by Greg King
The Odyssey Of S. Brian Willson
For several years during the last decade I gathered inspiration from a neighbor who often passed by my house on his bike. Actually he rode a “handcycle” — a tricycle he pedaled with his hands. His legs were gone below the knees, but with his arms he often cranked out hundreds of miles a week.
This old neighbor of mine is S. Brian Willson, a former U.S. Air Force officer. He served in Vietnam, but he didn’t lose his legs in the war. That happened on American soil.
After witnessing the effects of an American napalm raid on a peaceful Vietnamese village, Willson, a former all-conference athlete and scion of American conservatives, returned home to participate in antiwar protests. By the eighties Willson was organizing military veterans to oppose the Reagan administration’s three wars in Central America. Then, on September 1, 1987, he and fellow veterans David Duncombe and Duncan Murphy sat on a curving stretch of railroad track that crossed a public road. Their goal was to block munitions shipments from the Concord Naval Weapons Station in California to American proxy armies in Central America. As the train approached, traveling at more than three times the legal speed limit of five miles an hour, it became clear it wasn’t going to stop. The protesters scrambled. Murphy, a sixty-six-year-old World War II veteran, jumped up to grab the locomotive’s cowcatcher, then leapt to the side. Duncombe was also able to jump clear.
Willson was not. The train ran him over, severing one leg and mangling the other, and carving a chunk out of his skull. (He would end up losing both legs and his right frontal lobe.) A navy ambulance arrived quickly, but the medics refused to work on Willson, who was bleeding profusely, because, they said, they couldn’t treat people who were not technically on navy property. Seventeen minutes later a county ambulance arrived and rushed Willson to the hospital.
During a government inquiry navy officials acknowledged that they had anticipated a “confrontation sooner or later” with the veterans. The action had been widely publicized, and the tracks at that location had been blocked by protesters going back to the 1960s. So there was an established protocol for making arrests before the trains moved. No one, particularly not the three blockaders, expected the train to barrel through. Nonetheless the train’s engineer told investigators that his superiors had instructed him not to stop that day, to “prevent anyone from boarding the locomotive” and hijacking it. Willson was never able to determine exactly how high up the chain of command these orders originated, but former fbi agent Jack Ryan revealed that he had been fired for refusing to investigate veteran peace activists, including Murphy and Willson, as “domestic terrorists.”
Immediately after the incident thousands of people descended on Concord. Four days later, with Jesse Jackson and Joan Baez looking on, protesters ripped up the tracks at the naval weapons station. After the navy made repairs, a twenty-four-hour-a-day occupation of the tracks began. It blocked every munitions train leaving Concord for more than two years. More than two thousand people were arrested, and some were jailed for as long as six months.
I met Willson nearly twenty years later, when he lived near me in Arcata, California. We would chat at the post office or see each other in the neighborhood. He walked on prosthetics, and if anyone deserved to use a car it was him, but Willson pedaled almost everywhere to reduce his carbon footprint. Sometimes when we talked, he spoke of his frustration with writing a memoir.
It wasn’t coming easy.
When the book came out in 2011, I had to wonder if Willson’s frustration had been simply self-effacement. Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson is gripping and at times beautifully written. I’d place it among the most important American histories since Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Willson lucidly blends the personal and the political, and reaches well beyond U.S. activities in Southeast Asia and Central America to connect the dots of American exceptionalism, expansionism, and warfare around the globe since the country’s founding. He followed the memoir up in 2012 with My Country Is the World: Photo Journey of a Stumbling Western Satyagrahi.
Willson grew up in upstate New York. His parents were conservative Baptists, and his father belonged to the John Birch Society and contributed to the Ku Klux Klan. Willson was a top student, a captain of sports teams. He went to church, studied the Bible, and attended anticommunist Christian student gatherings. In 1964 Willson supported Republican Barry Goldwater for president, pleased that he was advocating bombing targets in North Vietnam and using tactical nuclear weapons to defoliate the demilitarized zone that separated North from South Vietnam.
