- S. Brian Willson
Vietnam veteran whose wartime experiences transformed him into a pacifist and an activist. On September 1, 1987, he was nearly killed by a U.S. Navy munitions train while engaging in a nonviolent blockade in protest of weapons shipments to El Salvador. He now uses two prosthetic legs and a three-wheeled handcycle to "walk." His new memoir is called Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson.
Today we spend the hour with a man who put his life on the line twice: once when he served in the Vietnam War and again when he came back. On September 1, 1987, Brian Willson took part in a nonviolent political action outside the Concord Naval Weapons Station in California. He sat down on the train tracks along with two other veterans to try to stop a U.S. government munitions train sending weapons to Central America during the time of the Contra wars. The train didn’t stop. Willson suffered 19 broken bones, a fractured skull and lost both of his legs. "Before, I had spent many months in Nicaragua in the war zones, and I had been to El Salvador talking to guerrillas and talking to human rights workers, understanding the incredible extent of murders that were going on and maimings and displacements, because of fear of being murdered," Willson said. He decided, "I have to at least escalate my own nonviolent occupation, if you will, of the tracks." In retrospect, Willson added, "I regret that I lost my legs, but I don’t regret that I was there. I did what I said I was going to do... Following orders, I discovered, is not what I’m about." Today, he is traveling the country visiting solidarity protests with Occupy Wall Street, where some of his fellow protesters are also veterans. He’s also been talking about his new memoir, "Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson." On the West Coast, he completed much of the tour on his handcycle. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour with a man who put his life on the line at least twice: once, when he served in Vietnam, and again, when he came back. It was September 1st, 1987. Brian Willson took part in a nonviolent action outside the Concord Naval Weapons Station in California. He sat down on the train tracks along with two other veterans, trying to stop a U.S. government munitions train from sending weapons to Central America. The train did not stop. Willson lost both of his legs.
Well, Brian Willson joins us in our studio. He came to us yesterday. He’s traveling the country visiting Occupy sites, where some of his fellow protesters are also veterans. He has also been talking about his new memoir, Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson. On the West Coast, Brian completed much of the tour on his handcycle. Now he’s on the East Coast.
I started by asking him exactly what happened on that day in September 1987, when he carrying out this act of peaceful resistance on the train tracks outside Concord Naval Weapons Station in California.
S. BRIAN WILLSON: It was a Tuesday, September 1st, 1987. And, of course, it was planned by me in advance after spending much time in Nicaragua and El Salvador witnessing the carnage of U.S. policy.
AMY GOODMAN: What was happening then there?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: In?
AMY GOODMAN: Nicaragua and El Salvador?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: Well, of course, President Reagan was—had his war on—war of terror and what he called the terrorists in revolutionary Nicaragua, that was—had overthrown Somoza, and the revolutionary process in El Salvador, trying to oust a very repressive, feudalistic government. And so, he was—Reagan declared there was a Soviet beachhead being formed in Latin America, which of course we all know is absurd, just another excuse for putting down self-determination processes in other countries.
So we knew the weapons were coming from the Concord, California, Naval Weapons Station, 25 miles east of San Francisco, and we decided to go there, after many efforts of trying to get Congress to stop the funding—this whole process of petitioning Congress, which is now pretty much an oligarchic institution representing corporations. We decided we would directly try to obstruct the flow of munitions that move on trucks and trains at Concord to the ships in Sacramento River. And so, it’s a three-mile track from the bunkers to the ship. It crosses a public right-of-way, highway. This is where we were vigiling. We had been vigiling for three months. Many arrests had taken place. I had only been a jail support person. And I decided on September 1st, 1987, which was an anniversary of the Veterans Fast for Life the year before on the steps of the Capitol, that two vets and I would do a 40-day water-only fast between the rails to obstruct, at least temporarily, the movement of the train.
