Friday, April 06, 2007
S. Brian Willson’s Environmental Apocalypse
Peace Activist Says Global Warming Will Force Us to Build the Cooperative Commonwealth — Or Else
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
The most famous thing that ever happened to S. Brian Willson occurred on September 1, 1987. He was part of a nonviolent direct-action protest for peace in Northern California that was attempting to block the movement of a train delivering arms to Right-wing regimes in El Salvador and Honduras and the contras in Nicaragua. Only the train didn’t stop: its engineer drove right over Willson’s body, severing his legs and nearly killing him.
But that’s not what Willson came to the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice meeting March 2 at the First Church of the Brethren in City Heights to talk about. Instead, his agenda for the meeting was to tell the story of how he changed from a nice, normal anti-Communist kid in Geneva, New York in the 1950’s to the sort of man who’d throw his body in the way of a troop train — and how global warming is going to bring an environmental apocalypse that is going to kill off most of the currently existing human population and force the rest to create a cooperative commonwealth to survive.
“I grew up in a small farming community in upstate New York, with very conservative parents,” Willson recalled. “I was active in my church and a good Boy Scout. I went to college and was planning to go to seminary, but at the last minute I decided to go to law school.” The year was 1965, and one of his hopes was that being a student would keep him from being drafted and sent to fight in Viet Nam. Not that he had any conscious opposition to the war; he just didn’t want to fight in it. In just about the only trace of humor in his talk, he laughingly described himself as a “chickenhawk” —But it turned out there was a loophole in his draft deferment, and in 1966 he got his notice and decided that before he was inducted as a regular draftee he’d enlist in the officers’ school of the United States Air Force.
Like many a modern-day recruitee into the so-called “volunteer” military, Willson’s experience in the actual service was quite different from what the recruiter had led him to believe. “The first two years were easy,” he acknowledged. “Then I got ordered into the Air Force’s Ranger program. I hadn’t even known the Air Force had a Ranger program. I went to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where the Air Force Rangers were trained by someone who’d learned the Army’s Ranger training program at Fort Benning, Georgia, and about halfway through that training we had bayonet drill.”
Willson hadn’t quite been a model soldier to that point — “I had an attitude problem,” he acknowledged — but actually having to thrust a pointed object into a dummy while chanting “Kill! Kill! Kill!” over and over again and doing his best to pretend the dummy was a live human being was too much for him. “My body actually refused to plunge the bayonet into the dummy,” he said. “My brain said to do it, but my body didn’t. That was the first inkling I had that there was something different about me. I was sent to a chaplain and a psychiatrist for counseling, and I didn’t have the courage or moral insight to say that wasn’t something I would do.”
When he actually fought in Viet Nam as an Air Force lieutenant, Willson recalled, “I was a section leader of 40 men. We were attacked one time every 10 days and had to be on guard most of the time. I was so anxious and felt so over my head, I studied every intelligence report I could find, thinking if I studied hard I’d know better how to deploy my men. The South Viet Namese colonel I was supposed to be reporting to was really studious and sober. He wanted me to verify the bombings of targets by South Viet Namese pilots flying A-37’s. He had heard that his corps had been infiltrated by Viet Cong and he wanted an American officer to go verify that the targets had been hit.”
Willson’s first actual target-verification mission was on April 11, 1969. “The target was a fishing village of 115 to 130 people,” he said. “There were no weapons, and [when the bombing was finished] there was nothing left. No people were left intact, and all the water buffaloes and other animals had been killed except one that was still roaring in pain. As I took a left turn, I couldn’t walk any further, because there were [the bodies of] a woman and three children, and then another baby and another. The dead woman’s eye caught mine and I realized the napalm had burned her eyelids and most of her facial skin. I was crying, and the Viet Namese officer asked me, ‘What’s your problem, lieutenant?’ I said, ‘This woman is like my sister. I don’t know what I’m doing.’ He said, ‘These people are Communists. This is a great victory for our side.’”
The way a born-again Christian might date the beginning of his or her “new life” from the day they accepted Jesus, Willson dates the beginning of his own new life from that day in Viet Nam. “I’ve been on a different plane since then,” he said. The difference became apparent when, after being discharged from the military (honorably), he went back home, finished law school, passed the bar and the first time he had to try a case before a judge he had the same involuntary reaction he’d had on the practice field when he couldn’t stab the dummy with the bayonet.
“I heard the bailiff say, ‘Everybody rise,’ when the judge came in, and I heard myself say, ‘I don’t think so,’” Willson recalled. “I was struggling inside. That happened two more times in the next one and one-half weeks — before three different judges — and I decided that if my body feels that strongly about not responding to my will, I should listen to it.” What followed for Willson was a long period of study and travel during which he asked himself, “Was I meant just to follow orders and be obedient, or is there something about being a human being that predates culture, nation-states and religions? I wanted to see why I felt very contained, restricted and boxed in by what I had been led to be.”
One of Willson’s main topics of study was history, specifically American history, and he came to the same conclusions about it as have a handful of radical historians from Charles Beard at the turn of the last century to Howard Zinn more recently. He decided that the entire history of the U.S. had been based on the supremacy of a class of rich white men constantly working to expand their property. “We grew up with a social myth that we’re a democracy committed to justice, and from our origins we’ve been ruled by an oligarchy committed to expansion and exploitation,” he said. Ironically, his perception put him in at least one point of agreement with the current President Bush.
