Here I share stories of people who went through a major transformation of their perspectives. All grew up aligned with the near universal versions of history and beliefs that are taught in the United States and reinforced in all aspects of life. But, later in adult life, sometimes very late, they could not reconcile some event, started asking questions, seeking answers, eventually coming out with a very different and broader perspective.
After awakening, there is no going back or desire to go back. In full disclosure, I warn you that your family and friends will not be changing with you, at least not at the same time, if ever. As some consolation, there are many amazing people who have already made this transformation, some a generation or so back in their families. Making this transformation, you join the people creating the only chance for our survival and perhaps a society with more justice, liberty and joy.
The first two, Major General Smedley Butler and Howard Zinn were veterans and authors that I have quoted throughout this website. All of the others are personal friends and colleagues, most of whom I met within months of my transformation and I list them in order of meeting them.
I have many other friends and colleagues with equally beneficial and inspirational actions but here I only include examples of personal transformations that I know about.
This transformation is possible with most people. Perilous for us, there are a few people, often in leadership, sometimes with nuclear weapons, who have little chance of changing or even having empathy or awareness of others. They can and often are very charismatic, fooling nearly everyone. I have been fooled by three people in my life (read more).
Before sharing the stories of these people, I wish to share a song by David Rovics who was at several events where I met the following people. This song is about an event that Howard Zinn talks about in his personal transformation. This song fed my chest pains and feelings that burst out of me a year ago after looking at the “Fat Man” in the Oshkosh Air Museum with my brother Bob. This song, when I first heard it in 2012, opened my feelings to finally cry for the death of my mother 9 years earlier. As a stoic man of German ancestry I can plow through life toughing it out. I have never maintained dry eyes listening to this song. I now use it to soften myself or to return to a greater perspective of others and get out of petty thoughts about me.
Ten thousand children played in the playground
Swinging on the swings, didn’t hear the sound
Of the single plane that flew overhead
The third shift workers were just going to bed
There was a flash of light and a rumbling noise
And gone in an instant — parents, girls and boys
Ten thousand mothers were boiling rice
A thousand POW’s were rolling dice
Hoping they’d survive this terrible storm
When each young man in his uniform
Vanished in the air in the blink of an eye
One moment they lived, the next they all die
Ten thousand chickens were sitting on eggs
Heads in their wings, resting their legs
Ten thousand farmers were looking at their fields
Planning the harvest, guessing at yields
Dreaming of life after the war
The next second they weren’t living no more
Ten thousand lovers made lover to each other
Each one of them thinking they might not get another
Living so long with death everywhere
Much more than one person alone can bear
But there wasn’t time for a final kiss
Who could’ve known it would end like this
A hundred thousand people were living their lives
Grandparents, children, fathers and wives
Now they’re just shadows on the street
In such a quick burst of incredible heat
Now listen to them talk about doing it again
From whence came the souls of these terrible men
Major General Smedley Butler (July 30, 1881 – June 21, 1940)
Excerpt from “The True Flag – Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire”, 2017 by Stephen Kinzer
Major General Smedley Butler had spent decades leading invasions of other countries. He commanded troops in Cuba and the Philippines, fought the Boxers in China, helped overthrow the governments of Nicaragua and Honduras, directed occupations of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, secured the Panamanian regime that gave Americans the right to build their canal, and won a Medal of Honor—the first of two—for valor in suppressing Mexican resistance at Veracruz. By the 1920s he was a living legend, a personification of “the large policy.” The Marine Corps decided to use his popularity as a recruiting tool and sent him on a speaking tour. It did not unfold as planned. Butler strayed far from his script. He not only failed to defend the policies for which he had fought, he denounced them. Marine commanders called him back to Washington and, by mutual agreement, he resigned from active duty. Freed from constraint, he began barnstorming the country on his own. In passionate speeches and articles, he said that serving as a marine commander had made him “a high-class muscle man for big business” and “a gangster for capitalism.”
Howard Zinn (August 24, 1922 – January 27, 2010)
Howard Zinn was a friend to many of my colleagues in Veterans for Peace. I was in Madison WI in 2009 when he gave one of his last talks but sadly I missed it “Three Holy Wars”, 5-2-09, Howard Zinn at Monona Terrace, Madison, WI . I did not go through my transition and learn about him until two years later and a year after his death.
Howard Zinn was a veteran of WWII, chair of the history and social sciences department at Spelman College and a political science professor at Boston University. He wrote over 20 books, including “A People’s History of the United State”. I have quoted from it on this website. A person in another country once asked me if I had read Howard Zinn and showed me their copy in their language.
In World War II, Howard Zinn was more than eager to fight fascism but one bombing mission would, years later, transform his view of war. He was the bombardier on one of twelve hundred Flying Fortresses that dropped something new, “jellied gasoline”, on a little French resort town on the Atlantic named Royan. There were a few thousand German troops in the town, but the war had long advanced into Germany, ending three weeks later. These German troops were waiting for the end, isolated, not fighting, and no threat. More troubling, this was a town of our allies. After the war, Howard read a dispatch by the New York Times correspondent in the area: “About 350 civilians, dazed or bruised … crawled from the ruins and said the air attacks had been ‘such hell as we never believed possible.’”