So, I had watched these trains move all summer, with flatbed cars full of crates of white phosphorus rockets, 500-pound bombs, mortars, millions of rounds of ammunition. And it was just getting to the point where I said, I have to at least escalate my own nonviolent occupation, if you will, of the tracks. And we told the base what we were doing, why we were doing it, when we were going to do it, and asked for a meeting with the commander, and he refused.
So, at 10 of 12:00 on September 1st, we, the two other veterans and I, took our position on the rails, starting our 40-day water-only fast, knowing we would probably spend much of that in jail. There was a big sign next to our vigil that said, "Penalty for blocking federal munitions trains is a year in prison and a $5,000 fine." So we knew what the consequences were. I actually—and the first train was coming just before noon, first train that day. And the next thing I know, I woke up in a hospital, four days later.
I have no memory of what happened. Of course, I had 40 friends there who were witnessing it. The other two veterans just barely got out of the way. The train was speeding. The FBI, in looking at the one video, said the train was accelerating to more than three times its five-mile-an-hour speed limit at the point of impact. We found out later that the train crew that day had been ordered not to stop the train, which was an unprecedented—basically an illegal order. Why? Because they said I was going to hijack the train, which of course—there were 350 armed Marines to protect the base. There was usually local police present when we were present on the tracks. I had never envisioned it being a dangerous action.
And then, while I was in the hospital, an FBI agent was fired. And after almost 22 years, he was fired for refusing to investigate me and three other veterans as domestic terrorist suspects. So this was all shocking to me, just shocking that I, this all-American kid that grew up in upstate New York, even though I kind of shifted after Vietnam to being a dissenter, or my father would just say a marginal person—I just never imagined this happening. Of course, this government will do anything. We know that. But I would imagine it doing it to people in other countries, but not to me in this country. So it was a very interesting experience.
AMY GOODMAN: When you woke up in the hospital four days later, what did you understand happened?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: Well, initially, I saw a lot of plants at the base of my bed, green plants. And my partner at the time was sitting next to me. And I blurted out, according—well, this is what I remember, my first words: "Wow! I’m in a jail cell with plants? And my family is next to the bed?" And my family explained to me, "Honey, you are in a hospital. You got hit by the train." And I couldn’t believe it. I just couldn’t believe it.
And then I was watching the replay on the wall television for several days. They were playing it on the news, and I was watching myself be run over by the train and was like, "Why just like" — this is what happens to people, of course, all over the world who obstruct the Yankee mad train that’s trying to repress people who want to have self-determination or what have you. So it was just another part of the U.S. policy coming home very personally to me viscerally.
And the day I woke up, 9,000 people showed up at the tracks and ripped up 300 feet of the tracks and stacked up the railroad ties in a very interesting sculpture. And from that day, for 28 consecutive months, day and night, 24 hours a day, there was a permanent occupation of the tracks of sometimes 200 people, with tents, blocking every train and every truck. Twenty-one hundred people were arrested. Three people had their arms broken by the police. This was all 24 years ago. Occupation of the tracks. The police were abusive. However, the trains, of course, did stop after that. It’s just that they had to stop and wait for massive numbers of arrests. And it was amazing.
AMY GOODMAN: What did you understand then, as you watched the video of yourself and the train rolling over you? As it rolled over you, it sliced off both your legs?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: It sliced off one of my legs and mangled the other one. I had a huge skull fracture. In fact, I have a plate in my skull right here. A piece of my skull the size of a lemon was completely dislodged from my skull and driven into—and destroyed my right frontal lobe, which was the—which is why the doctors were concerned that I might die in the operating room.
AMY GOODMAN: Brian Willson, telling his story, September 1st, 1987, telling us today, as he talks about his memoir, Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson. We’ll be back with him in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to Brian Willson, Vietnam veteran, nonviolent peace protester. On September 1st, 1987, Brian lost both his legs when he was run over by a U.S. government munitions train. He was taking part in a nonviolent action to attempt to stop the train from bringing those weapons to Central America. I continued my interview by asking him how the FBI and the Concord Naval Weapons Station in California responded to the incident that day.
