Lest We Forget: An Interview with Dean Kahler
May 4th wasn’t always about a lame Star Wars joke. Today is also the date of one of the darkest chapters in recent American history: the Kent State Massacre, in which National Guardsmen fired upon student protesters and onlookers alike.
Among the victims was Dean R. Kahler who, while shot and permanently losing his ability to walk, has stayed positive in the intervening decades, leading a distinguished career, caring for his family, and spreading the word about what happened that day on a college campus back in 1970.
Kahler was gracious enough to talk with us about his life, his views, the FBI, and what May 4th meant for him:
You describe yourself as a pacifist. Could you tell us a little about what that means to you?
I became a pacifist a long time ago as a high school student. I grew up in the Church of the Brethren, where one of its main tenets is peace. I have a brother who’s a minister and a brother in law who became a minister long ago. One of the tenets of the church is peace – humans shouldn’t fight each other, shouldn’t go to war; we’re different from other animals. We’re human beings, not animals! We can consciously choose how to do things.
Were you a conscientious objector?
Now, I signed up for the draft. What a lot of people don’t know is, conscientious objectors are drafted as well, and what you end up doing depends on the status you applied for. I passed through all form of essays, interviews, and in-person discussions with people on the service boards.
I think everybody should be a pacifist, to tell you the truth, but I know that’s not going to happen. You have to make a conscious choice to work for peace. It becomes a lifestyle.
What Is the Meaning of War to You?
War is the failure to rationally, consciously make a decision about the direction yourself and your country are going on. War is violence. War is the breakdown of communication between people. War is not something we are designed to do, but it became part of how you get your way over others’. It’s been going on for a really long time.
What was your relationship to the Peace Movement?
I had sympathies. I had similarities. I supported what they did as long as they did it peacefully.
I understood the symbolism of May 1st – that’s when the ROTC building [on campus] was burnt down. So this chain of events really started on the May 1st, 1970 spring riot on campus. It’s going crazy. I think that’s when the mayor did the stupidest thing anyone could do on a Friday night: close down the bars, push thousands of people into the streets when it was the Lakers playing for the championship (…) That’s of course when we learned of the invasion of Cambodia. But I don’t think the riot had anything to do with Vietnam or Cambodia.
What about May 4th do you wish people better understand?
People don’t really understand the fact that there wasn’t much of a protest on May the 4th. Some students gathered and one person had a bullhorn, talking about the “issues” of the day. If the National Guard had just waited until four o’clock, everybody would have left. It was lunch time – if they had just held their ground, it would have…gone.
The story often told is that you weren’t even participating in the May 4th rally, and that you were just passing by. Is this actually how it was?
I went to see a rally. [chuckling] I was an Ohio farm boy! This was really my first antiwar demonstration. I was a little disappointed in what I saw, to tell you the truth. It wasn’t much of a demonstration.
In recent times there have statements made about possible FBI provocations at the rally. What do you make of these?
That was always a rumor back then. Richard Nixon and his administration weren’t above doing something like that. I wouldn’t doubt it. In fact, students were not really blamed for burning down the ROTC. Who knows?
Not much has happened in the intervening years to the guardsmen responsible for the shooting. Why don’t you demand more be done?
We worked hard to get a federal grand jury to investigate what happened. They indicted several guardsmen. It came to trial in 1973 or 74. The prosecution made their case and then pushed for a dismissal, and the judge said, “Okay, case dismissed. Go have lunch.” There was a civil case. Our big thing was we got it on record that they shot us, that they were wrong for shooting us. But I’m not a spiteful man. One has to learn how to forgive.
Do you think the nation has learned anything since the massacre?
You touch at something deeply troubling, especially with the recent problems with shootings and killings by police of unarmed citizens. It seems we haven’t learned very much. They don’t have a right to open fire on citizens gathered to exercise their constitutional rights. There are glaring similarities. It seems we haven’t really learned a lot.
Personally, I think we all need to look at the events in Baltimore [spring of 2015]. If you’re a civilian and you accidentally kill somebody, you’re booked, you’re given a mug shot, you don’t get a free ride. If a person fighting them doesn’t have a weapon, they don’t have the right to kill them.
Is there anything that keeps you optimistic?
When a .30 caliber slug goes into your torso, it’s pretty serious! I’m lucky to be alive. I could’ve been dead. The doctor at the time told my parents, “If he makes it an hour, pray for another hour. If he makes it for four hours, pray for another four hours. I’m extremely happy that I’m alive. I finished my education. I had a great career.
What were you views on our country’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Personally, I don’t believe any war is right, but I recognize that with human nature being what it is…I think the situation in Afghanistan may have been just in the eyes of conventional wisdom. The War in Iraq made no sense! It was completely unjust and uncalled for and it upset the balance of power in the region, setting off a chain reaction we’re seeing unfold today with ISIS. I think George Bush’s actions will go down as wrong and will eventually be a multi-decade reign of violence and chaos in the region.
They made it seem like the opposing side was unpatriotic, or someone who doesn’t support their country. Who could have done more? I think Congress should have said, “Um, excuse me, George?” Colin Powell said it best during the lead up, “If you break it, you own it.” He was extremely right. I think we will be involved for more time to come.
Before we part ways, could you tell us if there’s anything you wish you’d known then that you didn’t?
Well, there’s a lot. [pause] I wish I’d really known the power of the presidency at the time. Calling students bums, saying that all those horrible things to those who opposed his politics in Indochina, Vietnam. The president can really have an effect on people, and it goes on down to the Executive of the State of Ohio saying things like, “We have to eradicate them.” Those are powerful words. There are still, to this day, people who hate my guts, and I was a hundred yards away from the actual protesters. That shouldn’t stop someone from standing up for their rights or beliefs. I have no regrets.