Bitter Harvest: Gordon Kahl and the Posse Comitatus – Murder in the Heartland
by James Corcoran
Publisher – Viking
Rating – 7.5/10
Summary – United States Marshals engaged in a shootout with anti-tax protestor Gordon Kahl in North Dakota during 1983. Two men died. Author James Corcoran tells the tale of that fateful day in the good book, Bitter Harvest.
Review – Whatever happened the militia movement? In the mid-1990s, when events such as Ruby Ridge, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Montana Freemen standoff dominated the news, it was all the rage. And since then? Nothing.
In his 1990 book Bitter Harvest, James Corcoran does not tell us what has become of the extreme right. But, he does explain some of the ideas that helped bring about the militia movement. Corcoran focuses on the strange case of Gordon Kahl, a North Dakota farmer who “…looked like someone’s grandfather…” (p. 3).
February 13, 1983
In the years following World War II, Kahl became enmeshed in the tax-protest movement. Starting in 1969, he refused to pay his federal taxes. While the IRS initially ignored Kahl (who seldom earned more than $10,000 per year), authorities charged him with tax evasion after he went on TV in Texas during 1976, told his story, and urged other Americans to also refuse to pay their taxes.
After Kahl’s 1977 arrest, he eventually served eight months in the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Following his release in 1979, Kahl violated his probation and then vowed that he would not go to prison again. When authorities attempted to arrest Kahl on February 13, 1983, two U.S. Marshals were killed in the shootout. Afterward, Kahl disappeared into an underground network of his sympathizers.
Bitter Harvest has an great opening, recounting the shootout from the perspective of Bradley Kapp, one of the officers who attempted to subdue Kahl. Author Corcoran describes Kapp wiping blood from his eye and attempting to handle his shotgun despite a grisly wound to the hand. The scene is vivid and the reader experiences Kapp’s terror and the confusion.
Unfortunately, in the next two sections (pages 5-42), Corcoran digresses by examining first the early 1980s farm crisis and then America’s extreme right. Both of these chapters are reasonably interesting, but the focus is overly broad as – arguably – this material too far from Kahl’s story.
Though a talented writer, Corcoran cannot resist the temptation to editorialize a bit. While, for the most part, Corcoran allows the facts to tell the story, his contempt for Kahl’s views shows once in a while. Interestingly, Corcoran also has some strong words regarding the federal prosecutors who sought to convict those involved in the shootout; specifically, Corcoran questions the prosecutors’ attempts to suppress some information regarding the case while introducing other, similar evidence when it was to their advantage. Likewise, Corcoran describes the prosecutors as “…not at all gracious ” (p. 232).
Chapter 3 (pages 43 to 68) is a strong account of Kahl’s life. Still, for readers, he is largely unknowable. Kahl’s involvement in the shootout will cause many to hate him. Yet, Corcoran concedes that Kahl was by no means all bad.
Among Kahl’s redeeming features was his World War II service; as a turret gunner on B-25 bombers, he flew over 50 combat missions and was awarded “…a Silver Star, a Bronze star, two air medals, a presidential unit citation, nine battle stars, and two Purple Hearts” (p. 44). Also surprising is the way that Kahl’s acquaintances described him –
“It wasn’t that Gordon Kahl was an unpleasant man. Despite his stubborn streak, friends and neighbors said that if you avoided discussing politics and religion – which wasn’t difficult in that such subjects were regarded as personal and thus were out-of-bounds in most conversations among these private farmers – there was a great deal to like about Gordon Kahl. Although quiet, Gordon was personable, got along easily with children, and had a strong sense of loyalty to both family and friends. He didn’t drink alcohol, smoke tobacco, or use foul language. He was viewed as honest and hardworking, a man who had a knack for making over any rough-sounding truck, tractor, or automobile into a smooth-running machine” (p. 52).
Given such descriptions, the reader wonders why Kahl found so much to like in the world of extreme politics. Corcoran hints at possible reasons in his discussion of the farm crisis. But, ultimately, there is no answer to why a man who appeared to be a “salt-of-the-earth” farmer became a killer. The lack of clear answers is frustrating – and frightening – to the reader.
Following the killings, Kahl disappeared while some of his accomplices were incarcerated. Kahl’s whereabouts – and activities – during this time are largely unknown (though Bitter Harvest recounts many rumors and hints). The story of a violent radical on the run is interesting and it frustrates the reader that no one knows how Kahl made his getaway.
While I don’t want to include a “spoiler” in this review, it is fair to say that Corcoran provides some closure to Kahl’s story. The reader leaves Bitter Harvest feeling as though he or she has at least an outline of “what really happened.”
As noted, it’s difficult to understand the origins of Kahl’s extremism. His background wasn’t so different from those of millions of other Americans, but (fortunately) few people arrive at such a bleak place. Each reader will have to find his or her own answers as to this story’s meaning.
I had a librarian at my local university track down a copy of Bitter Harvest for me. When these events occurred, I was in 5th and 6th grades; I remember the news reports about the case. With the Kahl case, I was starting to become aware of political extremists. Since then, I’ve read many books on both right- and left-wing zealots; the presence of such people in a society that guarantees considerable freedom continues to fascinate me.
In short, Bitter Harvest is a story of the violent fringe of the anti-tax movement in the early-1980s. These largely-forgotten events are compelling and the well-written Bitter Harvest offers much food for thought.