Willson was a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force when he finished his master’s degree in criminology at American University Washington College of Law in Washington, DC. Less than a year later, in 1969, he shipped out to Vietnam, where he served as a security-and-intelligence officer charged with protecting South Vietnamese air bases. While there he inspected a recently napalmed village “to perform a quick estimate of the pilots’ success at hitting their specified targets,” he says.
Arriving at the village less than an hour after it had been strafed and bombed, Willson writes that he “saw one young girl trying to get up on her feet . . . but she quickly fell down. A few other people were moving ever so slightly as they cried and moaned on the ground. Most of the . . . victims I saw were women and children, the vast majority lying motionless. Most, I am sure, were dead.” As he walked, Willson’s forward progress was stymied by bodies. “I began sobbing and gagging. . . . 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. She had been clutching three small, partially blackened children when she apparently collapsed.”
It was in this moment that Willson became a war resister. Back on base he began questioning his superiors about reasons for the bombing raids, which led to his early return to the United States and, after another year at a base in Louisiana, an honorable discharge. He returned to American University, received a law degree, and was admitted to the District of Columbia Bar.
In 1973 the city of Cincinnati, Ohio, hired Willson as a consultant on the construction of a new criminal-justice complex. As part of his research Willson lived for three months in the hundred-year-old Cincinnati Workhouse prison. Afterward he proposed a new prison half the size recommended by the state’s architect and emphasized the need for “constructive rehabilitation programs” in lieu of incarceration — suggestions that were ultimately ignored. In the midseventies Willson served as coordinator for the National Moratorium on Prison Construction, a project of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.
In 1980 Willson became a legislative aide to Massachusetts state senator Jack Backman and advised the senator on prison and veterans’ issues. Willson made regular visits to Massachusetts prisons, especially Walpole, a notoriously violent institution where guards were known to torture prisoners with beatings and compulsory rectal searches. At Walpole Willson witnessed two guards “pull[ing] a prisoner out of a cell onto the walkway floor. One guard kicked the prisoner while the other hit him with a billy club, the prisoner screaming, the guards shouting.”
The experience sparked a flashback to the carnage he’d witnessed in Vietnam. It was, he says, “different from having a bad memory pop into your mind. When I looked around me, I could only see this woman’s eyes, dead children, the gored water buffalo lying on the ground. I smelled the burned corpses and buildings of that village. I literally could not see, hear, or smell the real world of the very noisy prison around me.”
The flashback compelled Willson to take a leave of absence from his job, which he eventually left altogether to join other vets who opposed U.S. foreign policy. In 1982 Willson cofounded the Veterans Education Project, and less than two years later he became executive director of a Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center in western Massachusetts. He also volunteered on the U.S. Senate campaign of fellow Vietnam veteran and war protester John Kerry. After being elected, Kerry appointed Willson to a veterans’ advisory committee. In 1986 Willson and three decorated veterans fasted for forty-seven days on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to draw attention to the Reagan administration’s funding and training of the Contras, a mercenary army seeking to overthrow Nicaragua’s left-wing Sandinista government. One year later Willson lost his legs attempting to stop arms shipments to the Contras.
After recuperating from the incident in Concord, Willson traveled to Nicaragua several times, where he was greeted by cheering crowds and shared a podium with President Daniel Ortega. He also traveled to El Salvador, Colombia, the Palestinian territories, Ecuador, Brazil, Iraq, Cuba, and Chiapas, Mexico. U.S. society, he felt, was in need of physical and spiritual transformation. “Our obsessive pursuit of materialism has preempted the evolutionary social-biological compact that guided our species for millennia,” he writes. “I believe human beings come into the world with the archetypal characteristics of empathy, cooperation, and mutual respect. We are wired as social beings. Yet these fundamental characteristics have been buried under an avalanche of narcissistic, egocentric behavior fueled by modern materialist culture.”
