TALLAHASSEE, FLA. — Years from now, I wonder how many Americans will look back on the war in Iraq and remember themselves, not as they were, but as they should have been. The Kent State anniversary is here again, and with it comes the reminder that often we revise the past so we can live more comfortably with ourselves today.
The facts are these: On May 4, 1970, Kent State University students rallied to protest President Nixon's decision to expand the Vietnam conflict into Cambodia. Poorly trained Ohio National Guard troops were called to the campus, where, after some mild skirmishing with the students, they fired without warning, killing four and wounding nine. Only one of the casualties had been harassing the Guard; another had been on her way to class when she was shot and killed. The revulsion of those who thought the war wrong crystallized around a photo, widely disseminated then and often reproduced even now, of a dying youngster and the teenaged girl who knelt over him screaming.
What is less remembered today is how smug that photo made many people in this country, possibly the majority. A nationwide Gallup telephone poll taken on May 13 and 14 found that 58 percent of the respondents thought the students responsible for the deaths while only 11 percent blamed the National Guard (31 percent had no opinion).
This antiprotestor sentiment wasn't a momentary aberration, either: Five years later, in a federal civil trial against the guardsmen and the politicians who sent them onto the campus, the jury voted 9 to 3 for the defendants, a decision later reversed on appeal.
The Kent State kids were like protesting students everywhere - "bums," to use the president's term, who asked for it and got what they deserved. And the people were tickled pink.
As a graduate student in Baltimore in the late 1960s, I had been a draft counselor, walking draftees through the Selective Service regulations and arming them with information that their local draft boards either lacked or deliberately withheld.
Many of my clients hated the war, but just as many thought American boys should answer the call proudly - other American boys, that is. These young men were pro-war, but they didn't relish going to battle themselves; they were the ones who answered my questions with a snarl or who grabbed my handouts and stormed out wordlessly. Nowadays, media images and selective memories make it seem as though most people who lived through that time were opposed to the war. Back then, it didn't seem that way at all.
Curiously, recent revelations show that the very architects of the Vietnam war were opposed to it.
In 1995, former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara confessed in his memoirs that he had known the war was wrong.
And from Michael Beschloss's "Reaching for Glory: The Secret Lyndon Johnson Tapes, 1964-1965," we learn that, very early in the war, Johnson confessed, "I don't think it's worth fighting for, and I don't think we can get out."
Now they tell us? Now, after more than 200,000 American casualties and countless more on the other side? After the scarring at home, the destruction of whole families, the carving of a division that still hasn't healed?
Mr. McNamara and Johnson knew they were mistaken, but they were too spineless to face down an electorate made up largely of the same people who thought the Kent State killings were just fine.
Who was the "good American" in 1970? We may tell ourselves differently now, but the truth is it was someone who thought the cowards with blood on their hands in the White House were swell fellows.
It's easy to blame our political leaders for the things we don't like. But we need to remember that these leaders take their cues from the public that keeps them in office, a public that, in this case, said the war was OK and that anybody who opposed it was wrong. Indeed, anybody who merely attended college on a campus where protests occurred ran the risk of being shot dead walking to class.
• David Kirby teaches English at Florida State University.