S Brian Willson
As a US Air Force officer in Vietnam, he observed the needless bombing of numerous civilian villages, causing him to become vocal about his opposition to the war. Brian went on to be an anti-war author and activist. The price for his dedication to activism was high, eventually costing him the use of his legs.
“I’d probably seen somewheres between 700 to 900 dead Vietnamese, most of whom were children or very young people. I was both shocked and sickened, and I thought, “Maybe these are mistakes. Or maybe I just don’t understand the intelligence enough.” I already was beginning to think that these people are just Vietnamese people just trying to live their lives, and I didn’t quite know why we were there…yet. I mean, I needed to intellectually understand it. Emotionally, I was distraught.”
“I had a little Volkswagen Beetle with flower decals all over it, which was a flower-power car, which was very— In that day and age in the military in Louisiana, it was very extraordinarily unusual to have a car like that.”
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This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace — “Towards an honest commemoration of the American war in Vietnam.” This year marks 50 years of GI resistance, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured. Interview and edit by Matthew Breems. Jeff Paterson, Executive Producer.
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Brian Willson: The Vietnamese base commander one day asked me to determine whether airstrikes were successful at hitting their targets. We went to five different target areas. Everything that I observed were inhabited, undefended fishing villages, completely wiped out.
Matthew Breems: This is the Courage to Resist Podcast. My name is Matthew Breems. This Courage to Resist podcast is produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. Vietnam veteran and author Brian Wilson is the guest today. As an air force officer, he observed the needless bombing of numerous civilian villages, causing him to become vocal about his opposition to the war. Brian went on to be an anti-war author and activist. The price for his dedication to activism was high, eventually costing him the use of his legs.
Matthew Breems: Brian, it’s exciting to take this time to hear about your story of activism. I know you grew up in New York State. Why don’t you start us off with what life was like growing up in New York for you?
Brian Willson: I grew up in a very rural upbringing, conservative parents, conservative relatives, conservative friends. I didn’t even know what “conservative” was at the time. It was just the way it was! Even though I didn’t live around black people, there were a lot of comments in my family and among my friends over the years growing up that were very derogatory about African Americans but also Italian Americans and Catholics and Jews. So it was a very white, Eurocentric, Northern European community, as with all my relatives. My parents were also very religious in the Baptist Church. My father was a deacon. But I was an athlete. So my life pretty much revolved around sports, which took me out of the house a lot, so— and I was a good student, good enough. After high school, went into junior college.
Brian Willson: After junior college, I went to a four-year college. I did not have what you might call “politics.” It was just, growing up in America was the greatest thing. It’s American exceptionalism. I mean, as a white male who was six foot three inches, a good athlete, fairly good student, I knew growing up in the ’50s and early ’60s that if I got a college degree, life was going to be a bowl of jelly. I would get a degree, get a good job, and have the American dream. That’s kind of the mindset I had growing up even into college years.
Brian Willson: I started college in 1959 to— undergraduate, so I graduated in 1964, before Vietnam was… I mean, it was definitely heavily in swing, but it wasn’t much in the news yet in 1964. We did not have any mainline troops. We had advisers. Interestingly enough, when I graduated from college, I originally was going into seminary, but I decided that maybe it would be better to get my military out of the way first.
Brian Willson: So I actually enlisted into an air force program— I tried to, in 1964, and I was rejected for a very simple medical condition called Pes Cavis, which means high arches in the feet. So I said, “Okay.” Then I decided to go to law school instead of seminary, and I wasn’t going to be in the military. And by the time I got to being a second year law student, fourth semester law student, I wasn’t so excited about going into the military at all at that point. I mean I wasn’t interested in enlisting like I had been in ’64. And when I got drafted, I told them that I had been turned down by the air force in 1964; and by that time, in ’66, they needed the bodies too badly, so they said that was a waiverable condition.
Brian Willson: So that’s why I enlisted in the air force in 1966, when I was 25 years old. So I was already old to get— to start with. Went through officer training school, became a second lieutenant, and was sent to headquarters, Washington, to write regulations about security regulations. And then in ’68, I got my orders to go to Vietnam by way of 12 weeks of training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in a new air force program that was, they called, a Ranger program, to protect air bases in hostile areas. They even said that we might be going to Guatemala, and I had no idea what was going on in Guatemala. Of course, I had no idea what was going on anyways, really.