During the late nineties Willson stopped traveling the globe and began moving across the landscape almost entirely by handcycle. He lived in small communities, where he and his partner, Becky Luening, practiced sustainable living by installing solar panels, growing their own food, and buying locally. “Part of me wanted to drop out completely,” he says. Instead he organized bike rides. In 2006 Willson and a dozen other cyclists, many of them veterans, rode from Eugene, Oregon, to Seattle, Washington, and back to attend the Veterans for Peace National Convention. During the summer of 2011, at the age of seventy, Willson handcycled from Portland, Oregon, to San Francisco, “pedaling” his book at speaking engagements along the way. He figures that, since he first began using a handcycle in 1997, he has logged sixty thousand miles.
On September 1, 2012, Willson and dozens of other peace activists gathered in Concord to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the train assault. Several luminaries attended, including former high-ranking cia official Ray McGovern and Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg. The day’s events were documented by Bo Boudart, a filmmaker who is planning a feature film on Willson’s life titled Paying the Price for Peace: The Story of S. Brian Willson and the Peace Movement (payingthepriceforpeace.com).
I interviewed Willson last year in the Portland home he shares with Luening. Willson gave me a tour of their converted urban landscape. Much of their food comes from a permaculture garden, solar panels provide most of their electricity, rainwater irrigates the plants, and a composting toilet eliminates the need to join a centralized sewage system. These efforts, Willson said ruefully, amount to little more than gestures verging on “greenwashing.” Yet Willson and Luening continue to work closely with like-minded neighbors to eschew centralized, fossil-fuel-dependent systems as a path toward even higher levels of community sustainability and, by extension, peace.
King: In Vietnam you accompanied a South Vietnamese lieutenant into a village that had been napalmed just an hour before. Burned and blown-up bodies of women and children lay scattered about. But when you broke down, the lieutenant couldn’t figure out what your problem was. How was his reaction humanly possible?
Willson: I think we’re all capable of being in denial of our humanity. And we’re all capable of participating in evil.
When I looked into the eyes of a dead woman I saw there, what I experienced wasn’t a thought; it was an overwhelming sensation that hit my body. The lieutenant asked me what was wrong, and my brain and nervous system struggled to come up with words. “She’s my sister,” I finally said. It was just an interpretation of what I felt. It’s like when a father goes home and sees his child and just wants to hug her. It’s a response that comes out of your whole being. It’s love. It has nothing to do with thought.
King: But how was the lieutenant able to shrug at such a massacre in his own country?
Willson: Many of us are conditioned to be obedient to some master or ideology. The ideology usually includes a class structure in which some members of society are more privileged. You constantly have to demonize other people in order to justify such privilege. I had that conditioning. The lieutenant had it too. He was from an upper-class Vietnamese family that had collaborated with the French for many generations, and he’d been sent to a French school and also educated in the United States.
I was kind of a lower-middle-class kid who was trying to become rich and successful. The experience I had in Vietnam caught me by surprise. Before that, I’d been a creature of compliance, concerned with making money, saying the right things, dressing the right way.
The question is: What causes the break from that conditioning and the recovery of one’s empathy and sense of cooperation? I don’t really know. I recently read The Lucifer Effect, by Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the Stanford prison experiment. [In 1971 Stanford student volunteers were randomly divided into “guards” and “inmates” and placed in a mock prison environment. Within a week the study was shut down because the “guards” had become brutal and sadistic. — Ed.] In the book Zimbardo is trying to figure out how good people can do evil things — and how some can then revert to being humane and caring.
I hesitate to say that my transformation after visiting the bombed village was automatic. I knew that I was the bad guy, but I also wondered: How could that be? How could I be a bad guy? I hadn’t pulled the trigger. I hadn’t dropped the bombs. But I was complicit in this whole system. By protecting the air base from attack, I’d enabled the planes to conduct their bombing missions. Maybe it was my removal from the actual act of killing that enabled me to see it as the horror it was.