S. BRIAN WILLSON: Well, the base at the time said they didn’t see us, which was inconceivable because the locomotive that runs—that hauls those munitions always has two spotters on the very front of the train in radio contact with the engineer, making sure the tracks are clear, and the speed limit’s five miles an hour. And they could see us for 650 feet. So the fact that they said they couldn’t see us was simply their admission that they were not doing their job or they were lying. Some reports said I was pushed onto the tracks by one of my comrades that were with us at the time. As I said, there were 40 of us there. It was three of us on the tracks. And there were 12 Vietnam vets there that day. So they were all there in solidarity with trying to interfere with munitions that were killing hundreds of campesinos every day, every week, or maiming them every week, in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
AMY GOODMAN: Had you talked with people who had been hurt in El Salvador and Nicaragua?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: I talked with hundreds of people in El—
AMY GOODMAN: Before or after?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: Before and after. Before, I had spent many months in Nicaragua in the war zones, and I had been to El Salvador talking to guerrillas and talking to human rights workers, understanding the incredible extent of murders that were going on and maimings and displacements, because of fear of being murdered. I saw and spent lots of time, and very viscerally moved by what I was finding.
One day, in the spring of ’87, before I went to the tracks, I visited 200 amputees in the hospital. And I remember coming out of the hospital and sitting on a stone outside the hospital—this was up in the war zones in Nicaragua—and I said, "Their legs are worth just as much as mine" — not knowing that I was going to lose my legs three months later.
AMY GOODMAN: Brian Willson, you sued. Who did you sue? And what did you learn in the depositions and the information that came out?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: I sued the train crew, three-member train crew, and all their superiors, three levels above them in the chain of command, and I sued the Navy. The train crew sued me first, actually, in a bizarre suit that was in court for two years before it was thrown out, and they sued me for causing them mental duress—very bizarre—because I didn’t get out of the way. I sued them and the government under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which is suing the government for negligent acts of its employees.
And in the depositions, we learned again how the train crew, the three members, had been ordered that day not to stop the train when they came on duty at 6:00 in the morning, that the Navy report by that time had concluded that they could see us for 650 feet and never braked. Even after they finally admitted they did see us, they never even attempted to brake. In fact, they opened the throttle to accelerate.
And I had to sit in the deposition room for 40 hours, five eight-hour days, with the train crew sitting right across the table from me with their seven lawyers, and I with my one lawyer on the other side. Part of the deposition, they requested me to turn over both of my passports and went through every trip I had made in not just Latin America, but the Middle East, asking me who was hosting me, who paid for my trip, who drove me from the airport, where did I stay. And it was a pretty intense process, of course, that they were trying to establish some—I think they, at one point, tried to establish that I was an agent of a foreign government, which would have been, if I hadn’t registered, I would be violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
AMY GOODMAN: Which government were you supposedly?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: Nicaragua. At one point somebody said, oh, Muammar Gaddafi had given President Ortega money to go on a PR campaign in the United States and that I must have been one of the recipients of that money. And, of course, it’s—these people can’t comprehend that people might act in conscience without being paid. It’s outside their frame of reference to even grasp it, including my own parents, of course. My parents—after Vietnam, after my pretty radical shift from an epiphany in Vietnam, I was never able to talk to my parents.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that moment. Talk about why you decided to go to Vietnam.
S. BRIAN WILLSON: Well, I was drafted.
AMY GOODMAN: What year?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: Nineteen sixty-six, and I was in graduate school.
AMY GOODMAN: What were you studying?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: I was studying law and criminology.
AMY GOODMAN: Where?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: In American University in Washington, D.C. It was a combined law school, master’s program. And I didn’t think I could be drafted, because I was a student, but I fell through a loophole.