Steven Bray (born October 18, 1955)
This is the story of my transformation. My contributions are far more modest than the others but I should tell you a little about myself. I wish to also acknowledge that the risks are far greater for those in government, particularly military or intelligence agencies. Unlike me, most of them also lost their pensions. Other events in my life are sprinkled throughout the website and not repeated here.
In October of 2011 I ended my engineering career the day I read an email from the CEO requesting that employees support the US free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea. At the same time, Father Jose Restrepo had just been murdered after posting a video showing the imminent displacement of his community at Marmato in Colombia by a Canadian mining corporation. My employer, Caterpillar is the world’s leading manufacturer of mining machines. I saw blood on my paycheck. I had global responsibility for software technology across the entire product line of Caterpillar machines and engines when I ended my career.
In March of 2003, a few days before the US launched the Iraq War, I joined a group of about 8 people standing in the rain at the corner of the Federal Courthouse in Peoria, Illinois. Jack Ryan spoke. It was the first time I met him but did not know him or his story. Subsequent to my transformation in 2011 we have met many times, he a native of Peoria Illinois and I living there between 1980 and 2012, he a long time member of Veterans for Peace and me joining in 2012.
Jack is a former police officer and was an FBI agent between 1966 and 1987. He told me that he was right to voice his dissent but it cost him not just his pension but he was on a likely path to a higher paying job in Caterpillar after retiring from the FBI. In my last few weeks at Caterpillar I participated in a high level meeting on securing intellectual assets from China and the man siting next to me was from the FBI and had just joined Caterpillar.
On December 4, 1986, Jack sent a memo to his superiors stating that the acts performed by the Plowshares group and Veterans Fast for Life (see S. Brian Willson) were “totally nonviolent”, that none of the actions under investigation “fit within the Domestic Security Guidelines.” and he was “not willing to conduct this lead or be involved in this case.” The FBI fired him in September 1987, ten months short of retirement. He took the FBI to court, going all the way to the Supreme Court which refused to overturn the lower court decision affirming his dismissal for disobeying a lawful order.
I met Paul Appell in March 2012, both of us volunteering for the majority of time at the “Eyes Wide Open” exhibit of boots representing US military from Illinois who died in Iraq or Afghanistan. Paul encouraged me to join Veterans for Peace and their Action Team and together we traveled to many events. He introduced me to most of people who’s transformations I share here.
Paul is a hog and grain farmer, not too far from Peoria, Illinois. He served as an officer in Vietnam.
Unfortunately I know little of his transformation but he often shared a very painful event. As an officer, he was asked to knock on the doors and personally inform a wife that her husband had died in Vietnam. One woman, while pounding her fists on his chest demanded to know why he had to die. Paul had already lost all illusion that there were valid reasons for the US war in Vietnam. He could not reply and every blow from this recent widow drove it home for him.
Judge Arthur Brennan (born December 25, 1946)
I first met Judge Arthur Brennan in April 2012 at the Friends Meeting House on Florida Avenue near Dupont Circle in Washington D.C. He was the speaker at one event of the NOW DC Social Forum. NOW stands for National Occupy Washington. Art told us he had been in the 82nd Airborne Division, and would have parachuted into Beirut Lebanon on a hostage rescue mission but it was canceled at the last moment. In January 2007, while serving as a Superior Court Judge in New Hampshire, a State Department official contacted him about taking a job as director of Office of Accountability and Transparency at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad Iraq. In this job, a day after sending a response exposing massive corruption, the State Department gave him an alternate response drafted outside of his office, hiding the corruption, and insisting that he sign it. Art held up an old leather briefcase saying that he had copies of the original and the alternate with him. He described details, some of which are shown below in his testimony to a Senate Hearing.
This was my first week after escaping my corporate cubicle. I was in a Friends Meeting House in Washington,with about 6 other people in the audience, with an ex-State Department official talking about massive corruption at the top of the US and Iraqi governments, many people assassinated trying to expose it, our government burying it, and the meeting was being live-streamed on the internet. I was expecting a raid.
I believe that Art was arrested with me with Veterans for Peace on May Day 2012 at the Vietnam Memorial in New York City. We were standing with clergy between the police and a non-violent, legal, assembly. Paul and I used Art and Nancy’s room reservations at the protest of the 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago. They canceled last minute to care for their dying dog. Art and his wife Nancy are the nicest people.
Ray McGovern (born August 25, 1939)
I first met Ray in April 2012 in Washington D.C., I believe at an event at his church and later at Veterans for Peace Conferences.
