Activist and advocate S. Brian Willson talks war and peace
By Dylan Hackett, News Editor
Last week I had the opportunity to have lunch and a chat with S. Brian Willson, Vietnam War veteran, peace activist, and advocate against the worldwide death and destruction caused by the United States of America’s foreign policy. He was on his short book tour supporting the second run of his recent book, Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson. He stood tall on his prosthetic legs and leopard-printed sockets and carried himself with strength not usually found in man 70 years of age. He spoke, with his distinct American dialect (reminding me of my grandfather’s own manner of speaking), of his life of learning, tragedy, and non-violent protest.
“[My book] is kind of a metaphorical map for those people who want to look at how one person navigated through the bullshit, one who totally believed in it then realized it was bullshit. I’m still navigating,” Willson said humbly, with a hint of laughter. “So, I call myself a recovering white male because I’m recovering my humanity.”
Willson describes his book as “psychohistorical memoir”—a description brought on by the many scholarly fields he has studied, but also because he chronicles a mental journey.
“I call [the book] a psychohistorical memoir because I was answering a question that was on my mind for 20 years and the question was this,” Willson explained. “‘How was it so easy for a kid like me to follow on order to go 9,000 miles from my farming community in upstate New York to destroying farming communities in Vietnam of people I knew nothing about?”
He traces his life journey in the book from his archetypical American boyhood, to his deployment as a captain in Vietnam, to his loss of legs by the charge of a US Navy train (carrying munitions to central America), to his life now. He is active despite his maimed legs, which were replaced by prosthetic “third world legs”—a term he uses to express solidarity with those in Vietnam and elsewhere who have been maimed by the American global war machine.
Willson spoke in detail about the major turning points in his life, a story which kept me rapt in awe at the horrors he faced and the stoic, steady tone with which he described them.
“Life is a journey that mommy and daddy didn’t tell me about. My church didn’t tell me about it, my school didn’t tell me about it, but it’s a reality that I learn about that really goes on behind the facade of the pretend societies called ‘Western Democracies.’” Willson remarked.
When Willson came to tell me his first-hand accounts of walking over the corpses of the napalmed villages in Vietnam, I was taken aback by the poise with which he described the epiphany he had that led him on the learning path he took.
“I happened to be in a village where I couldn’t walk any further because the bodies were so densely packed on the ground. I looked down and I saw what looked like a fairly young woman who had been clutching three children when they died. Her eyes were open. I was in shock, myself, to see this scene. I bent over to look into her eyes. I don’t know what I was doing, actually. I was just, enamoured by her eyes which were just staring at me, or at least from the angle I was looking at her. Then I realized the napalm had burned her eyelids off. She was dead.”
“I was crying, I was gagging bile juice and I was with a Vietnamese Lieutenant and he asked me what my problem was. Without thinking about it I said ‘I’m looking at my sister, my extended family’ and he laughed. It was irreversible knowledge—this woman was my sister. I’m connected to her. It wasn’t anything I had any preparation for.”
“I didn’t have any spiritual or philosophical depth to my upbringing. At that point, I had a depth and understood that everything I had been taught and told was bullshit. How could there be any validity in all the ideology of all the politics I learned if it meant that this is what we’re doing to people to justify it. That’s when I realized I was the savage, I was the enemy. That was the epiphany.”
“A week later, I was reading an article in the Stars and Stripes newspaper. It was about a young man in the United States who was jailed for burning the US flag. This was about a week after I had been to five villages that had been wiped out by napalm and everyone burned. All of the pilots got promotions. Then I realized okay, ‘you burn the flag which is the symbol for the nation that’s doing the napalm bombing, you go to jail. You do the napalm bombing and burn people, and you get promoted. That to me is a mind-fuck.”
“After that I became a serious student,” Willson said. “I wasn’t in college, I was out of graduate school but I became a student and I still am.”
Without properly thinking, I pried into the meaning of the book’s title, Blood on the Tracks, asking if the title had any connection to the Bob Dylan album of the same name.