Before Vietnam I’d thought that being born in the U.S. was enough to make me a “good guy.”
But seeing that woman’s eyes, it was so clear. It was such an overwhelming truth. It was irreversible. The only options were just to get drunk or high and stay that way my whole life, or to embrace the truth.
Sometimes I wonder: Why was I asked to do that extra duty? It was very unusual that I was even in that village, assessing bombings. I didn’t know any other air-force officer who was doing that. It was just a fluke. I like to think of it as divine intervention. It was the Great Spirit talking to me, telling me I was not going to slide through this world. I wanted to slide through it. I wanted to go to graduate school, not study too hard, get my degree, get a nice job, and make a lot of money. But that’s not real, the Great Spirit said. I was going to have to deal with the hard truths.
I can still hear the moaning from the villagers who hadn’t died yet. I left that village while people were moaning. I didn’t even summon any medical help.
Their moaning is now my moaning. I am connected to them, not separate. We’re all connected by empathy. I believe there is a soul in everything. God is in everything, and it’s all connected.
If you can really feel that type of connection, then your life will be radically changed. You will make completely different choices. And it’s not enough to know you’re connected. You need to feel the connection. Feeling is a wisdom that we’ve lost. During the Enlightenment, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, rationality was emphasized over feelings, with damaging effects. The Enlightenment thinkers made interesting contributions to reductionist principles, but not to holistic principles.
King: Your memoir came out around the time of your seventieth birthday. Can you give us a synopsis of your story?
Willson: I think of myself as a recovering white male, recovering from my early conditioning about how to be successful. The value system I was raised with dehumanized me to the point that I followed an order to travel nine thousand miles to participate in destroying another people. It’s incredible that I could do that, and without really thinking much about it. That’s why I wrote the book — to understand how it was so easy for me to do that. I’m still recovering from it. It’s a lifetime journey, and there’s no happy ending. But it is a story that contains a certain amount of joy: the joy of learning the truth.
King: You have called the incident in which you lost your legs “attempted murder.” Why?
Willson: The navy’s protocol was for the train to stop and wait for arrests. Remember, I was once a military-installation security commander. I know how to secure equipment. Because they were carrying munitions, they were required to stop. Suppose I’d had a satchel of charges strapped to my body: I could have blown up the whole train, and a lot of people would have been killed. So not stopping was against protocol. And it was also intentional. Subsequent testimony revealed that the engineer had been ordered not to stop, and the train had sped up to three times the legal five-mile-an-hour limit.
King: You have said you were surprised the engineer didn’t stop, but you were not surprised that the government assaulted you.
Willson: In Concord I experienced what people all over the world experience when they stand up to power: they get clobbered. Look at the history of the U.S. labor movement. About seven hundred labor organizers and strikers were killed between 1880 and 1930. Our history is violent. But the official history says that we are the greatest country in the history of the world, because we defeated fascism in World War ii.
King: Did you go through a period of mourning for your lost legs?
Willson: I did, but it wasn’t until years later — about 1993. I started crying a lot. I didn’t want to go anywhere, because I didn’t know when I was going to break down. In my mind nothing was prompting this. It was spontaneous. I was crying that I didn’t have my feet, but at the same time I was thanking my legs for adapting to these prosthetics and getting me around. I would caress my stumps, sometimes for hours a day, just appreciating what I had. They do such a phenomenal job, because I’m active, and I don’t give them much of a break.
King: When did you start riding a handcycle?
Willson: In 1997. Until then I hadn’t even known they existed. I discovered them in Northampton, Massachusetts. The state had an office that was loaning out handcycles. They weren’t like the one I have now — they were more like wheelchairs — but I was hooked right away. I used that borrowed handcycle every day for probably a month. Then I bought one, and I’ve been riding ever since.
