In a world where the violence of war can be safely ignored by most of the population because it occurs in faraway lands the need for moral witness has never been greater. When the recipient of the Nobel Peace prize unabashedly claims that the violence of war is sometimes necessary and then pursues a policy dependent on increasing that violence, the need for those who oppose such a philosophy to speak up would seem essential to human survival. When the economy of the world’s richest nation goes into free-fall because it insists on destroying lives and land in at least three different nations under the guise of fighting for their freedom, the need to put one’s life on the line to end those wars and the economy that creates them has never been clearer.
Unfortunately, in recent years, the number of people actually willing to do so seems to have diminished to a relative handful. Of that handful, even fewer are known outside their own circles. Even this latter group finds it difficult to be acknowledged by the greater population. Much of this inability to get publicity can be attributed to the mainstream media machine whose sole purpose is to gear the population up for the next invasion and accompanying repression of rights at home. Occasionally, however, an act so dramatic and courageous creates a situation that not even the corporate media machine can ignore it.
One of those instances occurred on September 1, 1987 outside of the Concord Naval Weapons Station (CNWS) in Concord, California. It was on that day that military veterans Duncan Murphy, David Duncombe and S. Brian Willson sat down on some train tracks outside of CNWS as part of an attempt to block trains carrying weapons and other materials bound for Central America. In Central America, these materials were being used by the El Salvadoran military to kill revolutionaries and their civilian supporters. In Nicaragua and Honduras those materials were being used by US-funded paramilitaries and the Honduran military to destroy the popular government of Nicaragua. Protests like the one that took place that day in 1987 had been going on for weeks. The trains had always stopped before reaching any protesters on the tracks and waited for local police to arrest the protesters.
On September 1, 1987 the train did not stop. In fact, it sped up as it headed towards the three men. Two of the men were able to extricate themselves from the tracks at the last moment. Willson could not. In seconds his legs were crushed and his skull pierced. His body bounced around under the still moving train as the men driving it continued on their way back on to base property. If it had not been for the medical knowledge and quick action of Willson’s fellow protesters, he would have died. Given the impact the attempt on Willson’s life had in the national media, one can be fairly certain that there were those involved in waging the US wars in Central America who wished he had died.
As it turned out, Willson lost his legs, but otherwise recovered. He was hailed as a hero by the Nicaraguan people and became something of a moral beacon for the anti-intervention movement in the United States. His memoir, Blood On the Tracks, was recently published by PM Press. The tale he tells is one that is not completely unique to Wilson, although the specifics certainly are. Born in a small town in the eastern US, he played sports in high school, went to college, went into the military and served in a war. His particular war was Vietnam. Like most of his fellow GIs, Willson never seriously questioned or understood why he was being sent to Vietnam before he was in country. However, once he got there, the murderous contradictions began to challenge his very core. When he wondered aloud why civilians were being killed and labeled as the enemy, he was told to shut up. When he didn’t shut up, his tour was shortened and his military life was essentially over. Thus began what would become his future as an antiwar activist, even though he did not know it at the time.
Willson’s narrative is a deeply personal story contextualized by a growing awareness of the avaricious and murderous history of the country he always called his own. This growing awareness created a situation quite common amongst Willson’s compatriots of the 1960s and 1970s–a situation best described as cognitive dissonance. In other words, everything he had been led to believe about his nation was a lie. Furthermore, he was complicit in living and perpetrating that lie. His (and our) complicity is so complete that even if we do nothing to support Washington’s wars and Wall Street’s rapaciousness, we remain complicit by the fact of our citizenship. Willson’s realization is what motivated him to untangle himself from the web of complicity all US citizens are tangled in. Like so many others, his journey involved opposing the wars of his nation. Unlike so many others, it cost him part of his physical body.
S. Brian Willson doesn’t just acknowledge his and our complicity; he demands that we challenge it. Even more, he demands that we work to end it. As anyone knows, this is not an easy or necessarily desirable path. Yet, in the moral universe of Willson, there is no alternative to certain destruction unless every U.S American confronts their role in maintaining the machinery of death and greed we call America. Like the revolutionary Mario Savio told a crowd at UC Berkeley in 1964, you must “”There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious?makes you so sick at heart?that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!” Blood On the Tracks is the story of one man’s attempt to change the direction of that machine or, failing in that, preventing it from working at all.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available in print and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org