I remember it with tears in my aging eyes. Fifty years ago. I was a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam at the time. Just out of the bush after many months of mud and blood. Sitting in my bunker when the news broke.
I had known about the anti-war protests all through the 60’s. In fact, Woodstock was making headlines as my plane took me west toward Asia. I was committed to serving my nation in a fight for freedom against global Communism, but I knew some of my friends and family were adamantly against the war. They still are.
Other Marines around me reacted to the Kent State shootings with hard-ass comments like, “They had it coming,” or, “It’s about time someone stood up for law and order,” or, “America, love it or leave it!” But I didn’t react that way. Not after I had seen the futility of our efforts and sacrifices in the rice paddies, mountains, and villages. I had heard our Vietnamese colleagues mourning the death of Ho Chi Minh, “Uncle Ho, the Father of Our Country.” I had seen the brutality of our allies toward the villages they accused of aiding the Viet Cong. I had witnessed the instability and corruption of the South Vietnamese government we were sustaining with our dollars and our casualties. And so I was disillusioned by the body counts and the mission creep and the vacillating rationale for our involvement. By that time, tens of thousands of young American men and women had died, leaving us to ask, “Why?”
So I understood that why our citizens were divided over the conflict. Some chose to express their views by marching in the streets or gathering for huge festivals of defiance. And I respected their rage. That’s why it pierced my soul to learn that National Guardsmen had opened fire on college students in Northeast Ohio. These soldiers were doing what they were trained to do, maintain order in the midst of chaos. The protesters were exercising their right to speak out and resist. Lines were crossed on both sides, and then, in an instant, a bloodbath ensued.
I finished my tour of duty a few months after the horrid event and returned home, only to learn that a person as close to my heart as anyone was among the crowds that filled the streets in reaction to the massacre. I didn’t judge. I didn’t confront. I tried to listen and learn. And instead of tearing down the bridge of friendship, we strengthened it. A hawk and a dove finding a way to live in peace.
I’m not sure our nation ever recovered from the war. The Right and the Left still battle, hostility marks most dialogue, and we’re separated by widely disparate visions of what our nation should be. All I can do is try to follow the teachings of Jesus and be a peacemaker. And work to find common ground with those who I’m tempted to call “the enemy.”
God help me.