I often wish that back in 1900 people had been able to think more clearly about the implications of burning fossil fuels. The internal-combustion engine arrived on the scene about the same time that bicycles had come into their own, with pneumatic tires and ball bearings. We went for speed, comfort, and convenience. These are not holistic principles. And we had a technology that would have enabled us to live simpler, more efficiently, and healthier.
Economist E.F. Schumacher said that “small is beautiful.” According to his fellow economist Leopold Kohr and social critic Ivan Illich, the most efficient speed for human society is that of a bicycle: twelve to fifteen miles an hour. So slow is beautiful, too. And so are less and local.
Those may seem like just words, but really they are guidelines for an alternate vision.
King: You and your partner, Becky, have tried to live that vision. Are you satisfied with the results?
Willson: We’ve been trying to downsize because, for humanity to survive, we all need to radically simplify our lives. Becky and I have insulated our house. We’ve got double- and triple-paned windows. We’ve got solar panels. We heat with wood, and it’s all local wood. We have an efficient stove. We eat dinner by oil lamp year-round. And we keep track of our kilowatt-hours, trying constantly to reduce our energy use. We actually have charts. We terminated all gas coming in the house. We use solar-tube skylights. We grow food. We collect rainwater. We recycle. We compost our sewage.
King: Those sound like significant achievements.
Willson: Yes, but now I think we have to figure out a way to live without grid electricity, which means another radical downsizing. I meet regularly with a small group to discuss these subjects. We encourage one another to stretch our boundaries and push against perceived limitations. We ask questions such as “What is the embedded energy in a solar panel?”
King: What is “embedded energy”?
Willson: It’s all the energy it took to produce that product. For instance, this chair. A lot of energy was used to bring this chair into being and get it to this room. Materials had to be mined, and for that, extraction equipment had to be built, and a factory had to be constructed to make the extraction equipment. You had to get the extraction equipment to the mining site, and you had to extract the raw materials out of the earth and load them into a truck that was manufactured in another facility. Each of these manufacturing facilities requires thousands of parts. Fossil fuels are utilized at every stage of the process. Then you have to move the finished product to distribution centers, and from the distribution centers to the point of use.
You have to build more roads and more trucks and fuel them. And that’s just a chair. A solar panel requires even more energy and materials.
King: These things also usually require a fair amount of fresh water.
Willson: Absolutely, which results in pollution. In all of these processes you’re putting carbon molecules in the air. Just to make a computer chip for a smartphone they have to cook it to 4,500 degrees to embed the memory. It takes a lot of energy to get that much heat, and huge amounts of water. But we are addicted to our technology and our way of life.
King: People in Portland seem to be ahead of the curve in terms of steering neighborhoods away from dependence on fossil fuels, but you have said that’s not enough. How so?
Willson: We had 220 people at our place one Saturday during a Portland “green tour.” It was fun, but deep down I was thinking, This still isn’t the truth. I’ve done what the capitalists want.
For example, I’ve created three solar houses: I built a straw-bale solar house in Massachusetts, I retrofitted a house in Arcata, California, and I retrofitted this house. And I’ve done it all the way the green experts say I should. But I bought all I needed for the projects from the capitalist system.
Whatever the next groovy idea is, the capitalists are going to figure out how to make money on it. I enjoy generating electricity from the sun, but in the big picture I want to be part of a community that isn’t dependent upon electricity at all.
King: Has anyone in your group actually moved beyond using new “green” technologies?
Willson: Not yet. There was a couple who lived without electricity for a year. They just shut it off. But they found that it was very difficult without help from a larger community.
Real community can replace our dependence on unsustainable systems. The community is the system. I want to facilitate local relationships, local commerce, local interactions. I want to help people understand that we’ve all been sold a bill of goods, and now our task is to recover our humanity. And we do that by asking questions and experimenting. Can we live a whole year without buying food that comes from more than a hundred miles away? There are some people doing that. But now we’re talking about a “hundred-foot diet.” A permaculture advocate in this neighborhood says she’s going to grow all her food on her five-thousand-square-foot lot.
