Kent State Reconsidered as Nightmare

by Jon Corelis

Alas! Why then do I spare my own life,

the murderer of my own precious children?


One of the many paradoxes of our time is that, so often, our most intense and most vividly remembered experiences are of events at which we were not present, and which may even have happened before we were born. The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, the charnel heaps of Auschwitz, and the brutal interruption of a presidential motorcade in Dallas were directly witnessed by only a tiny fraction of the American population, yet these three images have been indelibly burned into our individual and national consciousness. They have become supremely personal obsessions which we all share.

There is a fourth trauma, no less important to the present state of our national character than the other three. Indeed, in ways it maybe the most important of all. Ten years have passed since the bloody May noon when four college students were killed and nine wounded by Ohio National Guardsmen at Kent State University, yet we Americans have refused honestly to consider the meaning of that shocking incident, just as we have been reluctant to confront our feelings about the whole Vietnam war of which it was a part. When a tragedy touches us to the quick, an attempt to forget it, to conceal the scars which it has left on our souls, is the most natural human response, but it is also the most dangerous. Perhaps now, a decade later, we may finally begin to examine the events of May 4, 1970, and our reactions to them, without the rage and bias which made dialogue, and sometimes even clear expression, all but impossible in those bitter years of war across the sea and rebellion at home.

If we have failed to engage that unhappy episode emotionally, it is not for lack of the facts. The shootings at Kent State have been the subject of endless columns of newsprint, three official investigations, and at least five full-length books.[1] Great pains have been taken to reconstruct the sequence of events in the most meticulous detail, as if by reconstructing the nightmare we could somehow exorcize it. Yet, to find the meaning of Kent State we must begin, not with what happened there, but with what happened inside ourselves when we learned about it.


Public reaction to the bloodshed at Kent State fell pretty clearly into three categories. Government officials generally tried to avoid assigning direct responsibility to anyone, while subtly implying that the students themselves were to blame. With his typical political cleverness, Richard Nixon summed up this attitude in his statement, "When dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy." By definition, no one is to blame for a tragedy, but the first half of Nixon’s statement clearly suggests that it was the dissident students, not the guardsmen, whose activities suddenly erupted into violence. The majority of young people, on the other hand, together with a relatively small number of adults (most of them anti-Vietnam War liberals) felt that the killings were plain murder. There is every indication, however, that the prevalent reaction among white middle-class adults was one of fierce satisfaction. Among these people, who constitute the bulk of our population, the shootings were very commonly justified on two grounds: that they were deserved ("The students shouldn’t have been demonstrating") and that they were necessary ("There was a sniper" or "The guardsmen’s lives were in danger.") More often than not, this majority response went far beyond mere approval. In the weeks after the killings, for example, the townspeople of Kent adopted the custom of greeting each other by holding up four fingers, signifying "We got four of them." A local gas station attendant said that the soldiers should have shot a hundred of the young people, and a Kent lawyer told a newspaper reporter that if he had been on the scene with a submachine gun there would have been 140 dead students. A city councilman in the home town of one of the slain students declared that it would have been better if 4,004 young people had been shot down, and one of the public prosecutors charged with presenting evidence to the grand jury which was investigating the incident stated publicly that all the troublemakers should have been shot.[2]

The young victims were not only blamed, they were reviled. James Michener reports in his massive and definitive book Kent State: What Happened and Why, that the most grotesque and abusive rumors about the slain students were rife in Kent: they were dope addicts, they were infested with lice and syphilis, their filthy bodies stank so badly that the ambulance attendants gagged.[3]

This outpouring of anger and hatred towards the victims was not limited to Ohio. When New York City’s mayor ordered flags lowered in memory of the four slain students, enraged construction workers assaulted a number of young people at a rally in the city’s financial district and forced city officials to raise flags to full mast.[4] A cursory survey of the letters columns in major U.S. newspapers and magazines immediately reveals a preponderance of opinion that the dead and wounded students richly deserved what had happened to them.

