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.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Dying of consumption

In a single average year, the U.S. military uses enough fuel to run the entire mass transit system of the nation for 22 years—1.589 trillion BTUs—and that does not count the energy used to manufacture military hardware. 
 —Kent Shifferd (2011, p. 90)
In our various peace and justice movements I have heard (and said) for decades that it is a deep irony that so many of meet only after burning dinosaurs to physically get together. 

Of course, we mostly burned fossil fuel from ferns and other plants, since the greenery on Earth always vastly outweighs the animal life, but the point was that we need to consume something to fight the conflicts often caused, in part, by our overconsumption of nonrenewable resources. At least we who are on the peace and justice and nonviolent side of the issue acknowledge our own part in the problem. We try to get better. It's easy where I live, in Portland, where I am in a car only 2-3 times annually, and that more as a courtesy to the driver, not because I need a ride. My bike and the bus or train are amazing hereabouts. Of course, I just flew to Memphis to be with my academic tribe of Peace and Justice Studies Association members, but that is a once-per-year fuel expense. As soon as my schedule settles down, I will do the right thing and take the train to such conferences, at least those in the landmass of North America.

The societal costs of managing conflict should be run through a cost/benefit analysis that includes energy consumption and all the costs that implies. Getting the amount of peace and justice required to keep our world out of war would require a substantial investment in moving people and the goods of life around, certainly. That substantial investment can be viewed as cancelled out by two factors. 

One, the movement of troops, which would probably be about the same as moving nonviolent conflict workers around to help intercede, interpose and help overcome violence. 

Two, the movement of completely superfluous luxury foods and other goods can be eliminated and instead the basic necessities can be shipped to those most in need.

By making those two conversions, we probably come out just about equally, but then we have all the rest of the military consumption, that is, the manufacture and movement of the vast arsenals. This is what accounts for a great share of the massive energy consumption of the military. The US military is the only one that Shifferd looked at in particular, but that is the one that counts most. China and Russia manufacture lots of military materiél and export lots, but we "lead." We are also the only nation with serious overseas military bases, some 1,000 or more if we count all the small ones, and on the sovereign soil of about 150 of the 193 nation-states on Earth. That is a lot of materiél in motion. Even the military worries about this and is trying to go hybrid on some vehicles to stay in business even with the fuel shortages that it helps cause. And for those on the peace side who wonder why we should have so many trainings, consider that the military trains constantly, and is learning how to use high tech to reduce consumption in some trainings.

The positive feedback loop of more consumption leading to more conflict leading to more consumption leading to more conflict leading to more consumption leading to more conflict is a form of Idiot's Delight that threatens our national security far more than Saddam ever did and more than Ahmadinijad does now. With protectors like our military, who needs foreign despots? Unless we determine that we want to stop this cycle (in part by starting to cycle) it will run us over in its vicious spiral to death and destructive consumption. The one percent from Richistan profit from this conflict/consumption loop and the rest of us lose. Cut off the military and save energy, lives and money, massively. Time to interpose right here, right now, at home.


Shifferd, Kent D. (2011). From war to peace: A guide to the next hundred years. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dismantling three myths that block our movements

Creating peace means creating a whole culture. 
--Kent Shifferd (2011, p. 110)
What does Shifferd mean by this? That we must wait for peace until we create its culture? No. He means we must not stop with merely achieving an end to a particular incidence of violence; if we really want sustainable peace and justice we will never stop creating social institutions and personal practices, education and economic models, that foster peace and justice. What goes on in the kindergarten room is as crucial as what goes on in the Ivy League seminar. The minimum wage is a good thing, but we also need a maximum wage. We cannot create sustainable peace when we teach our children more about war than we do about peace. Getting more wealth to poor people is no more important than helping us all do without food shipped long distances (unless we use the ancient muscle or wind power to transport it). Unless we reflect and improve toward equality and sustainability we will unravel.

I hear dicta from many who think fairly shallowly, in my view, about peace.

Paralyzing myth #1:
"You can't make peace with anyone else, nor in society, without achieving inner peace."
This is one of the most disempowering and false statements, used to justify inaction and to avoid risk. It is like the inner Goebbels Big Lie, repeated often enough to be eventually regarded as true. Sorry. There have been plenty of peace campaigns that have succeeded by many participants who had not achieved inner peace at all. Waiting for individual perfection before working to reduce and eliminate the damage of violence in and between societies is a vain, narcissistic and incorrect justification for allowing terrible things to occur. Gandhi was prone to a great deal of self-doubt and stress. Martin Luther King, Jr. grappled with issues endlessly, facing his own mortality without adequate defense from a vast array of enemies. Through it all, both men created much peace in our troubled world. We are all lucky they didn't wait around for the mood rings in their respective navels to indicate the state of Inner Peace so vaunted by those who wish to offer lame excuses for noninvolvement. Just say it: I'm nervous and too afraid or too lazy to be involved. Here, I'll model this: I am too weary and busy to do enough for the Occupy movement. If I had more fire I'd be doing my share. Is that so hard? Can we admit it when others are doing more? Can we just say, "Thank you for doing the tough work of trying to create a movement, however messy it may be, toward more justice"? Give credit to others instead of making excuses for our own inadequate actions.

Paralyzing myth #2:
"Working on reforms isn't working for real change."
Really? Well, if we would like to actually achieve something beyond moral righteousness and posing we will think strategically about the most our movement can achieve, draw bright lines around that goal, ignore other wish list items, and get about the business of winning that goal. If it's to desegregate buses, win that before trying to demand the demolition of all forms of all racism. Does that mean your very broad goal is abandoned or that you no longer really want an end to all forms of racism? Obviously not. But if you can establish your movement as serious and as able to win something, you will recruit in large numbers. Those who fancy themselves as more radical, as those who taunted you to really step up and go for utopia, will still be on the sidelines, ineffectually engaging in maximal goal masturbatory rhetoric. You may safely ignore them.

Paralyzing myth #3:
"Peaceful methods only work against those who also use peaceful methods."
This is a favorite of those who get so scared of the police that their little raging frustrated spirits would rather demand the right to violent self-defense than actually produce victory. Of course, nearly all who use this line of argument completely fail to actually engage in violent insurgency themselves, but they'd like everyone to think of them in those Guevaran terms. Some even wear berets and sport Che-style beards or hairstyle, not to mention surplus military clothing. They need to create their own Romantic Revolutionary Daycare Center for the Walter Mitty School of the Vainglorious Vanguard. They do not belong in the street with those who are willing to persist in the much tougher work of converting others to support the campaign. And of course, historically, the violent ones who do manage to effect regime change traditionally use that violence next on their own people, declaring all new dissidents as enemies of the revolution. What you win with the gun you must keep with the gun.

While so many have notions of "the revolution," in fact, it is what we do every day, and how we do it as individuals and in concert with each other in great and small groups, that produces evolution. Evolution toward peace and justice can indeed happen in large gulps, but it must be preceded by creation of that sort of culture and it must be followed by the same.


Shifferd, Kent D. (2011). From war to peace: A guide to the next hundred years. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.