The fact that there are people thinking like this is exciting. I mean, what Becky and I have here is ok , but it’s pretty bourgeois for a couple of activists. If I had my dream, I would be living in a group of about fifty people and using draft horses and growing all our food. I want to live in a community where neighbors are constantly interacting around food.
King: Is it possible for everybody in a city the size of Portland to scale that far back? Can everybody do what you’ve done? It’s hard enough getting the kids to school and getting to work on time, much less growing a permaculture garden and living without electricity.
Willson: Well, I think anybody can do what we’ve done, but you have to want to do it, and it does take some money. If our nation weren’t spending $14 billion a month on wars, we could be redistributing wealth, but that’s not going to happen, because we have a plutocracy. No savior from outside is going to help us, including the federal government — especially the federal government.
People ask, “How can we create more jobs?” I don’t want to create more jobs. Having a job is not natural or healthy. Humans are meant to have work, to be fully engaged with the life of food — planting, harvesting, celebrating, and eating it. But to have a job where you work for somebody else? That’s a relatively new phenomenon in human evolution, only about five thousand years old. You work for the king or one of the king’s managers. That’s not normal.
That’s not healthy.
You can grow your own food. You can also learn about the forest, about mushrooms, about natural food sources. You can learn that you’re part of nature. In Portland a lot of people are growing food who weren’t before. They are growing food in the strips of grass beside the curb. This is a radical step. People are beginning to understand the limits of our industrial, centralized systems. Even if we can’t grow all our own food, we can eat food that’s been grown locally.
The earth is finite. There’s not enough carrying capacity on the planet to feed 7 billion people.
Yet we continue to live as if there were no limits. We have separated ourselves from nature. We think we are superior to nature, and we believe our technology will always come up with a solution for shortages or pollution or whatever problems we’re facing. It’s a Faustian bargain. Most scientists agree that ecological changes and global climate instability are making it difficult for people to survive, and it’s only going to get worse, especially for those who live along the coastlines.
Our economic system requires endless removal of resources all over the planet. We continue exploiting the earth even when the exploitation itself threatens our survival. We are running out of clean water. We are running out of easily accessible, cheap oil, which has been the basis for the last century’s worth of industrial development. When oil supplies start getting short — say, 3 percent or 4 percent below demand — it will cause a panic, because trucks won’t be able to get to every store with the food people are dependent upon, food grown 1,500 miles away.
Look at the resources being used every day to maintain this modern life, and then look at how much pain and suffering is necessary to enable this life.
King: What about modern devices such as cellphones and the Internet? Are there no redeeming values to them? I have enjoyed your blog and Facebook postings many times.
Willson: The rare metals used in computers and cellphones have not just an ecological price but a human price as well. I have a friend, Keith Snow, who’s been a journalist in the Congo off and on for the last fifteen years. He has seen the plunder of resources for high-tech devices: metals such as cobalt, coltan, niobium, and germanium. Keith says 10 to 12 million Congolese have died since 1995 in wars fomented by corporations and Western governments who want access to these metals.
I don’t own a cellphone. I might die on my cycle someday because I have an accident and don’t have a cellphone, but that’s ok.
That said, I’m not going to tell people what to do. I’m just going to say that the human and environmental consequences of the electronic-gadget revolution are devastating. And, yes, I do have a laptop.
King: Jet fuel is a major contributor to global warming. Do you fly in planes?
Willson: I stopped flying eleven years ago, but I can’t tell people not to fly. I flew half a million miles before I was sixty, and I gained a tremendous amount of cultural experience because of it. Refusing to fly in airplanes now is a move toward mutual aid and respect, but it’s a mere gesture. I live in incredible comfort when so many are suffering. I continue to make choices each day that remain at odds with mutual aid and respect.