AMY GOODMAN: Which was?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: I came from an agriculture county, Chautauqua County, in western New York, and it was a farm county, grape farming and dairy farming. And young men who worked on the family farm had an absolute deferment. And schools were preferential deferments. And in those agriculture counties, when they were running out of eligible young men who didn’t have a deferment, they dipped into the school deferment pool. So there I was.
I was for the war. I was very right-wing. I was very anti-Communist. And I enlisted in the Air Force for four years as an officer rather than going in the Army or the Marine Corps. And after two years at headquarters, Air Force, as a lieutenant, I was sent to Vietnam as a Ranger, trained for 12 weeks in Ranger training.
And while I was in Vietnam, I was asked to assess the aftereffects of bombings of—well, yes, aftereffects of bombings of targets, not thinking, initially, that a "target" was a village. So, in one week in April of 1969, I witnessed the aftereffects of bombings of five inhabited fishing villages in the Mekong Delta with somewhere between 700 and 900 dead Vietnamese, more than half of whom were children, all napalmed. And I just broke down. It was inconceivable that I was witnessing this. And from that point on, I realized that the Vietnamese were my family, and I was on the wrong side. That’s quite a startling conclusion to come to after 27 years of heavy conditioning in the American, you know, ideological system. But it was very clear to me that these people and I were the same. And, of course, I became very antiwar, while I was there, which simply meant I was speaking out against the war to my superiors. I wasn’t going to stop the war. I wasn’t going to stop the bombing. But I was expressing myself—
AMY GOODMAN: Did other people agree with you?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: —primarily to keep my sanity. Pardon me?
AMY GOODMAN: Did other people agree with you?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: No. At the time, nobody did. My superiors laughed at me. I said the rules of engagement require us not to target—prohibit us from targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure. And they laughed. And of course I realized there is no such thing as a real law of war. It’s rhetorical. It’s written down. But once you’re in a war zone, there is virtually no rules or laws. And I just—that was a great—I mean, it was illuminating to me. I mean, I probably had to go through that experience to really get it, to really get that my conditioning had really dehumanized me, and I now needed to embark on a process that I call being a recovering white male, which is a lifetime process of learning about my empathy and my deep interest in mutual respect and cooperation, and not to shoot people and to harm people, even if I don’t agree with them. It’s called nonviolence.
AMY GOODMAN: What year did you come back from Vietnam, Brian Willson?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: I came back in 1969, early, because I was sent home early for my antiwar views. And I still had a year left to do in the military, so I did it in Louisiana, a very changed person. I was an activist in Louisiana. I just was marking off the days on the calendar until the day I would get out. And there was some talk of court-martialing me, because they had brought charges against me in Vietnam the day I left, but they never convened a court-martial. I think they would have—
AMY GOODMAN: For opposing the war?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: There were 50-some counts against me—sedition, disaffection, conduct unbecoming an officer, fraternization, theft of government property, which is—was another bizarre thing, just trumped up.
AMY GOODMAN: Rank? Your rank?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: I was a captain.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you come back to this country. It’s 196—
S. BRIAN WILLSON: Seventy.
AMY GOODMAN: Nineteen seventy. You laid down on the tracks in 1987.
S. BRIAN WILLSON: Seventeen—well, I sat on the tracks. I didn’t really lay—lie down. I was sitting in a lotus position like this.
AMY GOODMAN: So talk about that 17-year journey before the tracks.
S. BRIAN WILLSON: Well, I finished law school in 1972 and already had a master’s degree. I discovered I couldn’t comply with the protocol of the court, so I knew I wasn’t going to be a courtroom lawyer. I just couldn’t automatically respect any authority figure ever again. I really couldn’t do it. I didn’t trust myself to obey an order ever, or an instruction. It had to be earned. And so I left law and did a lot of work on prison issues, addressing the injustices of the criminal—what we call the criminal justice system, which I call the criminal injustice system. I was working as a lawyer for various organizations, but I wasn’t a courtroom lawyer. I did that for many years, including as an aide of a state senator, Jack Backman, in Massachusetts, where I had my flashback to Vietnam, actually, which was quite intense, in 1981. I worked with veterans for several years.
