Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr: Review of Philip Caputo, 13 Seconds: A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings (Penguin, 2005)

Jul 13, 2005 9:03 pm

Luther Spoehr: Review of Philip Caputo, 13 Seconds: A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings (Penguin, 2005)

Philip Caputo, 13 Seconds:   A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings .   198 pages.   Penguin, 2005.

            Like many colleges, Kent State University was convulsed by protest and violence after President Richard Nixon announced the American incursion into Cambodia on April 30, 1970.   Most dramatically, KSU's ROTC building was burned to the ground on Saturday, May 2, in the presence of hundreds of demonstrators.   The mayor of Kent, Leroy Satrom, and, more crucially, Ohio Governor James Rhodes, expressed outrage.

            When, on May 4, Ohio National Guardsmen who had been called to the campus fired over 60 shots into a crowd of demonstrators (killing four students and wounding nine others) the situation was truly explosive.   The Guardsmen claimed self-defense, although, of the four fatalities, the closest to them had been 90 yards away.   A Presidential Commission's 1970 report was unsympathetic to their claims, but the judge in the 1974 criminal trial threw the case out of court, saying that the prosecution's case against the Guardsmen was too weak.   A civil trial led to a monetary settlement.   Public opinion polls consistently showed that average Americans had more sympathy for the Guardsmen than for the demonstrators.    Here, truly was the apex (or nadir) of Vietnam-era conflict.

            Philip Caputo, whose most notable book is his first, A Rumor of War , was a young Chicago Tribune reporter in that spring of 1970 when he was assigned to cover the events unfolding on the remote college campus in Kent, Ohio.   He arrived too late to witness the shootings.   But nearly 35 years later he was moved to retrace his steps and then write this account of the incident, along with his thoughts about it.

            The result is a grab-bag, a collection of stories and musing that are taken up and then set aside abruptly and arbitrarily, written and edited in a slapdash fashion.   (One example:   he reprints the May 5 story he filed with the Tribune , but doesn't make clear when the quoting stops and the new narrative begins.   Among other things, this failing makes it virtually impossible to tell whether he's reporting his thinking and emotions at the time or decades later.)

            The best part of the book is the second chapter, which reconstructs the events that led to the shootings and provides portraits of the four very different students--Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder--who were the unluckiest of the unlucky that day.   The rest of the book--including a summary of various attempts to investigate, analyze and assign responsibility for the killings, a gratuitous detour that compares the incident with the Boston Massacre, and what Caputo terms his"existential" musings on the meaning of the event--doesn't really add much value to the work.

            The book's final 75 pages are given over to appendices:   a timeline of events from the shootings through the January 1979 court settlement victims' lawsuits (families of the slain students received $15,000 each) and 25 pages from September 1970"Report of the President's Commission on Campus Unrest."

            Actually, by far the best reason to buy this book is its inclusion of a DVD of"Kent State:   The Day the War Came Home" (2001), an hour-long documentary (originally aired on The Learning Channel) that won several awards, including an Emmy for Best Documentary.   Filled with rarely-seen footage and interviews with participants on all sides of the issues, it is both gripping and provocative, a valuable resource for anyone teaching or just wanting to learn more about this painful episode.

            For those seeking more traditional prose sources, the chapter in Kenneth Heineman's Campus Wars: The Peace Movement at American State Universities in the Vietnam Era (1993) provides a good starting point, while a valuable online source is Jerry M. Lewis and Thomas R. Hensley,"The May 4 Shootings at Kent State University:   The Search for Historical Accuracy" ( ), which includes an extensive bibliography.

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