Especially striking is the reaction among the parents of college-age youths. Michener reports that an unspecified but "depressing" number of Kent State students were told by their parents that they, too, should have been shot by the soldiers.[5] One suspects that similar conversations took place in families throughout the nation.

These widespread and intensely hostile responses are either completely ignored or attributed to a temporary emotional overreaction by all the authors whose writings on the Kent State affair I have read. Even the hard-headed Michener felt compelled to offer the feeble excuse that these harsh judgments were after all spoken in anger, as if the anger itself were somehow less ugly and appalling than the statements in which it was vented.[6] A tendency to discount the vituperation directed towards the young victims by society at large is quite understandable: to take this hatred seriously is likely to lead us to a much grimmer view of the human animal than most of us are willing to accept. Unfortunately for our peace of mind, it is exactly this hatred which is the crucial element in the nightmare of Kent State and which provides the key to its meaning. The slaughter at Kent State was, one might say, a ritual enactment which laid bare one of the deepest desires of the elders of our tribe: that the young should be bloodily sacrificed in war.


The claim that the old want to kill the young may sound like a purposely offensive metaphorical apothegm, after the manner of Nietzsche, but it is in fact based upon several decades of careful research on the part of a number of sociologists, psychologists, and other scholars, who have given us an entirely new perspective on the interrelated phenomena of the conflict between nations and the conflict between generations. These authors do not form a single unified school of thought, but there recur among them two central ideas, one sociological, the other psychoanalytic, which taken together give us the opportunity finally to make sense of Kent State and of Vietnam.

The first of these ideas may be summed up in the statement of sociologist (or, as he calls himself, polemologist) Gaston Bouthoul, that war is an end disguised as a means.[7] Bouthoul, who is the most important single proponent of the new theory of war, believes that economic, ideological, and geopolitical factors are not the fundamental, but only the secondary causes of wars. To be sure, these factors are what bring nations into conflict, but economics and political science do little to explain why the human race has always resorted with such dreary regularity to the highly specialized institution of war in order to resolve these conflicts. Bouthoul assumes that the primary purpose of war must be its one absolutely predictable effect, which is not the gain or loss of territory, wealth, or prestige, but rather the death of young men in disproportionate numbers. To put it another way, wars are caused by certain social and demographic imbalances and tensions within the nations that fight them. The most important of these imbalances is an oversupply of young men, which aggravates unemployment and overpopulation and intensifies the normal strife between generations. These problems are effectively if brutally solved by the destruction of the excess youthful population in armed conflicts. War, in Bouthoul’s striking phrase, is deferred infanticide.

There are also other internal social disturbances which are quelled by war, as Bouthoul and other writers have pointed out. In particular, war suppresses dissent and reinforces the traditional morality of the nation or tribe. In the presence of a common danger, the question of established values and authority comes to be considered as treason, since it hampers the group’s effectiveness at waging war. The cohesion of the group is also enhanced by the slaughter of some of its members. Bloodshed sanctifies: any ideal, no matter how perverted or irrational, becomes utterly credible once our fellows have died for it, and dead soldiers become martyred saints at whose tombs we sacrifice our independence to the will of the state.

We have seen this mechanism of martyrdom at work in the debate over whether those who refused to fight in the Vietnam war should be pardoned of this crime. The most common objection to an amnesty was that it would imply that the brave men who gave their lives in Vietnam had died in vain. If the casualties of that war had made their ultimate sacrifice to protect the security of their country, this argument would make no sense at all. The value of their accomplishment could hardly be diminished by the pardoning of a few thousand draft resisters. But once we understand that one of war’s purposes is to provide martyrs whose noble death will shame other young men into submitting to the will of the tribe, this objection makes perfect sense. If future generations of youths come to believe that they can refuse to submit to the sufferings of war, the death of our soldiers will indeed have been in vain, since it will have failed to fulfill one of its most important functions.

