Twenty-four years ago this morning—September 1, 1987—Vietnam veteran Brian Willson joined a handful of peacemakers on the railroad tracks at Concord Naval Weapons Stations to begin what they envisioned as a forty-day fast and vigil to protest arms shipments from this Northern California military base to US-backed forces in Central America.
Instead, a 900-ton munitions train, traveling at three times the legal speed limit, plowed into Brian and dragged him under. Standing a few feet away, I saw him turn over and over again like a rag doll and then (as the never-slowing train rumbled on toward a nearby security gate) sprawling in the track bed, a huddled mass of blood.
Miraculously, Brian survived (thanks, largely, to the tourniquets applied by his then-wife Holly Rauen, a professional nurse), though both legs were sheared off and his skull was fractured.
Now, over two decades later, he has published Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson, a new autobiography available from PM Press. This book does not simply recount a horrifying event from long ago. It offers, more importantly, a vivid example of a still-unfolding pilgrimage for peace that turns on a burning question: “What is my responsibility to make peace and challenge murderous violence in a direct and meaningful way?”
At a critical turning point in his life, Brian allowed this question in and everything changed. Of course, this question is not Brian’s alone. It is meant for each of us in the midst of the storm of horrific violence that continually bears down on our planet and its inhabitants.
Brian’s memoir recounts his journey from childhood in upstate New York (born on the Fourth of July, he enthusiastically shared his family’s pro-military and anti-communist convictions), to his decision to go to law school, and then his being drafted and sent to Vietnam as an Air Force captain, where two incidents changed his life.
One was a rocket attack in which he was saved by a quick-thinking companion who pushed him to the ground and out of the way of the blast. Though they survived, another soldier was blown to bits a few feet away. The second event even more clearly seared his soul. He had been sent out to do damage assessment of US bombing raids on villages and found a blackened mess that used to be huts, littered with bodies:
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. The Mekong Delta region is completely flat, and the modest houses in its hamlets are built on small mounds among rice paddies. As with most settlements, this one was undefended—we saw no anti-aircraft guns, no visible small arms, no defenders of any kind. The pilots who bombed this small hamlet flew low-flying planes, probably the A-37Bs, and were 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 … The buildings were virtually flattened by explosions or destroyed by fire. I didn’t see any inhabitant on his or her feet. Most were ripped apart from bomb shrapnel and Gatling machine gun wounds, blackened from napalm burns, many not discernible as to gender, and 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. She had been clutching three small, partially blackened children when she apparently collapsed. I bent down for a closer look and stared, aghast, at the woman’s open eyes. The children 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 was focused on her face, it seemed to me that her eyes were staring at me.
She was not alive. But her eyes and my eyes met for one moment that shot like a lightning bolt through my entire being. Over the years I have thought of her so much I have given her the name, “Mai Ly.”
I was startled when Bao, 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. I wasn’t thinking rationally. But I felt, in my body, that she and I were one. Bao just smirked, and said something about how satisfied he was with the bombing “success” in killing “communists.” I did not reply. I had nothing to say. From that moment on, nothing would ever be the same for me.
Thus began a deep transformation, which led him in the 1980s to notice with deep alarm the connection between what he had experienced in Vietnam and the Reagan administration’s war in Central America. He traveled to the region and saw a vivid parallel between the two conflicts, especially the wanton attack on civilians, and became convinced that he had to take action.
“We are not worth more, they are not worth less,” he declared, and joined the Veterans Fast for Life on the steps of the US Capitol in 1986, where he and three other former members of the US military fasted for 47 days. One year later, he and others formed Nuremberg Actions—named after the principles of international law enunciated in the wake of the Nuremberg tribunal following World War II that defined crimes against humanity and the responsibility and complicity in such crimes—and organized a 40-day fast at Concord in which he and others planned to block weapons trains. A Freedom of Information Act request had yielded concrete evidence that ships leaving this base were carrying 500-pound bombs, white phosphorus, and millions of rounds of ammunition, and Brian wanted to stop such shipments in their tracks.
He expected the train to stop, at which point he would be removed and arrested—in effect compelling the military to demonstrate the kind of care that should also be accorded to those at the other end of the line in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Instead, the government ran the train (in spite of the clear communication with the Navy over the prior ten days), thus dramatizing with palpable clarity what those at the end of the line faced every day.
We are not worth more. They are not worth less.
Brian’s autobiography details the aftermath of the Concord attack, including his activism, his own inner and outer growth, his comprehensive and embodied choices to live simply (on this recent book tour, for example, he traveled by pedaling a special bicycle that uses his hands instead of his feet), and his thoroughgoing critique of the American Way of Life (AWOL). (Less than three months after being run down by the train, Brian testified in Congress about this event. You can read his engrossing testimony here.)
What can we learn, after all these years, from Brian’s journey?
One lesson is the importance of “finding your own tracks and taking a stand there,” as he has often said. A catchphrase we used at the time held that “Stopping the war starts here”—stopping it at a weapons base, but also in many, many other places. Brian did so by taking this action “in person”: using the most powerful symbol at his disposal, his vulnerable, resilient, determined, and spirited body.
We can do this, too. This is not to say that we are all called to sit on train tracks (such action requires much discernment and training). But there are many places to stand nonviolently, withdrawing our consent and pointing our communities, our societies, and even ourselves in a new direction.
The world begins to change when we find this place.