Friday, May 26, 2006

Policing our borders with soldiers - Kent State, May 4, 1970, remembered

When I was a Case Western Reserve University faculty member and building computer models of oxygen depletion in Lake Erie, I traveled frequently to Kent State University in central Ohio. Faculty affiliated with Kent State’s Center for Urban Regionalism had done detailed research on the sediment chemistry of a small eutrophic lake and were happy to make data available that could help me estimate the numerical coefficients needed for models.

When taking a break from my research, I could walk to Blanket Hill, where a memorial was erected to commemorate the deaths of four Kent State student demonstrators who were shot and killed when National Guard solidiers opened fire. Most Americans of that era remember the searing photograph of 14 year old Mary Vecchio, kneeling over the body of one dead student. The photograph was circulated widely, became a NEWSWEEK cover and later won a Pulitzer prize.

The events of May 4th are carefully reviewed in an article by Sociologists Jerry M Lewis and Thomas R. Henseley ( ). I will not recapitulate them here. But I was reminded of my solitary walks on the Kent State campus when I heard of President Bush’s proposal to federalize National Guard Troops and assign them border patrol duties.

I am not entirely unfamiliar with military training, having spent three active duty summers as a Naval ROTC Midshipman and five years on active duty, during the early Viet-Nam era. Particularly relevant is our second summer, about a month of which was a mild approximation of US Marine Corps ‘boot’ training, complete with tough love physical training and discipline administered by a Marine Gunnery sergeant. In one exercise, the sergeant would should “are you gonna fight, fight, fight” and we would respond “we’re gonna fight, fight, fight.” He would continue: “are you gonna kill, kill, kill” and we would respond “we’re gonna kill, kill, kill.” My platoon of Dartmouth College undergraduate officer candidates didn’t take this all than seriously (except the few who chose to be Marine officers) but of course marine enlisted men do take hand to hand combat training and other combat exercises very seriously – or they do not survive basic training.

Not great preparation for facing down angry student war protesters – or mounting patrols along the US Mexican border, where dealing with illegal immigrants may require a more nuanced approach than categorizing them as “the enemy.”

I have not experienced National Guard training but I am pretty sure that the training and the discipline accompanying it is far less rigorous than even we “Ivy League” officer candidates experienced. Incidentally, I still remember how our gunnery sergeant introduced himself to us. He said: “I hate Ivy Leaguers.”

So when I hear assurances from President Bush about the constructive role National Guard troops will play in the conduct of border patrol operations, I am not reassured. And I remember the concerns that preoccupied me as I retraced the steps of the student protesters and National Guard troops on the Kent State campus.


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