If we accept the theory that war is infanticide, we must ask what there is in the individual human psyche that makes possible such a horrifying solution to a society’s problems. Surely, it might be argued, one of the strongest and most natural human impulses is to love and nurture our children. True enough. But one of the greatest lessons which Freud taught us (although poets knew it before him) is that love and hate for the same object are not essentially incompatible, and that the deeper the love, the more likely it is to be accompanied by an equally deep hate.

There is a growing body of psychoanalytic writing which holds that the Oedipus complex works both ways, that in every parent there exists an intense but unconscious hostility towards his or her child. Psychiatrist K. R. Eissler, for example, has called war the revenge of the old upon the young, a revenge motivated both by the older generation’s envy and jealousy of youth and, on the deepest level, but an unconscious parental death-wish towards the child.[8] The most provocative theoretical study of the infanticidal impulse is psychologist David Bakan’s Slaughter of the Innocents.[9] Surveying a wide range of evidence, Bakan concludes that the infanticidal tendency which modern psychology is just beginning to investigate has long been familiar to great poets and religious thinkers. He suggests that this tendency may have evolved in human beings as a population control measure. A fascinating recent book by child psychologist Dorothy Bloch, "So the Witch Won’t Eat Me," offers ample evidence from clinical practice not only for parents’ infanticidal impulses but also for children’s awareness of them.[10] And psychiatrist Franco Fornari, who has expanded on some of Bouthoul’s theories from a psychoanalytic viewpoint, argues that one function of war is to allow parents to project their unconscious hostility towards their children onto the enemies who do in fact kill the younger generation on the battlefield.[11]

War as a social institution has been compared by several researchers to the painful ritual initiation of youths into adulthood which anthropologists have studied at great length. Like these primitive rites, war is an initiatory sacrifice in which the younger generation must undergo suffering and sometimes even death as the price exacted by their elders for full admission into membership in the tribe. Such a sacrifice is made necessary by the unconscious fear and hatred which the old feel towards the young: youth’s submission quells their elders’ fear; youth’s suffering satisfies their elders’ hatred. When these psychic needs are fulfilled, the elders are able to accept the younger generation as partners in adulthood, but for youth to reject the sacrifice elicits the older generation’s full, naked hostility. I well remember the keen and bewildering outrage with which many older Americans reacted to the anti-Vietnam War movement. It seemed incredible that so many apparently sane people could equate a young man’s refusal to kill and perhaps to die in a pointless war halfway around the world with the most despicable form of high treason. Now I understand that, in a sense, the equation was valid. For the elders, nothing could be so deeply threatening as the refusal of youth to pay the gruesome price of admission to adulthood, and no atrocity of war is a crime so foul as pacifism in the young.

These recent ideas on war and intergenerational hostility can help us to understand the violence at Kent State and the public reaction to it, but it will be well to pause for some more general reflections before returning to that subject. In spite of a growing consensus among psychoanalytic researchers, there are probably few ideas harder for the average person to accept than a universal human tendency to infanticide. It is only in the last few decades that educated people in the Western world have gotten used to the idea of the Oedipus complex. When psychoanalysts and other students of human-kind now postulate in addition an infanticidal urge, what we might call a "Medea complex," it may seem as if they are perversely striving to deprive basic human nature of its last vestige of decency.

Yet a recognition of human infanticidal tendencies is not unique to modern thought. Eissler and Bakan remind us that both the Jewish and the Christian religions are based upon episodes of infanticide: Abraham’s willingness to kill Isaac, and God’s will that His only son should die. They might also have mentioned the Greeks. The slaughter of offspring by parents is in fact one of the most frequently recurring themes in our whole Greco-Judaeo-Christian inheritance: Kronos devours his children as they are born, Agamemnon must sacrifice Iphigenia before his army can sail, Herakles in madness kills his children, Medea murders her children to punish her husband, Theseus calls down a fatal curse on his innocent son Hippolytos, Abraham is ordered to sacrifice Isaac, Jephtha sacrifices his daughter in return for a military victory, the Son of God mounts the cross at his father’s will, and generations of Christian martyrs go joyfully to horrid deaths in the utter confidence that their blood will be pleasing to their heavenly father. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that since the beginning of recorded history infanticide has been the central obsession in the spiritual life of the Western world.


