S. Brian Willson: Veteran, peace activist, & attorney-at-law

We are not worth more.  They are not worth less.  S. Brian Willson

What makes Paying the Price so powerful is hearing the voices of so many veterans, women and men who know what war is and have had the courage to walk away. They invite us to remember – however much the national “security” state would like us to forget — that every one of us can be brave. Courage (like cowardice) is a habit we can learn by practice. And there’s no better teacher than Brian Willson.

Rebecca Gordon, author of Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post 9/11 United States

Brian Willson
Photo by MAA

Last month, I had the honor of meeting Brian Willson, who had returned to Vietnam for the first time since he was here during the war over 45 years ago.  He was in Hanoi for the last leg of his visit, along with his partner, Becky, and two friends, Mike and Sandy, all from the US.

We were introduced at a screening of Paying the Price for Peace – the Story of S. Brian Willson, which, according to the film’s website, “exposes the truth about the United States’ addiction to war, and the lies it perpetuates in order to wage ongoing violence, through the life and times of Air Force veteran S. Brian Willson and other veterans.”  Other peace activists in the film include  Alice Walker,  Daniel Ellsberg, Medea Benjamin, David Swanson, Ron Kovic, Bruce Gagnon, Cindy Sheehan, Martin Sheen, Blase Bonpane,  Phil Donahue, David Harsough, among others.

The price Brian paid was nearly being killed by a military train that was ordered not to stop during a non-violent protest..  As the website points out, “Since then, he has not stopped calling attention to the US government’s defiance of international law through waging endless illegal wars.”

Here’s a brief description of the incident, excerpted from Brian’s Wikipedia entry:

On September 1, 1987, while engaged in a protest against the shipping of U.S. weapons to Central America in the context of the Contra wars, Willson and other members of a Veterans Peace Action Team blocked railroad tracks at the Concord, California Naval Weapons Station. An approaching train did not stop, and struck the veterans. Willson was hit, ultimately losing both legs below the knee while suffering a severe skull fracture with loss of his right frontal lobe. Subsequently, he discovered that he had been identified for more than a year as an FBI domestic “terrorist” suspect under President Reagan’s anti-terrorist task force provisions and that the train crew that day had been advised not to stop the train.

All of this and much more is discussed in his 2011 book, Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson.

As I told Brian in a subsequent email, the film was both incredibly painful and inspirational.  I don’t really have any heroes only people, dead and alive, of different nationalities, whom I admire and who inspire me.  Brian is one of them.

WORKING_PPfP_poster_FINALAPRIL-663x1024The day after watching Paying the Price for Peace I felt a bit depressed and unsettled, even angry, at times.  I think the main reason was watching the movie the night before and still processing it.  It reminded me of the anger I feel towards a government that has been the cause of so much suffering and destruction around the world over the last century or so.

That Brian has put himself in harm’s way on so many occasions reminds me of the many nonviolent acts carried out by Gandhi.  As Brian said, his disability connects him in a very visceral way to millions of people who have been the victims of state-sponsored violence.

While I am not a war veteran, I have a very personal connection to Viet Nam because of my decades-long experience with the country.  I know more than most US Americans just how much the Vietnamese and this country suffered because of the US occupation and war. It’s probably not a coincidence that most of my US American friends here are war veterans who are here to do penance, to give back, to make amends.  That will be part of their legacy not what they did or did not do here as young men in another life.

The fact that Brian and people like him embrace the truth over lies means that they are free.  I wish there were more veterans like him.  I wish there were more people in the  US and the world like him.  I’m grateful for his service and his courage – not during the American War in Vietnam – but after it for the cause of peace and justice.

We are not worth more.  They are not worth less.  If everyone felt this way, the world would be a much happier and safer place.  Simple yet powerful, Brian’s quote is the antithesis of nationalism which, like most ideologies, divides its adherents and pits people and peoples against each other.


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