Brian Willson: When I was in that Ranger training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, with 558 other airmen, I was one of the 21 officers in the squadron. We all had to do bayonet training, but I found it so repulsive I didn’t do it. But I didn’t know that I felt repulsed until I actually got in the exercise itself. I hadn’t thought about it. But when you’re fixing the bayonet on your M-16, and you’re plunging it into a dummy, and you were to plunge that bayonet 100 times while screaming “Kill!” as loud as you can—-and you were never screaming loud enough for the trainers. They kept saying, “Louder, louder.” There was something about it that I felt so [repulsed]. I was trying to overcome my resistance because I really didn’t want to get in trouble. I did not do the bayonet training, and I did get in trouble for that, and that was in my first month of training. So that was the first clue maybe. that— Maybe that was a clue there was some other part of me that was trying to emerge. At any rate, it didn’t keep me from graduating.
Matthew Breems: After your initial training, tell us about some of your first experiences in Vietnam.
Brian Willson: Well, actually, before I actually got on the plane, there was a possibility in my mind that I wasn’t going to get on the plane. Because by this time, I was very disgruntled about the training, about my being picked for the training, not being motivated. If you’re going to be a Ranger, so-called, you’ve got to be motivated. And I thought, “Wow, I’ve got 42 men under my command, and if I’m not motivated and we’re going to be in hostile areas, I don’t think I’m the right person for the job.” So I had those kinds of discussions with our superior, but I didn’t have the courage to not get on the plane.
Brian Willson: My opposition to the war was not very strong yet, but I was suspecting that it was probably not such a noble cause. But more than that, I was worried about whether I could be a good leader. But I got on the plane, we landed at Cam Ranh Bay, and then we went to our headquarters in Phan Rang the same night. Our squadron was broken up into 10 different places, and my unit, we were called Flights—we were sent to a small bay, Binh Thuy down in the Mekong Delta. So there I was assigned to supplement an already… air base security force.
Brian Willson: Binh Thuy was the most heavily mortared base in Vietnam at that time. And they made me the night security commander at that base, so I would basically work from 8:30 to 6:30, 8:30 at night to 6:30 in the morning. And my men were mostly on the perimeter. We were not operating as Rangers, which was very refreshing—for me at least. And so basically we were just protecting the base from sapper squads and mortar attacks, although there’s not much you can do with a mortar attack except try to identify where the mortars are coming from and start shooting our outgoing mortars in that direction.
Brian Willson: I was very anxious and nervous in that job. And because I’d been a graduate student, when I was anxious, what I did was study, so I studied intelligence reports. I went to the command bunker all the time studying the latest CIA reports, the latest Army reports, latest Marine reports. And the the Vietnamese base commander one day asked me… I think because I was studious and sober—many of the officers were not sober. He asked me if I would do a special assignment for him, and it was to go with one of his lieutenants to determine whether air strikes were successful hitting their targets. At first I said, “No, I’m not interested.” But I thought about it. It took me a day and then I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
Brian Willson: That next week we went to five different target areas during the daytime, usually midday, and everything that I observed were inhabited, undefended fishing villages completely wiped out in bombing missions. I mean, these bombing missions were from 300 feet in the air. These villages were undefended.
Matthew Breems: So there was no sign of military presence in any of these villages that you had observed?
Brian Willson: No. They had machetes and fishing gear and stuff like that but no weapons. But already I had seen body bags and just the noise of planes and helicopters taking off and landing every day. I was already realizing, “What am I doing here? This is crazy! I’m 10,000 miles away, and I don’t know anything about Vietnam!”
Brian Willson: After that fifth week, I was in five different target areas. I’d probably seen somewheres between 7- and 900 dead Vietnamese, most of whom were children or very young people. I was both shocked and sickened, and I thought, “Maybe these are mistakes. Or maybe I just don’t understand the intelligence enough.” I already was beginning to think that these people are just Vietnamese people just trying to live their lives, and I didn’t quite know why we were there…yet. I mean, I needed to intellectually understand it. Emotionally, I was distraught.
