Kent State Review

By | Monday, September 28, 2020 Leave a Comment
Kent State cover
The Kent State shootings took place a couple years before I was born, so I missed the immediacy and intensity of the events themselves, but I grew up about an hour away from the Kent State campus and the shadow of those events was still visible. Not that people were bringing it up every day a decade or two later, but it was impossible to be unaware of it if you spent any time in the area. The anniversary was always commemorated, and generally highlighted on the news that evening. The Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song "Ohio" got played on the radio more often than most other places, with the DJ often making some unusually thoughtful commentary. It was just part of the area culture. Some of the details were always presented as a bit fuzzy but in hindsight, I'm kind of struck by how universally the National Guard were seen as the bad guys here. I don't know that I ever met anyone who ever said, "Those punk students had it coming," or "Serves them right," or anything along those lines. It was always -- regardless of a person's political affiliation, or their stance on guns or the military, or how old they were -- it was always portrayed as an absolute tragedy that only happened because the local government and the National Guard were in the wrong. Those guns should not have been fired; they shouldn't have been aimed at students; they shouldn't have had live ammo; they shouldn't have been there in the first place... I never heard a single person ever try to put even an ounce of blame on the students.

But, like I said, the specifics were always a little fuzzy. As it turns out, that fuzziness was a very deliberate attempt to soften the blame as much as possible. There was no way to shift it to the students, but the government and the military tried to make themselves as blameless as possible.

I'm starting to get ahead of myself.

Derf Backderf's impressively thick Kent State: Four Dead in Ohio recounts the several days leading up to the infamous Kent State shootings. He follows (primarily) the lives of the four students who were killed by the National Guard: Bill Scroeder, Allison Krause, Sandy Scheuer, and Jeff Miller. The story hops from one student to the next as they go about their daily lives, largely trying to stay out of the way of the protests and just be students. We get to hang out with them and their friends as they study, go to bars, practice their music, or just lounge in the grass on a sunny afternoon. We also get to check in on the folks on the other side of this discussion: the mayor, the University president, and the General and Major in charge of the National Guard troops that were sent in. We see some of the considerations they're trying to take into account, and the reasons why they feel compelled to act as they do.

Following these people is clearly a way to get readers to become emotionally involved with them, making the ending that much stronger and more resonnate. However, Backderf does not forget that many readers (like me) might not have even been born when these events took place, so he periodically provides some asides to put some pieces into better context. Who really were the Students for a Democratic Soviety? Or The Weathermen? Why were students justifiably leary of being "infiltrated" by undercover government operatives? These asides can be a little text-heavy, relative to the rest of the book, but they're usually only a single page before getting back to the story and Backderf is able to keep a more natural storytelling feel to them. As if someone was simply telling you this story and stopped briefly to answer your question.

Backderf seems like he's trying to give a fair presentation here, and he provides justification for why various authorities took the stances they did. But even so, he points out that every one of them is wrong. The politicians are viewing this cynically in light of upcoming elections, the individual soldiers are being treated like dirt by every one of their superiors all the way back to Washington, and the General and Major are basing decisions on wildly inaccurate intelligence. At every stage -- every, single stage -- everyone who isn't a student makes the wrong choice. The continually and deliberately escalate situations that weren't even situations in the first place. They base their choices on fear and anger that isn't even directed at the students, but take it out on them nonetheless. Even after the shootings themselves, when we see several soliders break down over what they just witnessed, they then go out of their way to cover up as much as possible, "losing" paperwork and blatantly falsifying reports. It's like Backderf is retroactively trying to give them every opportunity to redeem themselves in any way, and they simply refuse.

The story is incredibly engaging, and I found myself still getting emotional towards the end of the book. Even knowing the outcome before I even cracked the spine. I shed tears for the students, and felt righteous anger towards everyone else. And I found myself ending the book afraid. Afraid that the current federal administration will have seen these murders as a positive and effective protest deterrant, and that a repeat performance would be welcomed by him -- not unlike it was welcomed by Nixon per the book's epilogue. It doesn't take this book to get to that suggestion (a quick Google search shows people were making this exact comparison at least as far back as May 2016, before Trump was even the formal GOP nominee) but Backderf crafts an excellent tale here, which is probably more relatable now than when he began working on this. But seeing somthing similar play out before Trump is out of office wouldn't be at all surprising. Maybe not from the National Guard. Maybe not on a college campus. Maybe not even ambiguously "accidental." But the mindset of weekend soldiers with loaded weapons is very much on display in this book, and an insightful look at not only the events of May 4, 1970 specifically but of the way people with guns fire out of fear, regardless if the fear is justified or not. Of how those in power will do everything they can to put down dissent, how they will take advantage of situations to inflict petty retributions against people who they've never seen before, and how they will absolutely lie their assses off to avoid facing consequences. When you see or hear something on the news today and start to think, "Oh, my god! That can't happen here!" -- read this so you know that it already has.
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