AMY GOODMAN: What did the flashback mean? What did you see? What did you experience?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: I was in a cell block in a Walpole State Prison interviewing prisoners. And while I was on that cell block, unexplainably, two guards dragged a prisoner out of a cell on the same—on the same block and the same floor. I was on the same tier. And they were stomping on him with their boots and hitting him with their club. He was—the prisoner was screaming. And in a prison, you know, with the concrete and the steel and the iron, it’s very loud, echoing noises. At that point, I was in Vietnam, and I had to get out of the prison. I was actually interviewing a prisoner at the other end of the block. I actually started staggering down the walkway of the tier, because I was walking over bodies. I was bracing myself against the cell doors just to keep my balance. And I was—in my mind, I was actually in a village, one of the villages I had examined after the bombings. I was crying. I don’t know what the guards thought, but I had to go through seven doors, operated by the guards, to get to my car in the parking lot. And I just sat there for an hour and a half shaking, like this, and sobbing uncontrollably. Couldn’t drive.
And that’s when I became a Vietnam veteran, even though I wasn’t particularly interested in being reminded of it. I was kind of ashamed, actually, that I had not known better. On the other hand, it’s where I got my epiphany, which changed the whole direction of my life, with a certain amount of very empathic feelings about the world. And interestingly enough, the first rap group I went to to get help, I said, "I can’t conceive of a way to heal myself from this traumatic experience without dealing with the immorality of the war as a policy that I got caught up into." And nobody in the group agreed. And the facilitator of the group said, "We don’t discuss politics in the rap group." And I said, "Politics?" I said, "This is part of—this is part of my experience. I don’t know how I can possibly work my way through this without understanding the absolute carnage that we were participating in." We killed 2,100 Southeast Asians, on average, every day for 11 years. I mean, how do you explain that without having to go to the soul of a nation? I had to go to my soul.
Well, then, I did direct an outreach center for two years and filed claims for PTSD and Agent Orange for other veterans. And I resigned from that position and took my first trip to Nicaragua to study what Reagan was calling the Soviet beachhead and the Marxist-Leninists, which I knew, of course, was a code word for poor people organizing for their own self-determination. And within one week after being in the mountains of Nicaragua my very first trip—I couldn’t speak Spanish; I had to have somebody always translating for me—the Contras, Reagan’s Contra terrorists, the people he trained and armed to overthrow the Sandinista revolution, attacked three farming cooperatives, killed 11 people. I saw six of them coming in on open caskets on horse-drawn wagons to the cemetery in Estelí, and I just wept. And I knew then that’s how all civilization has developed—on exploitation and incredible cruelty and murder and maiming.
And then I really studied the history of civilizations. And so, I really became quite a historical—a history student, realizing I knew nothing, really, about history. I did not know context. I didn’t know how other people really felt when they’re being repressed. And, I mean, I did know, I have a sense of it, but I really wanted to know how extensive this had been for several thousand years, and I wanted to understand the context I grew up in, in this—you know, during my lifetime. And so, that experience in Nicaragua led me to take many more trips to Nicaragua, studying U.S. policy and meeting many Nicaraguan—I lost 50 Nicaraguan friends that I had met, and acquaintances, to the Contras. They were killed. And in El Salvador, there were 15 that I had gotten to know who were killed by the death squads. And so, it was very—it becomes very personal. It’s like your family is being murdered. And when your family is murdered, some kind of a response.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, ultimately, you sat down on those tracks—
S. BRIAN WILLSON: I sat on the tracks.
AMY GOODMAN: —in the lotus position.
S. BRIAN WILLSON: And you can’t move those trains without—those weapons without moving my body. That’s right. Because those people in Central America, as my family, they’re part of my family. And the other two veterans felt the same way, of course. Lots of people feel that way. I mean, you know, it was all new to me, discovering this awesome nature of humanity and empathy and how little I had been allowed to express those feelings because I grew up in a society that promoted individualism and competition and acquisition, acquiring things, rather than cooperation and community and inquisitiveness, curiosity. I became very inquisitive. I wasn’t trained to be inquisitive in any serious way in graduate school or in college.