Brian Willson: At the end of the week, on Saturday, I flew to Tan Son Nhut to meet with our intelligence officers, and I wanted to look at the bombing reports. And I spent many hours with a particular captain, who had gone through the same Ranger training with me, but he was an intelligence officer stationed at Tan Son Nhut, in Saigon. And I said, “I’m really concerned about these bombings, because I think they’re just [bombing]— civilians to get body counts.” And we were looking at different reports and maps and he said, “You know, we’ve been perplexed because we have intelligence reports that show entire VC…”—they called them “VC units” and they were identified by letters and numbers—had been wiped out in this B-52 bombing here or another bombing over here. But that same unit reappears a few days later in another location. And we couldn’t figure out why that was happening if we in fact had wiped out a unit that was then reappearing a few days later.
Brian Willson: I said, “I know why. It’s because you’re killing civilians in their villages ‘VC’, and you’re not really killing moving units of VC.” After three or four hours, he said, “Wow, that’s got to be the explanation!” So I felt very affirmed that it was not a mistake, and that it was intentional policy just to get body counts. And from that point on, I spoke out against the war almost every day I was there. Speaking out against the war isn’t very dangerous, but it’s kind of a nuisance to your superiors.
Matthew Breems: And what does speaking out against the war look like when you’re part of the army? When you’re in action?
Brian Willson: Yeah. Well, it’s just telling your super— my NCOs and other officers, I said, “This war violates the Nuremberg Principles, United Nations Charter, the Geneva Conventions, and the Hague Convention.” Because I had been in law school, so I knew something about the law. And of course they didn’t take me seriously. And I said, “But it’s unconscionable what we’re doing. It’s unconscionable.” So that was the extent of my activities. I mean, I still carried out my nightly— night security duties very conscientiously. But I carried out my duties as best I could. But I got sent home after five months.
Matthew Breems: Do you think that was in response to your attitude towards the war being fairly public?
Brian Willson: Well, getting sent home early was. Even if I had finished out my tour as was originally planned, I still would’ve had time to do— to fill my four-year commitment. So they sent me to Louisiana and I became the supply squadron executive officer of a 250-man squadron. By that time I was a captain. And I gave anti-war talks on the weekends in civilian clothes in Louisiana, and I was in wing commander’s office several times for different things. They were very suspicious of me because of my attitude.
Brian Willson: I had a little Volkswagen Beetle with flower decals all over it, which was a flower-power car, which was very— In that day and age in the military in Louisiana, it was very extraordinarily unusual to have a car like that.
Matthew Breems: So that was a provocative statement to them?
Brian Willson: Yes, that was a provocative statement. But I got my honorable discharge and went back and finished law school on the GI Bill. I wasn’t very motivated by that time. I was extraordinarily alienated about the whole culture and society, and was suspecting the barbaric nature of the war and the illegal nature of the war and the lies that the war was based on, both originally and to continue, I started suspecting that the origins of that behavior was in our own country’s history. So I became very interested in studying history, a different history than what I had learned in school.
Brian Willson: I finished law school, passed the bar, wound up not practicing law. By that time, I was 28, 29. And by that time, my intellectual understanding had grown a lot about power, about the war, about exploitation, how power operates by both force and lies. So I was— already kind of had a radical ideology, but I didn’t have anybody to talk to particularly. I did go to Dewey Canyon III because I lived in DC. And Dewey Canyon III was from April 18-April 23, 1971, a thousand or two vets all in fatigues demonstrating on the Mall for a full week against the war. Even though I was a legitimate vet, I did FEEL legitimate.
Brian Willson: And it wasn’t until 10 years later, in 1981, when I had a very severe psychotic flashback to Vietnam, and I was reliving being in that first village I went into where I saw 150 or so dead bodies. And I had tuned that out until my flashback, and then it became very vivid, and I was pretty much a wreck for a couple months in 1981. And then I thought, “Well, I guess I AM a Vietnam veteran.” So then I started actively seeking out other vets to hang out with.
Brian Willson: But the first question I would ask is, “Were you against the war?” Or, “Are you against the war now?” And if they weren’t, if they were for the war, I didn’t even want to spend any time with them. I didn’t want to spend any of MY time with them. So I had joined a VVAW; and then 1985 I joined the VFP, Veterans for Peace. I had created a veterans organization in New England for a short time called Veterans at Peace Education Network. Started writing a lot. And I started going to Central America.
