an eighteen-year-old boy to do? Hell, forget the hypothetical eighteen-year-old—what would I do if drafted?

Would I fight and deny my slowly growing faith and belief that as a follower of Jesus I shouldn’t shoot anybody?

Would I serve as noncombatant?

The issue was decided on the draft lottery of July 1, 1970. My birthdate was number 293. I was beyond the range of those who would be called.

Josiah Strong once said there is a popular faith that “God takes care of children, fools and the United States.” I don’t believe God takes special care of the United States, but God seemed to take care of this poor fool at that time. Perhaps to give me time to work on my decidedly unpeaceful nature.

I'm ashamed to this day that it wasn't the deaths of almost 60,000 Americans in the conflict that around my age that moved me. Or 200-250,000 South Vietnamese military personnel. Or 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. Or 2 million civilians from South and North Vietnam. At the time, I thought, "Well, that's war. And it's a long way away from me."

What began my awakening were the deaths of four college students in northeastern Ohio.  Four students just like me. Well, most of them were much more socially aware than me.  Which also shames me as a I look back.

But look back today I do. I am far from perfect. Far from peaceful. But my hurt hurts today -- both from the memory of that day and the events of these days.

When I was that longish haired freshman, some friends and I sang in a folk-rock band. And one of the songs we used to love to sing was "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" by Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson.

Where have all the flowers gone,
Long time passing,
Where have all the flowers gone,
Long time ago,
Where have all the flowers gone,
Picked by young girls every one,
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the young girls gone,
Long time passing,
Where have all the young girls gone,
Long time ago,
Where have all the young girls gone,
Gone to young men every one,
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the young men gone,
Long time passing,
Where have all the young men gone,
Long time ago,
Where have all the young men gone,
Gone to soldiers every one,
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the soldiers gone,
Long time passing,
Where have all the soldiers gone,
Long time ago,
Where have all the soldiers gone,
They've gone to graveyards every one,
When will they ever learn?
When will they ever learn?

Where have all the graveyards gone,
Long time passing,
Where have all the graveyards gone,
Long time ago,
Where have all the graveyards gone,
Gone to flowers every one,
When will we ever learn?
When will we ever learn?

After May 4, 1970, I was struck by the irony of how we'd sung the words cluelessly, innocently, stupidly -- just some kids in a band.  "Entertaining" fellow students in coffee houses. Fellow students like the four dead up the road in Ohio.

"When will we ever learn."

2 comments:

Melanie Griffin said...

Thanks for this moving piece. I also honored the day with a blog:
https://melanielynngriffin.wordpress.com/2015/05/06/my-first-protest-may-6th-1970/

Brent Bill said...

Thanks for sharing, Melanie.