AMY GOODMAN: Vietnam veteran Brian Willson. His memoir is called Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson. We’ll come back to this conversation in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: "Born in the U.S.A.," Bruce Springsteen. In fact, Brian Willson was born on July 4th, 1941. We now return to my interview with Brian Willson, the pacifist, Vietnam vet. On September 1st, 1987, he lost both his legs when he was run over by a train. He was taking part in a nonviolent action attempt to stop the U.S. munitions train as part of a protest against U.S. foreign policy in Central America. I talked to Brian Wilson about his physical and emotional recovery. I started by asking him how long after being in the hospital he realized he had lost both his legs that day, September 1st, 1987.
S. BRIAN WILLSON: It was about two weeks later. I was all wrapped up in the hospital. I mean, my whole body was wrapped because I had so many injuries. I had 19 broken bones and scrapes and scars all over my arms and shoulders.
AMY GOODMAN: How exactly did the train go over you? What did you—
S. BRIAN WILLSON: Went over entirely over my entire body.
AMY GOODMAN: And now you know how. Were you across the track?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: No, I was sitting upright.
AMY GOODMAN: Mm-hmm.
S. BRIAN WILLSON: And I talked to the friends who were there, telling me what happened. I was knocked back and was crushed under the train. I can hardly tell—I can hardly fathom how I fit under the space between the bottom of the cow catcher and the rails. I’m a big guy. And they said I was thrashed around like a ragdoll under the locomotive, and the train kept going. It was accelerating. And the people said that the two spotters in the front of the train just shook their head, "No, we’re coming through." So it was an attempted murder, is what it was. And that’s what the mock jury that we hired to prepare for the jury trial concluded, that it was an intentional act of attempted murder, and therefore, it led to us doing a—pursuing a settlement strategy, because you can’t win a case against the government if it’s intentional. It has to be negligent.
So I—two weeks into—two-and-a-half weeks, they said they were going to change the cast on my stumps. And I was having phantom pain in my feet. So I was having pain all the time in my feet, which weren’t there. So I didn’t really register until they cut open the cast to put a new cast on, and there I saw my stumps for the first time. And then it registered: I really don’t have any legs. But I still had phantom pain in the feet.
AMY GOODMAN: And were your legs—where are they cut?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: About five to six inches below the knee.
AMY GOODMAN: Both legs.
S. BRIAN WILLSON: Both legs. And all the tissues that remain are very healthy, so I’m able to walk very comfortably on prostheses. It took me several months to learn to walk. The brain injury wasn’t clear how that was going to affect my thinking. A lot of neurological tests were done. And what I remember, gee, I didn’t do very well on the rhymes and the riddles. I thought, well, if that’s the worst of it, I guess I can—oh, I guess that’s—you know, it’s acceptable. I have a plate in my skull.
My healing was quite fast. I had wonderful care in the hospital. I had wonderful friends supporting me. And my friends, if you see the picture on the front of the book, those are the friends that stopped my bleeding, because the Navy ambulance arrived two minutes after I was hit and refused to help, saying to my friends, "He’s not lying on Navy property." And they left. It’s a shocking story. It delayed my going to a hospital by 17 minutes, when the county ambulance came.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that, the delay.
S. BRIAN WILLSON: Because the Navy ambulance refused to help me and refused to take me, and so they were frantically calling for another ambulance. And the Navy fire department did come and at least helped with registering my vital signs. But my partner at the time was a midwife, and she immediately put an IV in me, waiting for the ambulance, the other ambulance. I am very fortunate to be alive. I mean, I know that. Nobody, as far as I know, has ever survived being hit head-on by a speeding locomotive and survived. And it was documented by five photographers and a videographer. I mean, that’s pretty amazing in and of itself. And I’m—24 years later, I’ve continued my political work.