Brian Willson: I just felt totally alienated from the whole culture, and I didn’t quite know if I was ever going to find a place that was comfortable for me, and the most comfortable place that I found was in Veterans for Peace, even more so than in VVAW. I basically studied imperialism, history of empires, and the history of what empires do. And specifically the history of my own empire, because I was born and raised in it. And realized that the history of our country was incredibly different from the mythology that we’d grown up with. I write about it, and in fact, I’m writing a new book about it right now.
Matthew Breems: I know you write about our country’s imperialistic DNA being just in the ethos of our collective conscious. In real short form, just elaborate on that and how you think that leads to a place where we find ourselves in Vietnam.
Brian Willson: Well, our origins were in genocide, and genocide is a product of a misstate of mind of feeling superior to other people. Our Eurocentric history. The first Europeans that came to the US, that came to the New World, English, Scotch, French, German, they felt— they had an attitude that God was on their side and that the people that they found in the New World were not really human beings—they called them “savages.” And over several hundred years, most of those indigenous people died. And the same thing with Africans. And so we had a free labor force that was stolen, and we had free land that was stolen from the indigenous. And we have never ever dealt with that!
Brian Willson: And Freud said that, “Whatever happens historically is in the psyche.” You can’t get rid of it. It’s in the psyche. You can either integrate it into a a lesson, or you can pretend that it doesn’t exist. And so what I think has happened in the United States is, we have been living with the religion of exceptionalism as if none of that genocidal activity or mental attitudes that directed that activity really existed, because that wouldn’t have existed with exceptional people.
Brian Willson: I think that we acquired our nation state through theft of land and theft of labor through violence, murdering millions with total impunity like a spoiled child [who] never got reprimanded for any activity as he’s growing up that would be considered harmful to society—or even to himself or herself. So I think we have a cultural psychic DNA in genocide that was never addressed and still isn’t addressed. And it makes us what I call… I’m developing this new essay— it makes us stupid. Literally stupid because we don’t want to ask the questions why we [inaudible 00:21:29]. We’re ignorant, but ignorance is different from stupidity. I don’t think the society asks questions. They don’t ask questions that challenge their sense of superiority. They might say, “We made mistakes. We’re not perfect, but we’re still kind of better than everybody else.” And I think that is a fatal flaw in our cultural thinking.
Brian Willson: I think, looking at our cultural DNA, it’s very dangerous and it’s very pathological. And if it was an individual that was doing this behavior, that that person would be locked up forever, they’re so dangerous. I mean, look what we— We bombed 600 times since 1798, 400 of those times since World War II. We’ve covertly intervened thousands of times. We’ve destabilized so many countries. We’ve assassinated leaders and tried to assassinate other leaders. We’ve interfered in at least 81 elections in 40 countries over the last 50 years. And I think we can’t think through very deeply without dangerously facing the original lie of being built on the forceful dispossession of other human beings, of their labor and of their land. And so we just keep telling more lies to protect us from the original lie. So everything is kind of pretend, including all our wars.
Matthew Breems: Brian, do you want to give us an overview of some of the writings that you’ve done as they pertain to your activism? I know you have several books out and you continue to write articles online. Just to speak to some of those for us.
Brian Willson: I really have only written four books. The first one was in 1992 called “On Third World Legs.” That was a very short book, 96 pages. And then I wrote a very long, what I call a psycho-historical memoir called “Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson.” That was published in 2011 by PM Press in Oakland. That goes into lots of history and psychology. It goes into my war years, it goes into my activism years, but it talks— there’s a lot of philosophy in there too about how we got to be who we are as a people. In 2013, I published a book called “My Country Is the World: A Photo Journey”. It’s mostly a photo book. And then last year I published a book called Don’t Thank Me for My Service: My Vietnam Awakening to the Long History of US Lies.”
