S Brian Willson

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 Wilson’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 Wilson.

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.

Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson

2011 by S. Brian Willson


by Daniel Ellsberg

The people sitting on the tracks at the Concord Naval Weapons Station on September 1, 1987, were expecting to be arrested. Either that or they would succeed in arresting the train, slowing the delivery of munitions to maim and kill people in Central America.

Having been in that position myself—on the tracks at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Production Facility in Colorado, nine years earlier—I can hear the skeptical reaction such actions evoke: “But you won’t really stop the transport; the train will always get through.”

To which the answer of those on the tracks is: “Not without arrests. Not invisibly, anymore; not smoothly, on time, without effort or reflection from within the bureaucratic system; not without public question, comment, controversy, challenge. Not, anymore, with the presumed consent of all American citizens.”

As my son Robert put it, as we drove handcuffed in a police van past the tracks at Rocky Flats where we had just been arrested: “There should have been people sitting on the tracks at Auschwitz.”

An overstated analogy? Not for Rocky Flats, where the plutonium triggers for all U.S. thermonuclear weapons were produced: each one of those thousands of warheads, a portable Auschwitz. But not for Concord Naval Weapons Station, either. As described in a manifesto by Brian Willson, July 4, 1987, “Concord, possessing both conventional and nuclear munitions [‘bombs, white phosphorus rockets, missiles, grenades, ammunition’], shipping arms to military operations in Central America, the Pacific theater, the Philippines and South Korea, and the Middle East, including the Persian Gulf, is the largest munitions storage shipping depot on the West Coast.”

The manifesto continued, “The vision for the Nuremberg Actions includes the daily upholding the law of nations and our own Constitution by placing ourselves—our bodies—in front of the trains and trucks carrying munitions of death from their bunkers to the piers for placement on ships, some destined for Central America where we can predict a specified number of human beings who will be killed and maimed once transported past our vulnerable bodies.”

Why “Nuremberg Actions”? The statement asserted rightly that “the use and manner of use of our munitions in Central America is illegal under international and Constitutional law” and that the Nuremberg Principles obliged citizens to oppose aggressive war and to uphold international law by disobeying “commands furthering the illegal conduct and to refrain from participating any further” in it.

Willson wrote, on July 4, “Violence is our business to stop—non-violently. None of this is possible as long as we are unable or unwilling to pay the price or endure the risks of living and working for justice and peace.” On September 1, Willson and other citizens were saying, in effect: “We withdraw our consent to this death-dealing transport. To carry it on, you will have to move us off the tracks by arresting us . . . or else, you will have to do it over our bodies.”

Faced with these alternatives, the authorities at the base made unannounced choices: not to make arrests that day; and not to obey regulations requiring the train to stop if there was anything in front of it on the tracks. They gave secret orders to the train crew not to stop if there were human bodies ahead. Those orders the crew obeyed. They may or may not have been ordered to speed up, to three times their regulated speed at the base; in any case, that is what they did.

That day S. Brian Willson proved that the risk he was willing to run and the price he was willing to pay to live and work for justice and peace was as great as the price the State was willing to inflict on those who challenged its illegitimate actions and authority. There was no real limit on the latter price: as Brian—and I—had witnessed in Vietnam in ways that changed our lives, and as I had recognized earlier in reading secret nuclear war plans.

Such unbounded violence can be contained and transcended only by the unlimited civil courage that Brian exhibited that day, and by large-scale resistance, as he had put it on July 4, “that stems from an affirmation of life—equally—for all people of the earth.”

“All people.” “Equally.” Those thoughts were spelled out two months later, on the morning of the train assault, in his notes for that occasion (supplied to me by Brian). They raise themes of profound import if they were to be taken seriously and acted on: as it turned out that they were, by Brian and his companions on the tracks.

“The authorities will be notified of the resistance action on the tracks so that they will have the choice of suspending movement of munitions, removing our bodies, or running over us. One truth seems clear: Once the train carrying the munitions moves past our human blockade, if it does, other human beings in other parts of the world will be killed and maimed. We are not worth more. They are not worth less. [emphasis added] Let us commit to ourselves and the world that we will claim our dignity, self-respect and honor by resisting with our lives and dollars, no matter what it takes, any further policies designed to kill others in our name, in each of our names ultimately.”

“We are not worth more. They are not worth less.” Meaning, if it means anything at all: “It is worth giving our lives to save theirs. It is worth risking our lives to reduce the risk to theirs.”