AMY GOODMAN: Not just then, not just now, but soon after, you were already on the road.
S. BRIAN WILLSON: Oh, yeah. I was—well, my first out-of-country trip was in March of '88, after my second brain surgery, in which they inserted the plate, checking that the suture of the brain membrane was healing properly and then they put the plate in. I went to Nicaragua, where I was treated like a hero. I was welcomed at the airport by thousands of Nicaraguans. President Ortega came up the steps and held my hand going down the steps of the—to the tarmac. And I got in President Ortega's jeep. Kris Kristofferson was with me. He was sitting in the back of the jeep. And we were slowly driving through mobs of people in the streets of Managua, and they were reaching in and touching my arms, saying, "Brian! Brian! Brian!" And Kristofferson tapped me on the shoulder from behind in the jeep and said, "How are you dealing with this?"
AMY GOODMAN: What does "Brian" mean?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: Brian, in Spanish. And I said, "I have no idea. I’m just trying to accept it." But it was the Nicaraguans who appreciated somebody trying to stop the flow of munitions that were killing them every day.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you feel like you succeeded in any way in doing that?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: Well, I think it brought more attention to the issues, perhaps. I no longer have a neat, linear definition of what is success and failure. You know, it’s like I’m on a journey. One of the themes of my book is life is a journey, not a destination. You just keep—you keep walking. Another theme is dignity trumps longevity. That means being in the moment as much as possible, not worrying about how long you’re going to live. And, you know, one of the major themes is, the American way of life and in Western civilization is the most dangerous force on the planet, and it’s up to humanity now, and especially those of us in the West, to recover our archetypes of empathy and mutual respect. And the stakes are pretty high, so you can’t completely rule it out. But the occupation movement perhaps is a sign that these archetypes—I call them ancient archetypes—emerge ultimately, because people can’t take being repressed forever.
But my—I’m so thankful that the—actually, what happened after September 1st has opened up a lot more doors to me. People wanted to meet me all over the world. I went to the Middle East and spent lots of time in the Palestinian camps. The young boys all night would talk to me, stroking my stumps, because they had known so many people in Palestine that lost legs. And they all had read Jack London’s The Iron Heel, which was written in 1907, and I had not read it. They would tell me, "What do you think of Jack London’s The Iron Heel?" They had all read this book. And it was a prophetic book about what happens to Western democracies when they get obsessed with materialism. And it predated Orwell’s book by 42 years. So it was just interesting, those experiences I had, because I was now welcomed, with no questions asked.
AMY GOODMAN: Brian Willson, you have been to a number of the Occupy encampments. Where have you been?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: Portland.
AMY GOODMAN: Portland, Oregon.
S. BRIAN WILLSON: Oregon, where 10,000 people marched at the start of the occupation, and now there’s about 400 camped out in front of City Hall, with the blessing, so far, of the mayor and the police. And then Chicago; Cleveland; Boston; Manchester, New Hampshire; Concord, New Hampshire; Portland, Maine. When we got off the train in New York City two days ago, we went right to the Occupation New York on Wall Street, and that was quite a scene. I actually spoke to the crowd with Reverend Billy introducing me to the crowd. I had not met Reverend Billy yet.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did you say to the crowd? What was your message?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: I just basically gave them the message that I was bringing blessings from these other seven occupations I had been to and telling them very briefly what I had experienced there. And I was—and also told them that they had all been inspired by what happened in New York, which was the first one, and that I was inspired by it, and perhaps this was the beginning of a horizontal revolution to replace our obedience to vertical structures, which would be a big break in the long pattern of history of obedience. Another theme of the book is, obedience to hierarchy is very unnatural, unhealthy and dangerous. So, I see horizontalism, what the Argentinians and the Zapatistas call a horizontal society, being much more promising than remaining in vertical nation states.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott Olsen, an Iraq War vet, served two terms—served two tours of duty in Iraq, came back, and was hit by a police projectile.