Brian Willson: And I’m working on a book now connecting exceptionalism with shame, stupidity, and imperialism—which is kind of our religion, I mean. And I talk about my own origins and how it affected me growing up in the Cold War, kind of didn’t have to think too seriously about anything because I lived in the greatest country in the history of the world. Even though that’s been punctured a lot in the last 30 years, it’s still— it’s still a deeply held belief. So I’m just trying to de-mythologize even my own upbringing, which really was kind of blissful, and knowing now that it was just a cover for a big lie. And Vietnam is what clued me in to… We couldn’t be doing what we’re doing in Vietnam unless those origins or that kind of thinking behavior or— originated in my own country’s origins.
Matthew Breems: Brian, let’s hear you describe that incident at the US Navy base where you were protesting and the incident involving the train.
Brian Willson: Yeah. Well, I’d been in Nicaragua and El Salvador quite a few times in ’86 and ’87, and I’d witnessed a lot of what Reagan’s Contras were doing in Nicaragua, trying to to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. I spent quite a bit of time with the Salvadorans and with the Nicaraguans in ’86 and ’87. There were a lot of people lobbying Congress to stop the funding of the Contras in Nicaragua and the Salvadoran government, and they kept funding it. And so a group of us decided to go to the source of the weapons that were going into Central America, which was the Concord Naval Weapons Station, the biggest Pentagon depot on the West Coast. We would go there and began vigil-ing and demonstrating, and ultimately blocking the movement of the munitions, physically, since Congress wasn’t going to cut off the funding. And we called it “Nuremberg Actions,” based on the Nuremberg Principles that came out of World War II.
Brian Willson: And so we said we would call ourselves Nuremberg Actions.” We’re upholding the law, and [inaudible 00:26:39] we’re obligated to try to do everything in our power to stop the continuation of the violation of the laws,” so that meant stopping the flow of the weapons that were all going to kill people in Central America. So people were blocking trucks on the first day, and people were going to jail, and I was a jail support person. While I was there during that summer, I said, “Well, I’m going to decide a day, and I’m going to start blocking the trains.”
Brian Willson: Because there was a specific protocol the trains had to follow if anybody was on the tracks: it was, they couldn’t move the train until the police were called and the demonstrators were removed. So there was no danger. It was just knowing I was going to go to jail once I decided to sit on the tracks, and the speed limit was five miles an hour, and there was always two spotters in the front of the train locomotive in radio contact with the engineer, and their job was to make sure the tracks were always clear. Remember, this train is moving very lethal munitions.
Brian Willson: I and two other vets decided that on September 1st, which was the one-year anniversary after the water-only fast we had participated in on the steps of the Capitol a year earlier in protest of Reagan’s wars in Central America— That was the Veterans Fast for Life, and I was one of the four veterans at that 47-day fast. So this was one year later, and I took my position on September 1st with the other two vets, and the first train started coming down the tracks about a few minutes before noon. It stopped. We thought it stopped because they were going to have us arrested, but then all of a sudden that train started up again. And on that day, it turns out the train accelerated to more than three times the five-mile-an-hour speed limit, and I didn’t get out of the way in time. I have no memory actually of being hit.
Matthew Breems: Which is probably for the best.
Brian Willson: Yes, correct. And then I just— you know, I was there in the hospital 28 days. I had a fractured skull and I lost my right frontal lobe—it was destroyed. I lost both legs below the knee, a broken shoulder, broken elbows, broken wrists, broken ribs. I mean, I was lucky to survive, really. I completely went under the train!
Matthew Breems: What were the consequences of that? Was there any accountability from the military or the the authorities?
Brian Willson: No. No. There were— They charged me with trespassing, which was later dropped, but there were no charges brought against any members of the train crew.
Matthew Breems: Thank you so much for taking this time to share your story of activism with us and with the listeners. We really appreciate a lot of your insights just into the history of our country and our cultural DNA, and how we’ve ended up where we are right now in our attitudes towards other nations. So thank you for that.
Brian Willson: Okay. Well, thanks for giving to me the opportunity.
Matthew Breems: This Courage to Resist podcast was produced in collaboration with the Vietnam Full Disclosure effort of Veterans For Peace. This year marks 50 years of GI resistance to the US War in Vietnam, in and out of uniform, for many of the courageous individuals featured.
Matthew Breems: This episode was recorded and edited by Matthew Breems. Special thanks to executive producer Jeff Paterson. Visit vietnamfulldisclosure.org and couragetoresist.org for past episodes, more information, and to offer your support.