If the human tendency to infanticide is universal, it finds its organized social expression in war only under certain conditions. In the United States of the late 1960s, all the requisite conditions were present. The children of the post-World War II "baby boom" had just reached adulthood, creating a disproportionate abundance of young people at the age of initiation. A rapidly changing world had resulted in the most severe crisis of values in the history of our country. Traditional authority of all sorts was being seriously called into question both by individuals and by events themselves. Assassinations seemed to prove that our political system could not ensure rational self-government, the black rebellion implied that our society was not an open one, and the perfecting of drugs that could control conception and venereal diseases had changed some of the basic rules of life, resulting in a stunningly swift sexual revolution that greatly aggravated the usual animosity between generations. If ever a society needed a war to resolve its internal problems, it was America in the Vietnam era.

And yet, amazingly, recourse to war was for once unsuccessful. The reasons why the Vietnam War failed to suppress the defiance of the young and to stop the erosion of traditional values were many and varied, but the most important among them was the changed conception of war brought about by nuclear weapons.

Paradoxically, our development of ultimately terrible weapons has made it practically impossible for us to find a national enemy whose aggression, real or imagined, could effectively persuade great numbers of American youths to sacrifice their lives in war. The mobilization of a whole population for a general armed conflict can be justified only as a reaction to a credible threat of invasion or annihilation. But the only aggressor who realistically might be supposed to threaten us in this way is the Soviet Union, and a war with that nation would destroy us even if we won it. Since our only credible foe is one whom we dare not directly engage in war, our leaders have had to try to make credible foes out of the weaker nations allied with our great adversary. This worked to a limited extent in the Korean War, which after all was fought by men who had been born before World War II and were thus essentially on the older side of the generation gap. But it proved impossible to make the Viet Cong into a foe threatening enough to seduce the post-Hiroshima generation into war.

The elders of our own tribe, including the men who fought the Korean War, were and are (whether they realize it or not) adherents of the nineteenth-century philosophy which glorified total war as a test of national will and fitness to survive. The generation that grew up in the shadow of Hiroshima has an attitude towards war much closer to that which, as Bouthoul has pointed out, was characteristic of Voltaire and other eighteenth-century thinkers.[12] In that age, European wars generally were limited affairs fought by mercenaries who shed their blood, not for the survival of their people, but only for the ultimately petty ambitions of kings. Thus Voltaire saw war as mere pointless butchery, occasioned by the personal viciousness of monarchs. For us, too, war (with the inadmissible exception of nuclear war) cannot be for survival, so it must be for nothing. For the current generation of Americans, as for Voltaire, war is always and simply futile madness. The cinders of Nagasaki mock any notion that our sacrifice could be anything but in vain.

Historical circumstances vary, but the human heart is changeless. The psychic mechanisms which lead to war had not broken down during the Vietnam era; they had merely changed their object. The young, as always, needed an enemy to define themselves against, an ordeal to prove their readiness for maturity, and an intense feeling of belonging to a group. Their elders, as always, needed an enemy onto whom they could project their infanticidal hostility, a blood-sacrifice of youth, and an expression of utter submission from the young. In the absence of a credible enemy who could create a war that would satisfy these needs, the younger and older generations satisfied them by warring on each other. For the young, the older generation itself became the credible enemy. The necessary ordeal was provided by the struggle against the establishment: being beaten up in demonstrations or jailed for draft resistance or drug use, going into exile, or dropping out of school and thus losing the chance to follow a lucrative career. And youth’s primary identity group was not their nation, but their generation.