Who really thinks that way, or acts that way? Well, often, members of a family; or a combat team, about each other (not about “the enemy” or their families); perhaps, to some extent, a community, a nation; “us.” But how many feel that way about the lives of strangers, “others,” “them”? Not very many, yet. Not Brian himself, much earlier in his life, before a path of experiences that awakened him to the moral reality of a family hood that encompasses all humanity, indeed all life on earth.

The open eyes of a dead woman in Vietnam, killed, with her infant, by American bombs, the missing limbs of amputees in Nicaragua maimed by American mines, brought him, by a kind of terrible grace, to a greatly expanded sense of the “we” with rights and needs like his and our own, with just demands on our consideration, concern, compassion, and if necessary self-sacrifice.

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.

Is that at all possible? For humanity, as it is, in time?

The inspiration that this particular life-story presents is that it answers “yes” to that challenge. If one person (and of course, there have been many others, though not often so dramatically) can change their own awareness and their lives this way, then others of us can. It can’t be ruled out, it can’t be proven to be impossible, that enough humans can change themselves and history to stop the train that is heading now . . . to hell on earth.

That might seem a dishearteningly cautious way to put our prospects. In truth, the odds are not good. There is no guarantee that the train will stop, no matter how many bodies are on the tracks. But the stakes could not be higher, and it is inspiration enough for many of us to keep in sight, as this story helps us do in unsurpassed fashion, that despite all obstacles we do have a chance.

No reader, I believe, will finish this book without a sense of awe at the human spirit that is revealed in it and of gratitude for the map that Brian Willson has provided, in his life and this account of it, of the way out.

[page 26]


It is the week of March 13, 2008. I sit for hours at my computer, watching video footage of young Iraq and Afghanistan veterans talking, slowly and carefully, about what it feels like to fight a war. These are the Winter Soldier Iraq/Afghanistan Hearings, based on similar hearings conducted thirty-seven years earlier by Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

On April 18, 2006, I had my first confirmed kill. This man was innocent. I don’t know his name. He was walking back to his house and I shot him in front of his friend and his father. The first round didn’t kill him. He started screaming and looked right into my eyes. I looked at my friend and I said, “Well, I can’t let that happen,” so I shot him again. It took seven people to carry his body away. We were all congratulated when we made our first kill. I was congratulated on mine.

I just want to say that I’m sorry for the hate and destruction that I’ve inflicted on innocent people. . . . I’m sorry for the things that I did. I am no longer the monster I once was.

[ Jon Turner, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, www.ivaw.org.]

As I look at the faces of these soldiers and hear their stories, I cry nearly uncontrollably, my chest heaving, as I did during my first flashback in 1981. Politicians say that every war is different and necessary, but those of us who have fought in wars know all wars are the same.

Later, we were going house to house in a village. Two guys were pointed out to us as troublemakers. We tossed the hut. There was nothing there. We took the guys anyway. Their mother was kissing my feet, crying. I don’t speak Arabic, but I speak human. She was saying, “Why are you taking my sons, my boys? They haven’t done anything.” I was powerless to help her. . . . We never went on a raid where we got the right house, much less the right person. Not once!

[Hart Viges, 82nd Airborne, www.ivaw.org.]

I would probably not let myself cry so much if my partner, Becky, was home. Ironically, she is in Viet Nam on a humanitarian project that addresses some of the damage we caused in that war forty years ago. If she heard me, she would want to soothe me, but I don’t need or want to be soothed. Though the words of these soldiers shake me, their testimony indicates the power of transformation. It reveals the presence of soul, that indispensable characteristic of the human condition that is so often submerged under the pressure to conform and obey authority.

I joined the military after September 11, 2001, out of a desire to protect our country. I believed the President and members of his cabinet when they claimed that Saddam Hussein posed a serious threat to the United States, and then was shocked to learn that Congress, the American public, and the international community had to one degree or another been deceived or frightened into supporting the March 2003 invasion of Iraq.

[Thomas J. Buonomo, 2nd Lieutenant, U.S. Army, www.ivaw.org.]

I was once a young man, very much like the young men and women who have gone to Iraq. I grew up believing in the red, white, and blue. I believed that the United States had a sacred mission to spread democracy around the world. Viet Nam was my generation’s war. I did not volunteer, but when I was drafted, I answered the call. It was in Viet Nam that my journey toward a different kind of knowledge began.

I did not become a full-fledged activist after I returned from Viet Nam. Instead, I resumed law school. I believed, like most people, that Viet Nam had just been a terrible mistake. Like many vets, my brain could not process the horrors I had seen there, and so for many years I had no visceral recollection of the worst of the atrocities I witnessed. I believed, as so many people now believe, that if we just had better politicians, or better laws, we would never have to fight a war like Viet Nam again.

