For any male coming out of high school in the 1960’s, the Vietnam War became a dominating imperative that could not be side-stepped. The rudimentary process of registering for the draft became an increasingly nerve-wracking rite of passage as the war began to escalate, first with troop deployments followed in short order by body bags. Patriotic fervor and duty often became resignation and despair as the war seemed to have no end; the psychological state of the country worsened as criticism went from academic teach-ins and mass demonstrations to civil disobedience and sporadic violence.
One person who “covered the water front” in this regard was S. Brian Willson, who spoke at the First Unitarian Society of Ithaca on Thursday, November 10th. Seeing him step onto the stage gave me chills. Although six years older (age 70), I looked at him as I examine myself and my actions from that time period. We both have graying hair, but his body is much less complete than mine having a pair of prosthetic limbs, limbs that were not lost during the war but as a consequence of it. Willson had come to relate his journey of life as exemplified in his recently published book “Blood on the Tracks”.
Willson was born in Geneva, NY, but moved to western New York and graduated from Chautauqua High School in 1959. After undergraduate work he entered law school and became, in his own words, “just another small town young man hoping to live the American dream.” His draft notice came in 1966. He believed that the war was just, but he had no desire to actually be placed in a position to directly annihilate the communist threat. Consequently he joined the Air Force and had a comfortable position in Washington, DC.
This would change in 1968 when he was ordered to take Ranger training and was sent to Vietnam. He became commander of a special Combat Security Police Unit at the Binh Thuy Air Base. At some point he received orders to examine and report on the effectiveness of napalm bombing raids on three “Viet Cong” villages. What he witnessed shocked him and became a transformative experience for him. These were not Viet Cong villages, but simple people who made their living primarily from taking fish from the river. A majority of the dead were women and children. One body especially stirred his compassion. It was a woman clutching her three children with her eyes starring blankly into space, her eyelids burned off by napalm. He felt he was gazing upon the face of his sister.
Willson left the service and became active in the anti-war movement. His commitment to peaceful solutions for US foreign policy led him to become active in the campaign in the mid-1980’s to stop the flow of arms to the Contra’s who were resisting the Sandanista government in Nicaragua. This led him to the Concord Naval Weapons Station in San Francisco where munitions left the station by train bound for various groups in Central America.
Willson and two of his friends planned to sit on the tracks. They knew they would be breaking the law and expected to do jail time. What Willson and his friends did not know was that Willson had been labeled a “terrorist” and that the engineers were told to expect a hijacking. Not only did the train not stop, it actually sped up. Willson’s two friends jumped out of the way. Two weeks later Willson woke in a hospital room having sustained nineteen injuries including the loss of both legs and a hole in his skull the size of a lemon.
That Willson survived the accident was miraculous and that he can still function in daily life is a miracle beyond comprehension. And this incredibly traumatic experience has not kept him from departing from the epiphany he had after seeing hundreds of innocents murdered senselessly by American firepower. His mantra became “We are not worth more. They are not worth less.”
Just as the Vietnam War technically ended in 1975, the turmoil, contradictions and chaos of that era are a permanent part of my life. The name of one of my classmates in on the Vietnam Memorial. I have numerous other classmates and friends who willingly served or who decided not to escape “their duty.” I was very fortunate. I was able to keep my student deferment from 1965 to 1970 and managed to bag a high number in the lottery. I was able to avoid compromising my principles. I didn’t have to wrestle with the consequences of going to jail or going to Canada, but there is a guilt that my karma didn’t include going into a pointless, devastating war started by a lie (the Gulf of Tonkin incident) when so many of my peers were not that fortunate.
Route 38 has been designated as the “Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway.” I’m glad this was done, but in the spirit of honoring the warrior and not the war, how many Vietnam veterans saw things similar to Willson and shrugged it off as what happens in war or simply buried it somewhere in the recesses of memory hoping that time would heal both the physical and psychic wounds. But the poison of our presence in Southeast Asia has gone both ways. Our effort to eliminate sanctuary for enemy forces with Agent Orange resulted in many of our troops having severe health problems and their children with numerous birth defects. For the Vietnamese some 400,000 died from exposure with a half million children with birth defects.
We have a Memorial Wall for the 58,000 American troops who died or were killed in conflict, but will we ever have a memorial to those who have died by their own hand or from accidents or other illnesses? Many estimate that this number surpasses the 58,000 mark. Can we hope that some day there will be a park or natural area in honor of the Willson’s, the Berrigan’s and all the others who made an effort to point our foreign policy and our nation’s moral compass in a different direction?