Ray came to Washington in the early Sixties as an Army infantry/intelligence officer and subsequently served 27 years as a CIA analyst from the administrations of John F. Kennedy through George H. W. Bush. From 1981 to 1985 he prepared the President’s Daily Brief, which he briefed one-on-one to President Ronald Reagan’s five most senior national security advisers. On July 20, 2002, CIA Director George Tenet had told his British counterpart that the “intelligence and facts were being ‘fixed’ around the policy of ‘regime change’ in Iraq.” In January 2003, Ray co-created Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) to expose how intelligence was being falsified to “justify” war on Iraq.
Ann Wright (born 1947)
I have very rarely participated in any events where Ann Wright was not also participating or leading and she participates in another 100 events for each of the ones with me. I joined her 2012 delegation to Gaza when Israel attacked.
Ann Wright spent thirteen years in the U.S. Army and sixteen additional years in the Army Reserves, retiring as a Colonel. She is airborne-qualified. In 1987, Col.Wright joined the Foreign Service and served as U.S. Deputy Ambassador in Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan, and Mongolia. On March 19, 2003, the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Ann Wright cabled a letter of resignation to Secretary of State Colin Powell, stating that without the authorization of the UN Security Council, the invasion and occupation of a Muslim, Arab, oil-rich country would be a violation of international law.
Christopher Lynn Hedges (born September 18, 1956)
Like Ann Wright, Chris Hedges is at nearly every event that I attend and 100 times more. I first met Chris in April 2012 in Washington D.C. where he co-hosted a speaking event with Ralph Nader. A year or two later I joined Paul Appell to hike Mt. Washington with Chris, his son Thomas, Zuade Kaufman (Truthdig publisher) and several others. We discussed three of his recent books in the evenings. I have ten of Chris’s books and regularly read his online articles.
Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries during his work for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.
Hedges was an early critic of the Iraq War. In May 2003, Hedges delivered a commencement address at Rockford College in Rockford, Illinois, saying: “We are embarking on an occupation that, if history is any guide, will be as damaging to our souls as it will be to our prestige and power and security.” His speech was received with boos and his microphone was shut off three minutes after he began speaking. He left the Times after receiving a formal reprimand from the newspaper for publicly denouncing the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq.
S Brian Willson (July 4, 1941)
I first met Brian Willson at the 2013 Veterans for Peace Conference in Madison Wisconsin. Our local chapter hosted the annual conference that year.
My friend and colleague Jack Ryan of Peoria, Illinois was fired by the FBI for sending a memo to his supervisor stating he was “not willing to conduct this lead or be involved in this case” against Brian Willson’s group because they were “totally nonviolent”. The FBI fired Jack in September, 1987, the same month that our government gave secret orders that the munitions train should not stop for protesters on the tracks, running over Brian Willson.
Excerpt from Introduction by Daniel Ellsberg to Brian’s book, “Blood on the Tracks”
This is the story of one man’s evolution from being a normal, ordinary, patriotic American—capable of acquiescing, even participating in a war of horrendous destruction against people in Indochina (“enemies,” along with their families and other “collateral damage”)—to becoming a human who risked and sacrificed his legs to try to stop our carnage in Central America: one who ever since has devoted his life to warning fellow humans about the harm they are inflicting and the dangers they are posing to all others and to most forms of life on the planet.
In the era of nuclear threats and of manmade, consumption-driven climate change, nothing less than that same change in consciousness and in compassionate action—exemplified in Brian Willson’s life and present life style—on a mass basis can save this species from decimating itself and extinguishing most others in the relatively short run.
Jacob David George (1982 – September 17, 2014)
In May 2012, at the NATO Summit in Chicago, I marched with Veterans for Peace holding a rope perimeter around more than 40 veterans of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, including Jacob George, who hurled their military medals toward the NATO summit gates in an act of protest against U.S. wars (read more). On September 17, 2014, one week after President Obama unveiled the new U.S. military mission against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Jacob George killed himself. In August 2015 I learned that my brother Bob’s daughter Tara would be enlisting in the Marine Corps in a week. I sent her a link to Jacob George’s IVAW Testimony (read more). Jacob’s powerful message lives on.
Jacob George did three military tours in Afghanistan before age 23, starting in 2001, about a month after September 11th, at age 19. He was a paratrooper and sergeant. In 2011, with fellow veteran Brock McIntosh, Jacob returned to Afghanistan to meet with young peace activists. He bonded with a 15-year-old Afghan boy, who, like Jacob was a farmer. They discussed “the absurdity of poor farmers being sent to kill poor farmers while people are starving.” Jacob found that the most effective way to personally heal from “moral injury”, to heal his soul, was to help other veterans and work toward changing the world so others would not be injured by war. He dedicated his life to anti-war activities, co-founding the Afghan Veterans Against the War Committee within Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and bicycling around the United States playing music for peace and sharing his story. After suffering the trauma of war and the deeper wounds of “moral injury”, and dedicating his life to peace, it was too much for him when Obama announced a new mission in Iraq. At age 32 he killed himself.