Kent State: An NCO's perspective

by Colin Campbell

Note: Please read Mr. Wallace's article Kent State, May 4, 1970: America Kills Its Children before reading this article.

I read his article on August 14, 1996. This date is important because on August 10 and 11th my National Guard unit had an unscheduled drill. The purpose of the drill was to issue and fit riot gear, conduct precombat inspections, and train the soldiers in my unit in riot control formations and tactics. The mayor of the city of San Diego had requested the state governor be prepared to deploy National Guard troops in support the City of San Diego Police in case of a major civil disturbance.

I have done duty at 'civil disturbances,' I have also been in combat. As far as I am concerned, I would rather be in combat. In combat you are facing people whom you can strike back at, and are generally playing by the same rules as you are. This is not the situation in a 'civil disturbance.' During the riot control training my soldiers would ask me what to do in several different situations (for example: someone spits on them, throws blood/paint, etc. on them, pushes them, throws things at them, etc.). They were shocked at my answer: "You stand there and take it."

I also gave them a class in mob psychology. In this class I explained how people in mobs act and react. I also explained to them that people in a mob are acting on an emotional not intellectual level, and that they do not see people in uniform as human beings. Because they dehumanized their opponents they have no real moral barriers to killing. I also explained the Rules Of Engagement, and advised them that, if they were pulled into the crowd they were to disregard the ROE and do whatever it took to rejoin their unit and stay alive.

This is not to say that my soldiers will use lethal force in any situation which they are not in imminent danger of death or serious harm. I am confident that my soldiers will retain their discipline, and use only that amount of force appropriate to the situation.

Now what was the situation at Kent State? The soldiers were tired, poorly trained, and under a great amount of stress. Nor were they equipped appropriately for their mission. These were not uniformed robots, these were human beings. If somebody insults you will become angry; if your friend is injured; you will become angry. These soldiers knew that the crowd before them did not regard them as human beings.

They were untrained, frustrated, angry, and afraid. Add a loaded M1 semiautomatic rifle to this mix and you have a guaranteed tragedy. For days these soldiers were using up their store of discipline facing the rioters. And right before the soldiers passed around the corner of a large building, the discipline ran out. Without that discipline they stopped being soldiers. What they were now was a mob just like those they faced. Only worse -- they were a frustrated, angry, and tired mob with loaded weapons. All it took was one person to lose control, and the rest would follow his example. We will probably never know who fired the first shot, in all likelihood the person who fired it does not know he fired the first shot.

Four people died. I am surprised that it was only four.

Other Comments:

As someone who has "not been injured worse than a minor bruise" by a rioter, I ask this question: Was that not an attack? What if I had been hit in the head? Why does it seem that there is an attitude that injury to someone in uniform hurt less than a similar injury to a civilian?

Covering of nametapes. I instructed all of my people to cover their helmet bands in order to hide their names. This was done, not in an attempt to avoid punishment for illegal behavior, but to protect those soldiers from possible retribution after they had returned home. Remember, our opponents do not see us as people.

Punishment of the Guardsmen: What would that prove? You push someone beyond his limits, then punish him for reacting? Were not the people who organized the riot, and planned and directed the attacks on the guardsmen equally responsible?

Harassment of protesters: I have been harassed, attacked and injured by 'peace demonstrators.' I have been hit by a brick (the media called it a 'peaceful demonstration' as none of the rioters were injured). I have had someone pour a mixture of cow blood and red paint on me, then (with a video camera carefully placed so that what the 'peace demonstrator' did to me would not show) say "hit me." Fortunately, I retained enough discipline to turn around and march off (for a second I came very close to drawing my riot baton and granting his request). I did not know about the camera until later. For some reason, the demonstrators have a dual standard. What they do is always justified, but they expect their opponents to always behave.

Condoning of killing: This statement is grossly unfair. The killings at Kent State resulted in wide ranging policy changes about how the military responds to civil disturbances. Rules of Engagement are now carefully thought out, published, and taught to every soldier. A new doctrinal manual, Field Manual 19-15 'Civil Disturbance,' was published. The army acquired specialized riot control gear, and trained soldiers in its use. The use of the bayoneted rifle has been replaced (in situations where armed opposition is not expected) by the riot baton. Studies have been conducted in crowd psychology as well as the psychological response by soldiers when placed in these situations. It was accepted that soldiers on riot control duty had either be relieved and rested at regular intervals, or (if that was not possible) allowed to 'burn off' frustration and anger through the carefully controlled application of force against their opponents (if it is okay for the soldiers to get 'minor injuries' then their opponents should expect the same treatment).

I do not expect many of you to agree, or to even like what I have said here. What I do ask is that you try to put yourself in the position and situation of those you criticize.

Jonathan Wallace replies:

I think you missed my point. Richard Nixon, who in my opinion was the moral equivalent of John Gotti, used and promoted a violent rhetoric under which young protesters were animals, less than human, garbage to be discarded. In New York City in those years, a police unit known as the Tactical Deployment Force used to show up at demonstrations, name badges covered, and beat the shit out of everybody. On Wall Street, construction workers beat demonstrators so badly in May 1970, right after Kent State, that some of them were crippled for life. The cops stood by and let it happen. There was murder in the air and Kent State just happened to be the place where it crystallized. Your words about exhausted, overwhelmed, poorly trained guardsmen pushed past their breaking point are doubtless true for many of the men there. But here's an overview of what really happened: a National Guard unit, walking away from demonstrators over the crest of a hill, wheeled and fired 67 shots over a long 13 second period, firing so indiscriminately that they hit people up to 735 feet away. The profound and tragic negligence of the firing is underscored by the fact that half of the people hit--including two of the four fatalities--were by-standers. Three of the dead students were more than 300 feet away from the Guardsmen. One of them, Sandra Scheuer, was on her way to class, while another Bill Schroeder, on a ROTC scholarship, had just taken a test on war tactics and stopped to watch the action. In other words, the Guardsmen, some of whom had to be physically restrained to get them to stop firing--some had fired their rifles four times--fired into a group of students many of whom were just carrying on their normal campus activities around a not very disorderly demonstration. By contrast to the stories you tell about people in your face and pouring blood on you, the closest injured student was sixty feet away from the Guardsmen.

This student was Joseph Lewis. Guardsman Lawrence Shafer admitted that he aimed at him and shot him because Lewis was giving him the finger.

Shafer also admitted bayonetting a disabled Vietnam vet sitting in a car the evening before, because the man was bad-mouthing him. Guardsman James Pierce wrote in his after-action report that the students were "savage animals." J. Edgar Hoover wrote in a memo to his top assistants six days later that the students "got what they deserved." Yes, America killed its children. Someone powerful daydreamed about it out loud, and the Guardsmen who wheeled and fired their guns acted out that fantasy.

For more information, check out William A. Gordon, Four Dead in Ohio, (Laguna Hills, Ca.: North Ridge Books 1995).