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Jeremy Kuzmarov: Review of S. Brian Willson's "Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson: A Psychohistorical Memoir” (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2011)

Jeremy Kuzmarov is an assistant professor of history at the University of Tulsa and author of a book on Vietnam and the War on Drugs and a forthcoming volume on American police training and counterinsurgency and its link to human rights abuses in the developing world.

On September 1, 1987, S. Brian Willson, a Vietnam veteran, was run over by a train outside the Concord Naval Weapons Station in Northern California while trying to block munitions shipments to the Nicaraguan Contras. Willson lost both of his legs and suffered brain damage. After his miraculous recovery, he was greeted as a national hero in Nicaragua and also received a letter of apology from Ronald Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, who told him that she was sickened by her father’s “aggressively anti-Sandinista rhetoric” and “absurd reference to the Contras as freedom fighters.”

In Blood on the Tracks, Willson discusses his remarkable life-journey from a young conservative to a peace activist willing to sacrifice his body in defiance of the empire for which he once fought. Willson grew up in upstate New York where he had a conventional boyhood playing cowboys and Indians and starring on his high school baseball and basketball teams. His parents were religious conservatives who supported the Republican Party, with his father gravitating to extremist right-wing organizations such as the John Birch Society and the Ku Klux Klan after losing his job as manager of a flour mill. In 1964, after graduating from a small Baptist college, Willson supported Barry Goldwater for president and advocated “bombing the godless communists in Vietnam into oblivion.”

In the Air Force, Willson’s job was to document bombing casualties in Vinh Long province, which opened his eyes to the terrible suffering caused by the war. Before going overseas, he heard Senator Ernest Gruening from Alaska give a speech describing the Gulf of Tonkin attack as a fraud. At the time, he had been skeptical but now began to consider it in a new light, particularly as he witnessed U.S. pilots mercilessly strafe villages, killing women and children. Near the end of his tour, Willson had dinner with a Vietnamese friend, whose family showed him a postage stamp honoring Norman Morrison, the Quaker peace activist who immolated himself outside Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara’s office. By this time, Willson had come to feel a connection to Morrison, someone who grew up just miles from his boyhood home.

After returning to the United States, Willson participated in Operation Dewey Canyon III, “a limited incursion in the country of Congress” where disgruntled vets hurled their medals over the Capitol fence, stating that the medals were “drenched in the blood of the innocent.” Settling back into civilian life, Willson earned his law degree and worked as a public defender, penal consultant, and social worker, witnessing first-hand what he considered to be the injustices of the court and penal systems. He became increasingly disillusioned by mainstream politics after having difficulty lobbying for basic penal reforms. Willson’s political perspective was further shaped by his extensive reading in the history of U.S. imperialism as well as anarchist and socialist philosophies. While living in Washington, he attended lectures by people such as Noam Chomsky and encountered non-conformists such as Wally and Juanita Nelson, tax resistors who had been active in the civil rights movement and believed that each person had a duty to consume only what he or she could produce.

During the early 1980s, after experiencing painful flashbacks to Vietnam, Willson worked at a local VA center and aided in the Senate campaign of John F. Kerry, who later disappointed him by voting for the Iraq War. Seeing Nicaragua as yet another potential Vietnam, Willson became a tax resistor and joined in solidarity missions where he witnessed terrorist atrocities carried out by Contra operatives against rural campesinos who predominantly supported the socialist Sandinistas. As with the Vietnamese a decade earlier, Willson came to admire people who struggled valiantly in defense of their revolution. He also became connected with kindred spirits such as Charlie Liteky, a Medal of Honor winner turned peace activist, Phil Roettinger, a dissident CIA agent who had participated in the 1954 coup in Guatemala, and Bill Gandall, who had fought with the Marines against the original Sandinistas in the 1920s.

Back in the U.S., Willson gave lectures documenting Contra atrocities and attempted in vain to convince congressional delegates of the immorality of Reagan’s foreign policy. One congressman, Douglas Wayne Owens from Utah asked him, “Why should I believe someone who looks like you,” a reference presumably to his long hair. Devastated by this experience, Willson and several cohorts from Veterans for Peace, including Liteky and Roettinger, launched a forty-day-long fast on the Capitol steps that attracted wide-scale media attention and support from celebrities. The group then attempted to block U.S. weapons shipments, leading to the fateful train wreck in which Willson lost his legs (the others were able to escape just before being hit). The conductors, as he later found out, were under orders not to stop for protestors, considered to be “pests” threatening to arouse others from their indifference and passivity.

After recovering from his wounds and returning to Nicaragua as a hero, Willson traveled to many other countries devastated directly or indirectly by U.S. intervention, including El Salvador, Panama, Cuba, Palestine, Chiapas in Mexico, and Iraq. One again he was appalled at the devastation bred by mechanized warfare while taking inspiration from those standing up for indigenous rights. Willson’s experiences ultimately helped to solidify his belief that the roots of American militarism lay with the incessant consumerism of American society. He continues his work as a peace activist and has decided to opt out of what he calls the “American Way of Life,” focusing instead on living a simple, ecologically sustainable life in rural Massachusetts. Like other anarchist thinkers, Willson believes in decentralized systems of power and self-reliant communities functioning at one with nature, which he believes hold the key to human sustainability and progress over the long-term.

Willson’s journey from conservative Goldwater supporter to radical peace activist and environmentalist is incredibly inspiring and his memoir should be widely read. Over the past five decades he has encountered the range of human experience, including the barbarism of modern war, the arrogance of power, the banality of evil, as well as the courage of peace activists and dissenters and dignity of those struggling to survive against the odds. He himself appears to carry the weight of the American Century, with all its violence and destructiveness, on his back, and which has taken a profound psychological and physical toll on him. Nevertheless, Willson has emerged strong and defiant and with a vision for the future. He is a wise and courageous man, and from him we have much to learn.