Legendary Peace Activist Offers Critique of “Civilization”
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
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Because of what he was doing the day he lost his legs — September 1, 1987, in Concord, California, when he was run over by a train he and his fellow activists were trying to stop before it could deliver arms to Right-wing governments and private armies in Central America — and his involvement in the Veterans for Peace organization, most people who’ve heard of S. Brian Willson think of him as an anti-war activist. But he’s considerably more than that. At his most recent San Diego appearance September 4 to promote his book, a combination autobiography and work of political philosophy called Blood on the Tracks, Willson presented a far-reaching critique of so-called “human civilization” and suggested it’s all been downhill since the Neolithic period, when economic scarcity forced humans to live in small communities and share equally with each other.
Willson was born on July 4, 1941 in Geneva in upstate New York. He was an unquestioning patriot — he still has a drawing he did as a boy of himself in a Fourth of July parade — until March 1969, when his U.S. Air Force unit was sent to Viet Nam. “We landed at Binh Thuy airbase in the Mekong Delta,” Willson said. “We were there to protect the airbase from being attacked.” With Richard Nixon recently sworn in as president and committed to a process of “Viet Namization” of the war — in which U.S. forces would remain simply to “train” the local troops — the mission of Willson and his unit quickly expanded.
“One month after I got there, I was asked by the Viet Namese base commander to go with one of his officers,” Willson recalled. “We had just given them a whole new fleet of fighter-bombers and we were going to be upping the body count. He had heard that the VC (Viet Cong) were infiltrating pilots who were sabotaging the bombing missions. I found the targets of the missions were inhabited farming villages. The first village I went to, the Viet Namese lieutenant went with me, and when there was smoke coming through the grass, he said to stop. The first thing I heard was cries of pain from a burning water buffalo, and when I turned around all I saw were bodies.”
Willson’s consciousness registered not only the cruelty of the attacks on civilians but also their military pointlessness. “This was midday, and the VC were only active at night,” he explained. “I started walking to my left, and soon I couldn’t walk any further because the bodies were too densely packed on the ground. I looked at a young woman holding three children, all blackened by napalm. They were dead, but their eyes were open. The napalm had melted their eyelids.”
According to Willson, he tried to report to his superiors that the raids were “a war crime and a violation of our rules of engagement,” and got exactly nowhere. “They laughed,” he recalled. “They said, ‘There are no rules of war,’ and they’re right.” When he was finally discharged from the Air Force, he returned to law school and actually got to be an attorney — only he lasted just two weeks because his body refused to allow him to stand when the judge entered the courtroom. “I left the courtroom after two weeks and never looked back,” he said. “It was a blessing that I didn’t have a career.”
In the 1970’s, Willson said, “my focus was criminology and the brutality of the U.S. justice system. For a while the Unitarian-Universalist Service Committee even paid me to do that. Then I had a psychotic flashback in 1981. I thought I had escaped the psychological issues of Viet Nam veterans, and then in 1981 I was working for a Massachusetts state senator investigating brutality at Walpole State Prison. I was right at the end of a study after almost 12 months. I was at the end of a cell block, interviewing prisoners through a little hole in my cell door. It was about 5 p.m. and the guards had gone through a staff change and had either forgotten I was in there or didn’t care. I saw two guards stomp on a prisoner and hit him with billy clubs, and at that moment I flashed back. I immediately left my interview and took the briefcase with me when I staggered out of the cell block because I was stepping over bodies on the runway — or at least that’s what my brain was perceiving.”
After a long period of recovery — “a lot of therapy, rap groups and being the director of a veterans’ center in Massachusetts before I was diagnosed with my own PTSD” (post-traumatic stress disorder) — Willson got involved in the Central American solidarity movement of the 1980’s. The movement sought to protect the Sandinista government in Nicaragua from the rebel attacks by U.S.-backed contras and also to help people in Guatemala and El Salvador protect themselves against repressive and often openly brutal U.S.-supported governments.
In 1986 Willson and three comrades started the Veterans’ Fast for Peace on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. “The fast was 47 days,” he said. “It did not seem to be causing that much consternation to the Reagan administration, but there were 500 solidarity actions across the country. We were placed on a terrorist watch list.” It was that label, Willson said — plus the solidarity trips to Nicaragua and Cuba he took later in 1987 — that got him on a government hit list and led to what he believes was a deliberate attempt to murder him by train on September 1, 1987.
The Five Blips in History
Willson regards himself as a “recovering white male” and says that “we are the products of five blips in history.” The first, he said, was humanity’s development of agriculture, which meant for the first time that human communities could produce more than they needed for their immediate survival. This meant, Willson said, that “we decided we were not part of nature,” but rather something apart and entitled to rule over nature.
According to Willson, agriculture also made it possible for humans to amass what economists call a “surplus,” which meant that the work of the many could be used to support a handful of non-working few at the top of the social order. This, Willson explained, led to “what we call ‘civilization,’ vertical, hierarchical, patriarchal societies built on militarism and a class structure from which we have never recovered.”
The second “blip” Willson described was the “Eurocentric conquest, from 1500 to now, in which 20 percent of the world plundered the other 80 percent, including dispossessing the native tribes and capturing Africans to be chattel slaves. These blips shaped our thoughts, structures and values.” The third “blip” was the industrial revolution, which Willson said started with “the use of coal to speed up transportation and manufacturing.”
The fourth blip was “the oil blip of the last 150 years, in which we took one-half the earth’s entire carbon supply out of the ground and put it in the air, water and soil, and sped up agriculture and manufacturing.” The fifth and most recent blip was “the American middle class,” Willson said — particularly in the 1950’s, when, flush with victory after World War II, we “sped up consumption and promised ourselves a wonderful life. I have for some time realized that I am recovering from that whole process.”
Willson said some things at his presentation, sponsored by the local progressive organization Activist San Diego, that may have shocked even his friendly audience. He said flat-out that people should not vote or participate in the electoral system in any way, on the ground that it only validates an essentially inhuman system. Asked about the ability of people outside the U.S. to admire Americans as people even while opposing the policies of our government, Willson said they shouldn’t let us off the hook that way. “I see ourselves as much more complicit than they do,” he said. “No power structure can function without the consent of the people.”
What Willson wants to see is the U.S. people turning out in the streets in massive numbers and withdrawing that consent. He’s organizing people around the country for an action starting October 6, what he calls a “U.S. Autumn” — analogous to the “Arab Spring” — in which people will go to Washington, D.C., occupy its buildings and streets, and refuse to leave. “The friends I know are buying one-way tickets,” Willson said, “ and I know if I go to that action I’m not planning to do anything else for a long time. It’s about arrest or risking arrest, injury or death. I have to be willing to do that.”