I spent a decade after Viet Nam struggling against a prison system that locked up impoverished Black men for long years while it gave shorter sentences to White men. I spent years lobbying Congress for prison reforms, only to see that our legal system almost always worked in favor of those protected by privilege even at the expense of human rights. Finally one day, when I was working in one of those prisons, I experienced a flashback that revealed the true horror of the war I had been a participant in. Everything clicked into place.

Viet Nam was not a mistake any more than the Iraq War is a mistake. There neither was nor is anything different about these wars. They are part of a pattern of brutality written into our country’s DNA. Since the first European settlers raped, pillaged, and massacred the local Indian populations in order to claim the land for themselves, we in the United States have felt it our manifest destiny as exceptional people to gain ever more material goods, even at the expense of anyone and everyone else, and the earth. We continue to treat others as inferiors.

I was dismayed at the way we were treating the Iraqis that we were there to liberate. Though our rhetoric spoke of freedom and liberation, our actions spoke only of self-preservation.

[Ronn Cantu, Sergeant, U.S. Army, www.ivaw.org.]

For over four hundred years, the United States has expanded, first filling this continent, and then taking its empire overseas to the Philippines, Cuba, Haiti, Korea, Viet Nam, Nicaragua, Iraq, ad nauseum. As I tried to understand why I had gone to war in Viet Nam, I began to journey around the world, witnessing the impact of both overt and covert U.S. intervention in nations such as Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Palestine, Iraq, Korea, and elsewhere.

After spending significant time in Nicaragua, I realized that a whole different way of life was possible than the one into which I had been born. We didn’t have to spend all of our time getting more and more. Life was actually fuller and richer when lived simpler and slower. The campesinos (farmers) in Nicaragua were poor—unfairly poor—but their goal in life was not to become rich. Though there were always exceptions, for most campesinos, community and extended family were more important than individual wealth. Preserving their dignity was more important to them than living a long life.

I believed, during these years, that if I could explain how the United States was forcing its way of life on people who didn’t want it, if I could prove the harm that U.S. bombs and economic policies were doing to people who didn’t want our “help,” that I could convince the people of the United States to change government policy. I used all my legal training in this project: on these trips, I took detailed notes, wrote reports for a variety of non-governmental agencies, and checked my facts.

After each trip, I brought that information home, marched in protests, lobbied Congress, and spoke out at churches and universities. When those approaches didn’t work, I helped organize the Veterans Fast for Life on the steps of the Capitol. Nothing, however, seemed to stop the behemoth of U.S. intervention as it sought continued prosperity through domination. Finally, we decided to go directly to the source of Nicaraguan suffering—the Concord Naval Weapons Station that shipped U.S. arms to the Contras of Nicaragua by way of El Salvador.

On September 1, 1987, at a well-planned and -publicized nonviolent action conducted on railroad tracks crossing public land between two sections of the naval base, I was run over by a munitions train. In one instant, I experienced, in my own body, the brute force of U.S. power that so many poverty-stricken villagers feel every day around the world. I survived, but my legs were taken from me. Since then, I’ve been walking on Third World Legs.

My body healed long ago, but that does not mean my healing has ended. My journey continues. I realize now that the U.S. engine of prosperity cannot be stopped until we change our very way of life. Each one of us must choose between an American Way Of Life that values selfish material prosperity and a way of life that values our collective humanity.

We don’t have much time to choose wisely. Today, our national addiction to material comfort is so grotesque that, though we comprise only 4.6 percent of the world’s population, we consume anywhere from 25 percent to nearly half of the world’s resources. Our sky is filled with pollutants, our seas with plastics, our lands covered with pools of toxic waste. In our desperate desire for more, we are now waging war on our own home, the earth itself. The drive to consume, consume, consume is literally consuming our hospitable planet.

I no longer travel the world. I don’t want to use the fuel or pollute the skies. But my journey continues. This book is my witness to the wars we have fought against others, and that we are now inflicting upon ourselves. There is no escaping the consequences:

See, you can’t wash your hands when they’re covered in blood. The wounds carry on. This is what war does to your soul, to your humanity, to your family.

[Iraq veteran Hart Viges, The Independent UK, September 24, 2005.]

All of us are covered in the blood of war through our complicity with the American Way Of Life. The deep understanding we must find is that this blood is our own, not just that of others. This book chronicles my journey toward that understanding. I walk with the millions of people around the world who are on similar journeys.

(read other personal transformations)