(Willson speaking at a church in San Francisco, July 2011)
Brian Willson's life changed forever on one afternoon in mid-April 1969. Willson was a US Air Force captain in Vietnam. He had been instructed to visit some recently-bombed targets and assess how successful the South Vietnamese pilots (trained by the US) had been at hitting those targets. The first target they visited, in the Vinh Long Province, had been bombed only an hour or two before they arrived.
Writing in his 2011 memoir, Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson:
My first thought was that I was witnessing an egregious, horrendous mistake. The "target" was no more than a small fishing and rice farming community. The "village" was smaller than a baseball playing field. . . . As with most settlements, this one was undefended – we saw no antiaircraft guns, no visible small arms, no defenders of any kind. The pilots who bombed this small hamlet flew low . . . able to get close to the ground without fear of being shot down, thus increasing the accuracy of their strafing and bombing. They certainly would have been able to see the inhabitants, mostly women with children taking care of various farming and domestic chores. . . .
I didn't see one person standing. Most were ripped apart from bomb shrapnel and machine gun wounds, many blackened by napalm beyond recognition; the majority were obviously children.
I began sobbing and gagging. I couldn't fathom what I was seeing, smelling, thinking. I took a few faltering steps to my left, only to find my way blocked by the body of a young woman lying at my feet. . . . I bent down for a closer look and stared, aghast, at the woman's open eyes. The [three] children [near her] were motionless, blackened blood drying on their bullet and shrapnel-riddled bodies. Napalm had melted much of the woman's face including her eyelids, but as I focused on her face, it seemed that her eyes were staring at me.
She was not alive. But at the moment her eyes met mine, it felt like a lightning bolt jolted through my entire being. Over the years I have thought of her so often I have given her the name "Mai Ly" [a rearranging of the letters in My Lai].
I was startled when Bao [the lieutenant], who was several feet to my right, asked why I was crying. I remember struggling to answer. The words that came out astonished me. "She is my family," I said, or something to that effect. I don't know where those words came from. . . . From that moment on, nothing would ever be the same for me. . . .
I now knew, viscerally, the evil nature of the war. But more than that, I knew that these bombings had deliberately targeted inhabited, undefended villages, and therefore murdered countless civilians. And those murders had been planned and carried out as part of a policy created by the U.S. government . . .
During that same week in mid-April Bao and I went to four other . . . settlements, similarly destroyed. . . . I could not talk about this experience for twelve years, and the thought of it still creates tremors in my body. I often find myself crying at the thought of it, and at times feel a rage that nearly chokes me.
After Viet Nam, I knew that my own government . . . was not only criminal but psychotic. Buried deeper inside me, however, was an even more radical epiphany, the truth Mai Ly offered me through her open eyes. She is my family. It would take me many years to understand the real meaning of this experience – that we are all one – a lesson that continues to deepen and expand as I grow older.
His desire to understand why he had referred to those dead Vietnamese as "my family" was a key part of what Willson described as "my journey in recovering my humanity".
Willson, now 70 years old, spoke for roughly 30 minutes last night, without notes, giving one of the most eloquent, coherent, emotional, and blunt talks about war and its far-reaching effects I have ever heard.
His words were more philosophical than historical, though he did share some of his background. Willson grew up in the Finger Lakes region of New York State before his family moved to a farming community near Chautauqua, New York. He was an all-conference athlete, a member of his student council, a regular churchgoer, and valedictorian of his class. Willson says he was
very right-wing, like everyone in my family, and my town. It was during the McCarthy period and everyone felt the Communists were threatening our lives. . . . My father believed that killing a commie for Jesus was a person's highest calling.When he was 25 years old, Willson received his draft notice. "I was a total believer in the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War but I was what they called a 'chickenhawk' – a hawk on war, but too chicken to actually fight." He joined the Air Force, thinking it was a safer option than either the Army or Marines, and in early March 1969 was sent to Vietnam to oversee the protection of US air bases.
Roughly six weeks after he arrived, Willson visited the decimated villages that his country had bombed. Afterwards, he continued to carry out his duties, but "I spoke out against the war every day, to maintain my sanity". He was far from alone. Anti-war sentiment was common among troops in Viet Nam. There were regular mutinies, and open refusals to follow orders. By 1971, there were no reliable ground units, and many pilots would dump their bombs in remote, uninhabited areas. Commanding officers had to stop issuing orders to kill and destroy, as their troops' refusal to carry out orders would have hurt the officers' military records.
Willson was sent home several months later. On the day he left Vietnam, he was read a list of approximately 50 counts against him – sedition, insubordination, refusal to follow orders, the list went on and on – but the military did not prosecute him. When he returned home, his mindset radically changed, his family disowned him. Willson said: "So you could be disowned by your family for refusing to fight. And you could be disowned for serving and then coming back and saying, 'Fuck that.'"
Willson explained how he studied the works of Carl Jung and came to believe in universal attributes – empathy, cooperation, mutual respect, fairness – that are deeply embedded in each of us, hard-wired in our DNA through tens of thousands of years of evolution. At one point, those qualities were essential for survival. Now, while those fundamental attributes can be covered over by greed and hatred and selfishness, they cannot be erased. And they will surface, eventually – and they must be reckoned with.
