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Two Missing Photographs

Mary Ann Vecchio kneels over the body of the student Jeffrey Miller, who was killed by Ohio National Guard troops during an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.Credit…John Paul Filo/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

When I read the article in the Guardian (July 2, 2022) “It felt like history itself-48 protest photographs that changed the world,” I felt like I had been shortchanged. The compilation of protest photographs was spectacular, but there was something missing. And what was missing was substantial.

Photography from the Vietnam War was covered among the 48 photos showing the self-immolation photo of Thich Quang Duc in 1963 and the photo of a protester placing a flower in a bayonet in 1967. But there were two images that begged to be shown from May 4, 1970, when members of the Ohio National Guard shot and killed 4 students and wounded 9 others on the campus of Kent State University during protests in answer to the US expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. First, there is the iconic photo of Mary Ann Vecchio by John Filo. She kneels over the body of Jeffrey Miller who was killed in the fusillade of Guard bullets. She is screaming, her arms outstretched. Equally devastating is the photo taken a few minutes earlier of the National Guardsmen atop Blanket Hill  (Getty Images) opening fire on unarmed protesting students below.

These photos of protest and the reaction to it reverberated around the world and especially here in the US. The murder and wounding of students at Kent State sent shock waves through the protest movement and caused protest to grow exponentially throughout the country, closing down over 400 campuses nationwide.

Anti-communism drove much of US foreign and military policy, as it had for decades and would for decades to come. Laos was also in the mix of a vicious air war in Southeast Asia. There were those in high places in the US government who believed that communism would spread just like so many falling dominoes if it wasn’t stopped by force.

Can photography change lives? At the time of the massacre at Kent State, I was a member of the National Guard, but not in Ohio. The previous summer I had gone out with an honor guard carrying the same kind of rifle that would be fired on unarmed protesting students at Kent State, the M-1. I had also been trained to use the M-16 rifle that was used in massacres throughout Vietnam by US forces, and in particular, the massacre at My Lai on March 16, 1968, where between 347-504 unarmed civilians were killed, including children. My Lai was largely a get-back for active members of companies from the 23rd Americal Infantry Division had previously seen.

Authors Michael Bolton and Kevin Sim in Four Hours in My Lai  (1993) present a meticulous history of the massacre.

My Lai was the tip of the iceberg of massacres in Vietnam. Deborah Wilson and Nick Turse in “Vietnam Horrors: Darker Yet” (Los Angeles Times, August 6, 2006), document many more atrocities that went largely unpunished during and after the Vietnam War. In 1971, Vietnam Veterans Against the War sponsored the Winter Soldier Investigation, which documented eyewitness accounts of massacres in Vietnam.

To a young man, who had been involved in antiwar protests since 1968 on and off the college campus I attended at the time, the events and reality of the rifles I would be trained to use had a profound effect. Soon after, I became a war resister that had its final denouement in federal district court in Springfield, Massachusetts, when I would be finally freed, decades later, from the seemingly endless tentacles that the Vietnam War and protest had bound me. I was one of the millions of men and women and children who had been profoundly affected by the war and protest and the absence of those two photographs left a gaping hole of accountability the size of the Grand Canyon. Men, women, and children can be taken out of war and protest, but war and protest can never be taken out of them.

While those who protested held on to antiwar values in some cases, Ronald Reagan turned the Vietnam War into a “noble cause” while additionally attempting to militarize space. George H. W. Bush extinguished the Vietnam Syndrome, the reticence to go to war in faraway places such as Iraq and Kuwait. They sanitized war and sold it to masses of people at the cost of social welfare. War is now an easy sell to the mass of people in the US. They didn’t blink at the trillions of dollars spent on the lost wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and are more than ready to nod to the well over $50 billion sent to Ukraine. But tax credits to those in need here are an entirely different matter, as are other social welfare programs.

In a recent poll by the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics of 1,000 registered US voters, the Guardian reports (June 30, 2022) that 25% of those polled said that it might “soon be necessary to take up arms” against the government. This so-called taking up of arms is the most nihilistic thought that can be imagined and it is linked to the easy acceptance of militarism and violence. It always leads to the death of the innocent. It is a well-choreographed script for massacres.

Self-defense is a right, however, taking up arms against someone or some entity, government or otherwise, is insanity and murderous folly. For a leftist, it’s suicide!