“No it doesn’t. It has a connection to that fact that I lost almost all of my legs on the railroad tracks, in 1987, Concord, California,” he replied with haste. “I was involved in a block of a munitions train which was not unusual. I mean, this base had been experiencing demonstrations from since back in the mid-‘60s because they’ve moved a lot of munitions. [The base] was the source of most of the munitions that went to Vietnam so during the Vietnam years there was a lot of demonstration and a lot of blocking of trains.”
Willson was conducting a blockade of the munitions train with a group of friends. They were also fasting in protest to the continual export of weaponry used to kill and defend economic interests of the United States. While he had no memory of the incident due to a skull fracture which damaged his right frontal lobe, five photographers and a videographer were present.
“I’m speculating that since the autonomic nervous system and adrenaline bypasses cognitive processing when danger is that eminent, I never dreamed that the train was going to run into me. It had never done that. In this photo here,” Willson said, pointing to one of the many photographs in his book documenting the incident, “you can see it’s at the point of when my body has been hit, it knocked me back. This is about a second after the other picture.
“You can see in this photo [Willson points to the adjacent photograph of the train rolling over his body] that the lower part of my right leg is severed, separate from my leg lying next to me, next to the tracks. It’s not attached to my leg at that point,” he explained candidly.
I asked Willson about how the Navy and government responded to the fact that one of their train’s accelerated (an unheard of protocol) at a blockade of protesters.
“The bizarre nature of power knows no limits to its insanity and its criminality. We were considered domestic terror suspects and the train was given orders, on that day, to not stop. It was an intentional act, at minimum to destroy our block—but destroy our block by running us over.
“I describe the three genocides that my country was built on: killing the Indians to steal the land, stealing the labour from Africans, killing millions in the process with total impunity and, in the 20th century, going all over the world, stealing resources at gunpoint—all rationalized, of course, with noble sounding rhetoric.”
Today, Willson still appears to be much like the kind of man you’d expect to see at a protest or demonstration for a worthy cause. With a well-worn red headband containing his long hair—well, the longest I’ve ever seen on a 70-year-old man. Willson also had impressive upper body strength from his handcycling hobby. While he didn`t bring his handcycle to Vancouver, he mentioned to me as we walked back from our lunch destination that he had spent the morning at the Britannia Community Centre off Commercial Drive. Characteristically, he managed to tie that experience to the state of austerity measures being taken by governments worldwide.
“This community centre across the street, the Britannia, it’s a fantastic public community centre but they’re going to want to privatize it under the guise that ‘it’ll be more efficient, we’ll save money.’ It just ignores the fact that this is supposed to be for the public and we all pool our resources to have public services, not for people to make profit off it!”
Last year, he conducted his book tour of over 24 talks covering over 1,200 km free of carbon emissions—he did the tour travelling by handcycle. He also favours use of trains for long-distance travelling.
Willson is a pacifist and holds his message of non-violence as a means of achieving sympathy and to not respond to state violence with the same force it shoves society with.
“We really need to invalidate the state. In order to do that, you have to invalidate violence—delegitimize it,” explained Willson as we discussed the Occupy movement.
“I went to 12 Occupy camps around the country. A lot of them realize we live in a dysfunctional culture. Our villages are dysfunctional, our families are dysfunctional, but we don’t want to continue to be dysfunctional. Therefore, we have to create the new paradigm built on cooperation and conversation. Conversations lead to new conversations, conversations lead to new ideas. [At Occupy] you’re no longer separated by living room partitions—you’re out on the street, you’re not distracted by television and you’re actually in the streets because you feel a common plight with everyone else who has come to the streets.”
Concluding our talk, I asked Willson if he had any specific message for readers of The Other Press, and he told me something I believe every student should consider:
“I want the reader to question industrial civilization and what role they think that they have been preparing themselves to be doing with their life. Whether they believe that what they do with their life is going to support a humane future or whether it’s going to support the deepening of industrial civilization which is leading, basically, to our extinction.”