The elders projected their infanticidal hostility directly onto the young themselves, rather than onto a foreign enemy: it was the young people, they often said, who were going to destroy this country. The sacrifice which they demanded was justified not as a necessity of war, but as a punishment for the betrayal which the younger generation had committed by refusing war. And they demanded youth’s submission to their agents, not in the form of generals and sergeants, but in the form of the National Guard, riot police, and narcotics officers. (The significance of drug use in the recent struggle between generations has been greatly underestimated. The widespread use of marijuana by the young was a godsend for their elders. It meant that young people could be harassed, arrested, and imprisoned almost at will. The thousands of young people whose academic or professional careers were damaged or ruined as a result of being caught with marijuana were part of the sacrifice.)


The bloodshed at Kent State must be viewed as an episode in the aggravated struggle between the generations which took place in the 1960s. To understand its effect on the public, this incident should be interpreted as quite literally a nightmare, even though it really happened. Like every nightmare, it was traumatic because it brought us too near the root of our sickness: it came perilously close to revealing the naked truth that we do not tolerate the slaughter of our children in order to wage wars, rather, we find excuses to wage wars in order to bring about the slaughter of our children.

Consider the nightmare as it might have been reported by one of the citizens who expressed such savage satisfaction at the slayings, or one of the parents who told their own children that they, too, should have been shot:

I am walking across a beautiful green college campus on a fine spring day. I see groups of young people taunting armed soldiers in the foulest possible language. The young people are dirty, hairy, and smelly; I want to beat them with my fists or shoot them with a gun. Suddenly the soldiers start firing their rifles at the young people. Many of them fall dead or wounded. I see President Nixon walking through the panic-stricken crowd. He shakes his head and says, "It’s too bad this had to happen, but when dissent turns to violence, it invites tragedy." I say, "Yes, it served them right. Besides, what else could the soldiers have done?" Then I see my son. He looks at me in anguish and cries, "How could they have done this?" I shake my fist at him and scream, "You should have been killed too! You should have been killed too!" I am still screaming it when I wake up.

This dream is an expression of deep envy and of hostility to young people in general and the dreamer’s own children in particular. The dreamer’s repressed sexuality is projected onto the "dirty" young people; the urge to beat or shoot them expresses the dreamer’s lust for them. The infanticide desired by the dreamer is enacted by the soldiers and justified by two arguments which remove the responsibility for it from the dreamer and put it on the young themselves: it was deserved ("It served them right"), and it was necessary ("What else could the soldiers have done?"). The twinges of guilt expressed by Nixon, the symbol of official authority, must be muted and equivocal: some compassion for the victims may be permitted, but at all costs it must not be implied that society does not have the right to kill its young for its own reasons. In the end, the thrill of satisfaction produced by the killings leads the dreamer too far. He wakes up screaming the truth, and then tries to forget it.


The dreamer is still trying to forget, to judge by the most recent episode in the Kent State controversy. In 1978 an Ohio foundation commissioned sculptor George Segal to create a memorial for the slain students, which was to be set up on the Kent State campus. The sculpture Segal created, so far as one can tell from photographs of the plaster cast, is brilliantly conceived, powerfully executed, and awesomely appropriate in its choice of subject: Abraham, knife in hand, about to slit the throat of his kneeling and bewildered son. Evidently it was too appropriate. The university rejected it on the utterly specious grounds that "an apparent act of violence [is] inappropriate to commemorate an act of violence."[13] The actual reason, of course, is that Segal’s work is too painfully appropriate. Like the nightmare which it commemorates, it brings us too close to an intolerable truth about ourselves.

A suggestion which the University had previously made to Segal is extremely revealing of the state of mind which rejected his Sacrifice of Isaac as "inappropriate." Kent State had earlier proposed as an alternative subject an armed soldier. "Facing him in gentle opposition," the University was quoted as suggesting, "[would be] a female contemporary. She could be nude or semi-nude to suggest innocence and vulnerability."[14]