Willson began a new life of political activism. In January 1986, he travelled to Nicaragua to see the destruction created by President Reagan's terrorist attacks in Central America. When he witnessed a caravan of open caskets on horse-drawn wagons – again mostly women and children – he realized,
I have been here before. . . . At that moment there was a synthesis that occurred within my deepest being. My cognitive understanding of the history of U.S. arrogance and imperialism was being psychically integrated with the viscera throughout my body and heart-soul. There was an alignment of clarity and energy I had not experienced previously. Vietnam was not an aberration. Neither was Nicaragua. Nor the original Holocaust of Native Americans, nor the subsequent Holocaust of kidnapped Africans. Nor U.S. interventions and murders in countless other locations over time and regions, amounting to yet another Holocaust, this latter one being global in nature. They all represent the tragedies inevitably caused by the historic superior attitude of "Manifest Destiny" that has dominated and enabled our civilization from its origins. Genuine people's self-determination, i.e., democracy, simply is not tolerated. Such principle interferes with unfettered domination and exploitation. For me, there was no escaping this conclusion.In mid-1987, Willson was participating in a nonviolent protest of US government munitions trains at the Naval Weapons Station in Concord, California, which were carrying bombs and chemical weapons to be used against the people of Central America. On September 1, he and two other protesters sat on the tracks. Willson figured the sight of the men in front of the stopped train would make a excellent photo opportunity. However, the train did not stop.
The other men were able to get out of the way, but Willson was knocked down. His right leg was completely severed a few inches below the knee and his left leg was mangled (and would be amputated later). A "lemon-sized" bone fragment was ripped from his skull and driven into his right frontal lobe. On the shaky video of the accident, a portion of Willson's brain is visible. The film was shown during a lengthy interview of Willson on Democracy Now!. (The interview and transcript are here).
There are also several photos of the impact in Blood: Willson trying to get away approximately one second before being hit, and train rolling over his body and dragging it down the tracks. Willson said the train operators later testified they were under orders to not stop. The train was not authorized to travel at more than 5 mph, but it was going 17 mph when it hit him. It had not applied its brakes during the entire trip and, in fact, was accelerating at the time of impact. It was a clear case of attempted murder, but the US government labelled Willson a "terrorist", claiming he was trying to hijack the train.
Much of what Willson talked about Monday night was spiritual in nature, though not religious. He spoke of honouring the integrity embedded in each of us, of respecting our own dignity and that of all other humans. "Dignity is important; longevity is not so important. Longevity without dignity is worthless."
He also dug a bit into some core questions. Why is obedience so easy, and why is disobedience so difficult? Again, Willson feels that this relates to our deep archetypes. Compliance within the community assured our distant ancestors of safety; disobeying the group's decisions meant the threat of being cast out – which might mean death. In our modern times, few people are comfortable speaking out, of deliberately marking themselves as different and facing the ridicule or being ostracized for having a minority opinion.
Willson is fascinated by the methods of propaganda used by governments to dehumanize and demonize a group of people, in order to get its populace to support - or at least acquiesce to - the murder of innocent people, and how the military induces recruits to overcome their natural reluctance to kill. Part of Willson's work in therapy was overcoming his shame, knowing that he was already 27 years old, with a Master's degree, before he realized he had been so duped.
Willson insists that domination and brutality hurts not only the subjugated, but also the dominator, referring to himself as a "recovering white male". He said the idea that "we are more deserving" is
an insidious sickness. In the case of the US, we stole the land, and murdered the people that had lived on it, with total impunity. And we built the country with stolen, slave labour. What does that do to our souls as a people?Willson mentioned On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society (1995) a book written by former US Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, "an analysis of the physiological processes involved with killing another human being".
Many of Willson's comments were blunt statements of truth:
"The U.S. population is 4.6% of the planet's total and the U.S. consumes anywhere from 25-33% of the world's resources. That requires an imperial policy."During the discussion portion of the evening, Willson spoke about the increasing numbers of veterans at the Occupy sites around the country.
"Industrial civilization is on a collision course with life itself."
"Some people feel they can go into another country and simply start killing people. It's absurd."
"Once you have seen the darkness of war, and worked it through with clarity that you cannot be a part of it, it's a powerful force, it's an energy force within you. I feel it do deeply, I have to resist."
In Boston, a group of veterans got wind one night that the police planned to raid the Occupy site at 1:20 a.m. The vets stood in front of the site, locking arms. The cops moved in and knocked them down. Many vets were injured, but the next day, another two dozen Iraq veterans who had not previously identified themselves as vets joined Veterans for Peace, after being so disgusted at what they had seen. Similarly, scores of veterans joined Occupy Oakland after former Marine Scott Olsen was critically injured by a stun grenade or tear gas canister thrown at protesters by police.
Willson mentioned another "occupy" event in April 1971, when he took part in a one-week occupation of the Mall in Washington, DC. Veterans, dressed in fatigues, went around to various government building during the day – Congress, the White House, Washington Monument, and so on – speaking out against the atrocities being committed in Vietnam. (John Kerry's famous "last man to die for a lie" speech was made at this time, when hundreds of veterans turned in their medals.)
Willson said that the Occupy movement and other forms of resistance against war and empire are nothing less than a redefinition of what it means to be a human being. "It's so powerful because it wasn't planned. When change is ready to happen, it happens very quickly."
When asked to gauge the potential power of an empire's population to resist, Willson said it was hard to tell, wryly noting that after being utterly certain that the 1987 munitions train would stop, he tends to avoid making predictions.
At the end of the discussion, more than a dozen war resisters in the crowd – people who refused to fight in Iraq, Vietnam, and World War II – were invited to come up and stand with Willson. As people took photos, Willson thanked all the war resisters for their courage, and for refusing to participate in this "total criminal bullshit".