We’ve been watching the new documentary series on the Vietnam War, which is excellent but also exhausting and upsetting and full of sparks of memory: Oh, that guy! I remember him. Wait, this thing is about to happen. Look how skinny those soldiers are, carrying all that equipment, just like those guys we knew. It also fills in gaps in memory. I never knew much about the Vietnamese experience. I didn’t realize how many Americans were opposed to the anti-war movement, even after the Kent State killings. A poll at the time found over half of Americans thought the dead students had it coming. I suppose that included the two students shot dead at Jackson State University eleven days later, though they didn’t get as much attention.
I grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, but moved to Kentucky in 1969 just as I was entering high school. I was an introvert who was discovering a whole range of ideas I’d never encountered. I was taken aback to meet students who proudly declared they didn’t believe in evolution. I had no idea it was still up for debate. I also learned quickly that, though I was from enlightened Wisconsin, I didn’t know a damn thing about race.
I knew the war divided us. Even in lefty Madison, there was a lot of resentment of college students demonstrating against the war. The nuns at my Catholic school who taught me about evolution also told me the war was about defending Catholics from communists while my older siblings were dodging tear gas canisters and telling me the war was not about Catholics or communism. There was a fair amount of violence, with windows regularly broken on State Street and tear gas and fighting with police. (This was before the awful Sterling Hall bombing but after the police chief bought a tank, a rare piece of city equipment in those days.) At the University of Kentucky, where my dad took up his new job, the protests seemed muted and tentative, but they were there. A day or two after Kent State I screwed up my nerve to make a poster about Kent State and brought a roll of black crepe-paper to my high school to make armbands for students. I went home with a lot of crepe paper. The kids mostly thought the dead college students had it coming. I’d forgotten all that.
The Kent State I “remember” is that iconic photo of a woman with her arms raised, her mouth open, horrified and heart-broken over the body of a student who lies face down, like a child tucked in for bed. That photo became the moment, and for me that visual memory was joined by the vague idea that scared kids with guns loaded with live ammo by some extraordinary error made a terrible mistake, a mistake that cost lives and must have been instantly repented. What I didn’t remember is that those armed soldiers were prepared to shoot again if the students didn’t disperse. That they would have killed more students if an anguished professor hadn’t begged the confused and angry students to leave. If his voice hadn’t carried, if they’d decided not to listen.
Sometimes it feels as if we are doomed to replay our past on a loop, but we’ve forgotten so we think it’s all new. We don’t know how we got here or where it might end or how we could do it differently. Cheering Nazis filled Madison Square Garden in 1936. The civil rights movement fought so hard for victories that are celebrated with a few cherry-picked quotes from Martin Luther King and a few black and white photos. Where did all that anger come from at Ferguson? We’ve forgotten, so goodbye voting rights, hello segregated schools and racist policing.
I don’t know how historians don’t lose their minds, knowing all this and knowing we won’t remember.
I’d forgotten just how divided we were over the war, over the direction of the country, over who we believed we were. I’d forgotten the hopeful excitement of seeing millions march together in peaceful protest at the Moratorium. I’d forgotten how furious people were at the press when they reported atrocities and government cover-ups. I’d forgotten how we lived side-by-side in completely different versions of America, and how we felt about being lied to by our presidents, and how normal that began to seem. It’s coming back to me, in bits and pieces. And it’s so terrible and sad and pointless and preventable. And all too easily forgotten.