The legacy of Vietnam

Support for Bush’s Gulf policy begins to falter

MARCI McDONALD September 10 1990

The legacy of Vietnam

Support for Bush’s Gulf policy begins to falter

MARCI McDONALD September 10 1990

The legacy of Vietnam



Support for Bush’s Gulf policy begins to falter

Above the grassy commons at Ohio’s Kent State University, 77 km southeast of Cleveland, four polished marble blocks rise out of the wooded hillside like spectral coffins. Beside them, on a sun-dappled terrace, a sculptor has carved into the stone a date: May 4, 1970. On that sunny noontime two decades ago, 28 Ohio national guardsmen on the crest of nearby Blanket Hill opened fire with their M-l semi-automatic rifles on students demonstrating against the escalating Vietnam War. The 13-second fusillade left four people dead and nine wounded, their images etched into the collective memory of a stunned nation. Still, by the time Kent State unveiled the controversial $230,000 memorial to the shooting on its 20th anniversary last May, a documentary film-maker found most of its 24,000 students conservative and career-obsessed, disclaiming any feeling of connection to a tragedy that occurred before many of them were born. But last week, as they returned to class only to find the Persian Gulf conflict intruding abruptly into their lives, many of them suddenly began to express a new and unsettling sense of kinship with that earlier generation.

Kim Lawrence, a fourth-year psychology student, had just said a tearful goodbye to her older brother, Dale, whose army unit had left for desert training in California on its way to Saudi Arabia. Saying that she was shocked to

see him disconsolate, talking about never coming back to rejoin his wife and infant son, Lawrence made her way to the May 4 memorial that she had avoided only four months ago. Tom Lawless, a 21-year-old communications major, had watched a handful of friends vanish from his residence floor 10 days earlier, called

up for military duty by their reserve units. “Before, what was happening in the Middle East was no big deal,” Lawless said. “Now, it’s touching our lives. I hope this doesn’t turn into another Vietnam.” Across the campus as across the country, the reality of President George Bush’s show of military muscle against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has been hitting home, bringing disruption and pain. And although polls show that Bush’s supz port is stronger than for any g president since polling began,

0 the first signs of discontent

1 have begun to crack the once« seamless veneer of public £ enthusiasm.

g During the past two o weeks, scattered protests " have erupted across the nation. In Minneapolis, 100 dissidents listened to peace activist Becky Minnich declare, “We will not kill and we will not die for Exxon, for Gulf petroleum.” And in Washington, 200 protesters gathered in Lafayette Square across from the White House to shout, “Hell no, we won’t go, we won’t die for Texaco.” That slogan, an extended version of the most celebrated antiwar chant of the Vietnam era, took on new resonance last week as two of that period’s best-known leaders, former Pentagon analyst Daniel Ellsberg and paralysed veteran Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourth of July, reemerged to criticize U.S. policy at a teach-in at a California church.

The protests so far have focused on what critics say is a fight for greedy U.S. oil interests. But there are already indications of that resentment spreading into more mainstream dissent. In Barberton, Ohio, near Kent State,

Tim McCracken, a 26-year-old machinist, six years ago joined the unit of the National Guard that succeeded the local brigade that fired on Kent State students. He did so, he said, because it offered to pay his university tuition. “Strictly the money is why I’m in the Guard,” he said, “and I’d say 90 per cent of the other guardsmen around here are the same.”

McCracken had assumed that he might be called to help out in snowstorms and floods. And, he added, he revelled in his summers and weekends as a crew leader commanding troops in the 107th armored cavalry regiment. “It was more like a hobby,” he said. “You got to go out and play the game. But now, it’s not a game anymore.” When the Gulf crisis broke out on Aug. 2, McCracken’s troop was training at its annual mobilization base in Michigan, and the reality hit him that, if his unit were called up, his heart would not be in the cause. “I’m 100-per-cent patriotic,” he said, “but this is not a national issue.”

Already, his mother, a banking executive, has offered to buy him a plane ticket anywhere to evade call-up.

But McCracken said that he will not back away from his commitment to the Guard, despite his strong reservations. “I’ll go,” he said. “I’m a soldier. I’ll do my duty. But am I really fighting for the United States—or am I fighting for big business?”

And at Pat’s Marathon gas station in Kent, night manager Brad Rossano, 23, complained that customers were accosting him about the price of gas, which last week was shown on the pump at $1.26 a gallon, an increase of 22 cents in a month. “A couple of people got violent,” he said.

“They’re bad-mouthing the -

major oil companies, and you want to say, ‘Hey, mister, I just pump the stuff.’ ” But, despite the fact that Rossano has staunchly defended the company’s position, he too admitted personal reservations. “I think we have a right to defend our oil supplies, but it’s pretty scary,” he said. “If we do go to war, I’m in the prime drafting age.”

So far, the only misgivings that most politicians have expressed concern the oil industry’s perceived opportunism. Two weeks ago, Democratic party Senator Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio accused the oil companies of “ripping off customers.” Last week, after Bush called 170 congressional leaders to a closed-door briefing at the White House, even Metzenbaum, one of the Senate’s leading liberals, hailed the rare show of unanimity. “Without exception,” he said, legislators “indicated

that they supported the President’s actions.” In fact, Washington-based conservative syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak last week called that new hawkish congressional mood a “war fever not seen in the capital since the beginning of the Vietnam War.” For Kent State sociology professor Jerry Lewis, a witness to the campus shootings 20 years ago, the initial euphoria over confronting one of the world’s most easily disliked bullies closely parallels the prelude to the anti-Vietnam War protests. Last month, after Bush announced that he was sending American

troops to the Gulf, Lewis said that he had been frustrated that his summer students seemed so disinterested. “I thought, maybe the old Vietnam pain is over,” he said. “Then I realized, nobody is dying yet.”

He recalled that it took many years of U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia before antiwar demonstrations erupted to divide the nation. Now, he says that he has already noticed that students whose lives have been touched by reserve duty are beginning to balk.

He added that even his 20-year-old daughter, Janell, is urging him to hold a series of teach-ins to make her and her classmates more aware of what is at stake. “So far, we’re just sort of watching a giant movie,” he said. “But I don’t know if Americans are really willing to see other Americans die for Kuwait.” Added Kent student Lawless, a Bush backer: “I give it

another two months. If you still have thousands of people sitting over there then, and gas prices keep going up, you’re going to get a lot of people pissed off.” Lawless added that his friends, taken out of school for reserve service, were frightened “and mad too—their lives are all messed up.”

Alan Canfora, a 41-year-old campus organizer and one of those wounded during the Kent State massacre, agrees. “The Vietnam outcry took years,” he said. “I don’t think it would take as long this time.” Canfora’s wrist still bears the scar of the bullet that passed through

it 20 years ago. He demonstrated against the memorial when it opened because university officials had scaled it down from a $ 1.5-million original design after the local American Legion had denounced it as a monument to “terrorists.” And he has made a career out of his Kent State experience as director of the Kent May 4 Center, which encourages student activism.

Now, with the Gulf crisis, Canfora said that he sensed a new opportunity to bring disparate protest groups together with a single focus. Whether he succeeds, and whether the nation once more finds itself at war in a distant and alien land, may yet depend on how closely all parties heed the admonition carved into the terrace of the Kent State memorial: “Inquire. Learn. Reflect.”

MARCI McDONALD at Kent State