Sentimentality is usually a trick the human mind plays on itself in order to avoid real emotion. The University’s suggested alternate memorial is an admirable example of this technique. The image of the fair young virgin cut down by the savage warrior disguises the ugly truth by sentimentalizing it. When we contemplate this alternate statue, we exclaim to ourselves, "How tragic, that innocent, trusting, vulnerable youth must be destroyed by a cruel world!" Then, with a sigh of resignation, we may return to our usual business of finding excuses to butcher our children. In addition, the metaphor clearly implicit in the alternate statue subtly justifies what happened at Kent State by making it seem inevitable and ultimately trivial: the loss of virginity is painful and frightening, but it must come to all girls, and, after all, life goes on. It is also significant that the girl is specified as "a contemporary" of the soldier, thus distracting our attention from the realization that the killings and woundings were actually a sacrifice demanded by the older generation, the young soldiers being merely their agents. This the fearful reality which is embodied by Segal’s statue and which makes it unacceptable. In rejecting it, the officials of Kent State University have shown themselves literally unable to look upon the truth.

The nightmare of Kent State must not be allowed to fade back into the dark night of our souls. Like the nightmares of Hiroshima, Auschwitz, and Dallas, it reveals a fundamental truth about what we human beings are. It is a truth that is particularly difficult for us to confront in an age when faith in the essential goodness of human nature seems to offer the only basis for hope of our survival and when to deplore war and violence is considered practically the characteristic of a decent human being. Yet merely to deplore the evil that is in us does nothing to tame or destroy it. War has been almost universally denounced ever since Homer called Ares the most hated of all gods, yet who can say that all this hand-wringing has ever saved the life of a single soldier? The Kent State shootings, and the whole Vietnam experience, have a vitally important lesson for us, if only we are brave enough to learn it: that the hellish kingdom of war, like the heavenly kingdom of peace, is within us; that we send our children marching off to war not because we must, but because we will.

The first, essential step in healing the human disease for which war has always been our sick cure is to recognize, but not to accept, its existence. If the horrors suffered on the green campus of Kent State and in the steaming jungles of Vietnam can shock us into a recognition of the truth, a recognition which offers the only hope of finally making us free of our own cruelty, then and only then can we say that all the poor children we made die in that war did not die in vain.


[1] Peter Davis, The Truth About Kent State (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1973). Joe Eszterhas and Michael D. Roberts, Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State (New York: Dodd Mead, 1970). James A. Michener, Kent State: What Happened and Why (New York: Random House, 1971). I. F. Stone, The Killings at Kent State: How Murder Went Unpunished (New York, Vintage Books, 1970). Phillip K. Tompkins and Elaine Vanden Bout Anderson, Communications Crises at Kent State (New York: Gordon and Breach, 1971).

[2] Michener 446-453; Tompkins and Anderson 46-49; New York Times May 8, 1970: 18 col. 6.

[3] Michener 462-469.

[4] New York Times May 9 1970: 1 col. 5.

[5] Michener 453-455.

[6] Michener 455.

[7] See particularly Gaston Bouthoul, War, trans. Sylvia and George Lesson (New York: Walker, 1962) and L’Infanticide Différé (Paris: Hachette, 1970). Similar views on war as an end in itself and on war’s infanticidal function have been expressed by Lloyd de Mause, "Historical Group Fantasies," The Journal of Psychohistory 7.1 (Summer 1979, 20-21.

[8] K. R. Eissler, "Zur Notlage unserer Zeit," Psyche 22 (1968), 645.

[9] David Bakan, Slaughter of the Innocents (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971). For a brief survey of the evidence for the actual practice of infanticide throughout Western history see Lloyd de Mause, "The Evolution of Childhood," in Lloyd de Mause (ed.), The History of Childhood (New York: The Psychohistory Press, 1974), 25-32.

[10] Dorothy Bloch, "So the Witch Won’t Eat Me" (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.)

[11] Franco Fornari, The Psychoanalysis of War, trans. Alenka Pfeifer (Garden City, New York: Anchor Press, 1972) 12-13.

[12] Bouthoul (1962) 23.

[13] Newsweek Sept. 11 1978, 99.

[14] Ibid.

[This essay was originally published in The Journal of Psychohistory, v. 8 no. 2 Fall 1980]

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