S. BRIAN WILLSON: In the brain.
AMY GOODMAN: In Oakland.
S. BRIAN WILLSON: In the skull, in Oakland.
AMY GOODMAN: And he’s in the hospital now.
S. BRIAN WILLSON: He’s in the hospital.
AMY GOODMAN: As we broadcast this, as we record this, he is unconscious. We have spoken with one of his friends. And as I travel through these Occupy encampments, there are many veterans from the Gulf War, from the Iraq War, from the Vietnam War. What about the involvement of veterans all over the country? In Louisville, one young man said to me, "I served my country in Iraq from 2008 to 2010, and now I’m serving my country by being here at the Occupy Louisville encampment."
S. BRIAN WILLSON: I think the role of veterans is extremely important, and I’ve thought that ever since I got out of Vietnam in 1970, when I joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Most of us grew up very straight, very much believing in what we were told by our government, and then discovered the lies of war, the lies even of our origins as a country. And when we can take the jump and join other people in questioning all the myths and assumptions of our society, it adds a lot of energy and a lot of, really, experience to the peace movement.
And in Boston a week ago, the 1:20 in the morning, the police came to remove the occupiers from a section of the occupation, and the Veterans for Peace contingent there got wind of that, and they made sure they were there, en masse, to stand in front of the occupiers, facing the police directly. And the police bashed them, knocked them down. They did not fight back, meaning they didn’t strike back, to make it clear to the public that the violence is being committed by the state and not by the occupiers. It’s very important to keep that in mind, that we want to keep reminding, from the evidence and from the behavior of the police, that we are not provoking the violence. The violence comes from them. And sooner or later, perhaps, that leads to a much more expanded understanding of—that we are all under siege by a government that’s the gated community government, devouring the commons, the police so far defending that gated community crowd, even though they’re probably going to be—they’re part of the 99. Most of them, except for the white-shirted supervisors, are part of the 99 percent. And in Cleveland, when I was there, the police were encouraging the occupation. And I was saddened to learn, yesterday or the day before, that they removed the tents and the occupation site from Cleveland. I don’t know—you know, the politics gets intense.
But I think, you know, this is a worldwide movement, basically what we call response to austerity. People don’t take this forever. There’s a deep yearning for freedom and autonomy and liberation. It can be repressed for a long time, especially as we accept the ideology of the state. But at some point, you start feeling the pain. And pain and adversity are very creative stimulants to jumping out of the box and saying, "I have to join my fellow human beings now and say, 'This is crazy. Enough is enough.'" The occupation movement may fizzle this winter. Who knows, as the weather gets harsh in the northern climates? But I don’t think that it can be really destroyed, because it’s actually tapping into what I call these ancient archetypes of empathy, mutual respect, cooperation and equity, or a sense of fairness. Those are ancient archetypes embedded in our genetic code. We can adopt an ideology that pretends they’re not there, and that’s what I discovered in Vietnam. My ideology evaporated in about five minutes, when I looked at these certain people on the ground and realized they were my family. And that was what I call irreversible knowledge. There was no way I could—I could not recreate my old ideology, because it no longer fit. It was totally irrelevant. In fact, it had dehumanized me. And so, I think our task as humans now is to recover our humanity.
AMY GOODMAN: Brian Willson, do you regret what happened on September 1st, 1987?
S. BRIAN WILLSON: Well, I regret that I lost my legs, but I don’t regret that I was there. I did what I said I was going to do. The Navy crew, themselves Vietnam veterans, the three civilian employees of the Navy, were following orders. And I no longer follow orders. Following orders, I discovered, is not what I’m about.
AMY GOODMAN: Pacifist, Vietnam veteran, Brian Willson. His memoir is just out. It’s called Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson.
A quick update on Occupy Wall Street in New York: police have removed all generators from Zuccotti Park.