“When Bush says the Constitution is just a piece of paper, he’s right,” Willson said. “We’ve never even lived according to the principles of our flawed Constitution. When we say torture, scorched-earth policies and preventive wars are ‘not U.S. values,’ that’s disproven by our history. We’ve used them from the start.” According to Willson, America’s success and power have been made possible by three acts of genocide: the extermination of the native Americans throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries; the kidnapping of Africans to be used as slave labor; and, in the 20th century, the use of military force worldwide to steal the natural resources of other countries so the U.S., which has 4 1/2 percent of the world’s population, can continue to consume 33 percent of its resources.
“We’re spoiled by our materialism, and yet the human condition is capable of making radical adaptations when it’s perceived as necessary,” Willson said. “Bush and his lackeys are not there in a vacuum, and they’re not an aberration. Bush is so brazen and obvious that his ambitions and intentions are imperial, that is a gift from the cosmic forces. But the Republican and Democratic parties are just one party with two right wings. Socialism is not considered as an alternative. Any group of people, domestic or foreign, that interferes with that exploitation and is perceived as disobedient will be eliminated, whether it’s the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) or the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. We will destroy it as a nation, and the reason we Americans cannot separate ourselves from our government is we participate in the system. We pay taxes, and we vote thinking it’s a real alternative.”
What’s more, Willson said, the “American way of life” is now totally unsustainable and threatens to destroy the planet — which, paradoxically, he presents as a source of optimism that the human race in general and the U.S. in particular will finally turn away from this acquisitive mania that has brought exploitation and imperialism into being, not because we’ll want to but because we’ll have to. Willson sees global warming as literally a blow from the universe pulling the plug on capitalism and imperialism forever. “Our way of life has literally generated too much heat, and the earth will correct it,” he said. “Our way of life is destroying our ability to live on this planet as we know it. We took petroleum that took 180 million years to develop, and in 100 years we’ve put half of it in the air. It’s stupid, but it’s an addiction and addictions are not rational.”
Indeed, Willson compared the human race’s need to get off oil and beyond capitalism to a substance abuser’s hitting bottom and going into a 12-step program. “We have the capacity to understand that our future does not rest in Washington, with impeachment proceedings or another election or another Speaker,” he said. “Our solution rests with us, with small groups of people working to resurrect their relation with the earth [and become] not a plundering society, but an earth community, living less with more and breaking our addictions so we can live.” One lesson he said he learned from the Zapatista movement is that “representative democracy” is B.S.: that unless your community is small enough that you can know the decision-makers personally and hold them accountable directly, then you don’t really have control over the decisions that affect your lives (a point anarchists have been making at least since the 1840’s).
“We need disobedience,” Willson said. “We need stepping out of the patterns of our past, which are killing us. The American way of life is the most dangerous weapon of mass destruction on the planet. The U.S. military is the largest consumer of oil on the planet. It’s so incomprehensible. It’s hard to realize that our lives are at stake.” Thanks to global warming, Willson added, “We now have a force that threatens everything on our planet, that requires 90 percent reduction in carbon emissions over the next 10 to 12 years. There are three sources of emissions: transportation, electricity and food. The trick is less and more: a local, sustaining economy in harmony with nature that might be bounded by watersheds.”
Willson cited Los Angeles, which “gets water from eight states to sustain an arbitrary geographical grouping of people through technology,” as an example of the kind of environment that is going to disappear as humans either make the wrenching changes mandated by the need to slash their carbon emissions by 90 percent in the next 10 to 12 years or become extinct as a species. “We have to create the new local economy,” he said, citing Mahatma Gandhi as an example because he not only organized direct-action protests against the British but also encouraged the Indians to make their own cloth and take themselves as far out of the capitalist market — and the need to buy British products — as possible.
“We’ve been living on a blip of human history — the oil society — and it’s gone, it’s finished,” Willson said. “We have the capacity to take responsibility for our own lives, to be real revolutionaries for justice. We have the capacity for empathy and equity that go way back in our DNA and allow us to live collectively and in harmony with other people. No political candidates are the antidotes. You and I are the antidotes. The only way society can be changed is from the bottom up, to create thousands of communities that can operate sustainably without inputs from thousands of miles away. Capitalism requires the latter to keep expanding and keep making profit, and we have been complicit in it. It’s time to end our complicity and become revolutionaries. The earth is begging us.”
Willson is well aware that an earth whose human population is organized the way he is calling for will be an earth with only a fraction of the human population it has now. His argument is that global warming is going to trigger a massive die-off of most of the human race, and the sooner we face up to that fact and do what we have to do to secure the survival of the human species at all, the better. “I’m sure you’re going to have a die-off and a leap in evolution,” he said. “I’m 66 and I’m ready for the compost heap.” At the same time, though he resolutely avoids words like “optimism” or “hope,” “I have tremendous belief in the capability of human beings to make these sudden shifts.,” he admitted. “People all over the planet are doing amazing things.”