Saturday, October 29, 2011

A hero of mine and a new book

Everybody wants to know
Why I sing the blues
Yes, I say everybody wanna know
Why I sing the blues
Well, I've been around a long time
I really have paid my dues
—B. B. King, "Why I sing the blues"

S. Brian Willson has been around a long time and he has really paid some dues. He's been on the rightwing side, the leftwing side, in the world of the all-American jock scholar warrior and in the world of the empathic nonviolent defender of all humanity. In between he has suffered direct, massive, permanent and life-threatening, life-altering violence from his former comrades-in-arms, the US military. He has been willing to sacrifice and the war system has taken him up on that willingness, even more than he bargained for. He turned 70 this year on a birthday he shares with my old political mentor, Walt Bresette, with Vietnam vet Ron Kovics, and with the United States of America, the Fourth of July. 

Now he's speaking about his second book, a memoir, Blood on the tracks: The life and times of S. Brian Willson, and he's visiting the various Occupy sites, bringing his message to them and their messages to each other. Willson's memoir pushes out at 410 pages of the history of one thinking person's interface with the war system.

As a young conservative law student at the Washington College of Law at American University Willson volunteered to spend time in jail where the experiences were so horrific--including having a man's gangrenous foot literally come off into his hands!--that "my conservative veneer began to crack" (p. 21).

Just a few years later, as he served in Vietnam, it cracked all the way through when he was assessing bomb damage. Turns out the bombs were napalm and he encountered many burned and disfigured Vietnamese, culminating with his crisis when he stared at one young mother, napalm-burned to death with her three babies in her arms in a village. "From that moment on, nothing would ever be the same for me" (p 48).

To hear Brian tell his story out loud, watch Democracy Now! from October 28, 2011. It's an hour well spent.

I first heard of Brian when he and three other vets fasted on the steps of the Capitol in Washington, an open-ended fast looking for signs that the US would not tolerate the ongoing "low-intensity" warfare against Nicaragua, a war he saw much like a Vietnam in our backyard, only done by proxy thugs instead of US troops. 

In some ways, Brian is much like many other veterans for peace, in that he doesn't practice violence but he supports the rights of others to use violent resistance to empire. Is he a pacifist? Perhaps, perhaps not. But he knows what the price of resistance is and who pays. He saw it in Vietnam, and then saw it again when visiting Palestine, El Salvador, Nicaragua and other places. Mostly, he has paid a heavy price himself.

I've spent a fair bit of time incarcerated or otherwise in the judicial system (on house arrest, parole, probation, etc.). I've picked up a couple of peace felonies and nonviolent misdemeanors, but I have no concept of what a really high price on my resistance might be, nothing like Brian's price.

I had never met Brian, but I remember exactly where I was, who I was with, and what I was doing when I heard about the attempt by the US military to murder him. It was September 1, 1987, and I had organized a work party for my dear friends Paul Heinrich and Sue Pope, two activists in the various solidarity movements with those opposing US hegemony in Central America. Paul and Sue were building a large solar home on a beautiful south-facing slope in northern Wisconsin, north of St. Croix Falls. We were listening to Paul's transistor radio, tuned, as always, to WOJB, the tribal station, and the report came on about Brian. He had been sitting on the railroad tracks at the Concord Naval Weapons station in blockade of trains of weapons bound for Central America. The train, instead of slowing, accelerated and cut off his legs, broke many bones, and took out a piece of his skull, essentially scalping him. We all stopped swinging hammers and carrying lumber and just listened, horrified. We all knew who Brian was and we were aghast.

Brian's account of his long journey back from the hell of surviving such a murderous attack weaves throughout the history of resisting US imperialism and the consumer culture that drives it. It is a poignant political and blunt personal story, written from the heart by a smart man who has been places most of the rest of us can only imagine without real basis for understanding. His story is one of developing deep human empathy and one that teaches it. It is not an easy read but it is an inoculant against the tendency to objectify everyone in different groups. It is a direct challenge to each of us to be as powerful as we can in our stances and actions for peace and justice. Tough medicine for the soul, but we should take it.

Many years later, Brian moved to Portland, where I live, and we have become friends. We don't always agree on everything, but we always respect each other. Brian will be one of my heroes forever. He lives his ideals and, even with prostheses, walks his talk more than almost anyone I have ever met.

This is a book that we should assign to all high school students. I'd like to see them all read 10 pages per week, all year, and discuss it every week in class for a little while. It's a tough one, but Brian also writes with honesty and humility, the two qualities of the best memoirs. His story is a long one. I hope it's much much longer. He has been there, done that, and has come back from the dead to give us a great deal of wise perspective.

B.B. King can take us out:

Now Father Time is catching up with me
Gone is my youth
I look in the mirror everyday
And let it tell me the truth
I'm singing the blues
Mm, I just have to sing the blues
I've been around a long time
Yes, yes, I've really paid some dues

Blind man on the corner
Begging for a dime
The rollers come and caught him
And throw him in the jail for a crime
I got the blues
Mm, I'm singing my blues
I've been around a long time
Mm, I've really paid some dues

Brian, we who love justice say thank you. May you see the world you envision. 

Willson, S. Brian (2011). Blood on the tracks: The life and times of S. Brian Willson. Oakland, CA: PM Press.

1 comment:

Terri said...

I can't wait to read the book. I really enjoyed his interview on Democracy Now with Amy Goodman. He's an American Hero.