Book: Blood On The Tracks: The Autobiography of S. Brian Willson
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Willson's expanding consciousness also uncovers injustices within his own
country, including insights gained through his study and service within the
U.S. criminal justice system and personal experiences addressing racial
injustices. He discusses coming to terms with his identity as a Viet Nam
veteran and the subsequent service he provides to others as director of a
veterans outreach center in New England. He draws much inspiration from
friends he encounters along the way as he finds himself continually drawn to
the path leading to a simpler life that seeks to "do no harm."
Throughout his personal journey Willson struggles with the question, "Why
was it so easy for me, a 'good' man, to follow orders to travel 9,000 miles
from home to participate in killing people who clearly were not a threat to
me or any of my fellow citizens?" He eventually comes to the realization
that the "American Way of Life" is AWOL from humanity, and that the only way
to recover our humanity is by changing our consciousness, one individual at
a time, while striving for collective cultural changes toward "less and
local." Thus, Willson offers up his personal story as a metaphorical map for
anyone who feels the need to be liberated from the American Way of Life-a
guidebook for anyone called by conscience to question continued obedience to vertical power structures while longing to reconnect with the human
archetypes of cooperation, equity, mutual respect and empathy.
About S. Brian Willson:
S. Brian Willson is a Vietnam veteran whose wartime experiences transformed
him into a revolutionary nonviolent pacifist. He gained renown as a
participant in a prominent 1986 veterans fast on the steps of the U.S.
Capitol in Washington, D.C. The fast was in response to funding of Reagan's
Contra wars in Central America. One year later, on September 1, 1987, he was
again thrust into the public eye when he was run over and nearly killed by a
U.S. Navy Munitions train while engaging in a nonviolent blockade in protest
of weapons shipments to El Salvador. Since the 1980s he has continued
efforts to educate the public about the diabolical nature of U.S.
imperialism while striving to "walk his talk" (on two prosthetic legs and a
three-wheeled handcycle) by creating a model of right livelihood including a
About Daniel Ellsberg (Introduction):
Daniel Ellsberg is a former United States military analyst who, while
employed by the RAND Corporation, precipitated a national political
controversy in 1971 when he released the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret
Pentagon study of U.S. government decision-making about the Vietnam War, to The New York Times and other newspapers.
Endorsements for "BLOOD ON THE TRACKS"
"A remarkable and exceptional book! Brian Willson is an American hero,
citizen of the world, and passionate man of peace. His extraordinary life is
an inspiration to us all!"
- Ron Kovic (Vietnam veteran; author, Born on the Fourth of July, anti-war activist)
"There are few peace activists who have the dedication of Brian Willson, as
there are few activists who inspire me more. I hope Brian's story can
inspire a new generation of activists to fight with all they have for peace,
justice, our planet and humanity."
- Cindy Sheehan (Gold Star Mother, Peace Activist)
"In a world filled with violence, oppression, the madness of war, and the
destruction of the environment, many are searching for hope-and those
individuals who give us hope. "This is where Brian Willson comes in. Like
many of us, he bought into the lies of war and violence. But something
happened along his journey, and Viet Nam was only the beginning. He
discovered the truth and he followed it, no matter the cost. I encourage you
to read this book about a great peacemaker and a great lover of mother
earth. You will be filled with hope."
– Father Roy Bourgeois (Maryknoll Catholic priest, founder SOA Watch)
"Brian Willson is one of a few modern men for all seasons. His memoir is an
introduction to a way of living that could save a planet perilously drifting
toward extinction. He takes the philosophy nonviolence or 'Do no harm' and
applies it to the violence we are doing to the planet and one another.
(Personal note: perhaps we are a species that should be extinguished. At
least 99% of us.) Caution! Read at the risk of being inspired."
- Charles Liteky (Viet Nam veteran, Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, peace activist)
"The 1960s to the 1980s...for progressive activists in the United States
there perhaps was never a period quite like it-Viet Nam to Nicaragua to El
Salvador, one long protest against the barbarity of American imperialism. S.
Brian Willson was there, here and everywhere, devoting his life, sacrificing
his legs to a munitions train. A marvelous "journey" he calls it, for the
boy who was "convinced that the United States could do no wrong," a loyal
anti-communist, who served in Viet Nam, then traveled the length of Latin
America to oppose US foreign policy and support the numerous victims of that policy. Sadly, that policy continues, but Willson's memoir can well serve as a guide and inspiration to a new generation of progressive activists. We've
learned a lot."
- William Blum (author, Killing Hope)
"S. Brian Willson is an American hero who gives me inspiration and hope. In
this book, he takes us on an amazing journey through his life as an
All-American young man. He was an excellent student, an all-league athlete,
a Conservative Baptist, a Republican and a strong believer in the American
way of life. In 1969 he had an epiphany in Viet Nam that changed his life
forever. He has had many incredible experiences along the way, including
being run over by a U.S. Navy train, where he lost both of his legs while
protesting U.S. foreign policy in Central America. Brian now stands for
peace, justice and fairness for all people of the earth. I love his mantra:
'We are not worth more, they are not worth less.' This book should be
required reading for all high school and college students in America."
– Cynthia McKinney (former US Representative from Georgia; Green Party
"This Brian Willson is no throwaway American. This was a soldier in wartime,
this was a protester after war taught him its lessons and finally, this was
a sacrificer in carrying protest to the nth degree. I was busted with him
but I never gave the ultimate as he gave. This book is about a patriot, the
kind of patriot you don't find anymore, the kind of patriot who loves and
believes in his country so much he surrendered his legs in telling his
country it's wrong. Read this book."
- Edward Asner (film & television actor)
"Brian Willson has lived one of the more interesting and inspiring lives of
any peace activist in recent American history. His story deserves to be read
and absorbed by people of all persuasions: militarists as well as
- Peter Dale Scott (historian, poet and author)
"Brian Willson's life story teaches us to 'walk the talk,' guided by one of
the finest prophets of our time. Brian teaches us that we can't control the
U.S. government. It is every bit as reckless as the train that ran over him.
Brian asks people to stop fuelling "the train." If we can't control our own
government, can we at least stop actively helping it? For many years, he
traveled all over the world to campaign against weapons and war, but his
conscientious objection to voracious resource consumption spurred him to
design a new life style. With impeccable logic, Brian challenges us stay
closer to home so that we can avoid consuming more than our fair share of
energy. By living simply and working hard for justice, he aims to attain
right livelihood. By studying his writing and following his lead, we
bolster our chances to build a better world.
- Kathy Kelly (nonviolent activist, Voices For Creative Nonviolence)
"I write as a witness to S. Brian Willson. "It was the privilege of the
Office of the Americas to be part of the Nuremberg Actions at the Concord
naval Weapons Station in California. And this is the site where Brian and
his fellow Veterans gathered on the tracks to stop a munitions shipment to
Nicaragua. The munitions train did not stop, in fact it speeded up as it
approached the protestors. It was here at Concord that Brian lost both of
his legs and received a brutally fractured skull. "And after Brian's rapid
recovery, it was our privilege, during the peak of Reagan's homicidal war on
the Nicaraguan people, to travel over much of Nicaragua with this wounded
hero. We flew at tree top level in a worn out helicopter to see the
devastation. "Brian Willson represents millions of young women & men whose
lives have been severely damaged by unnecessary, illegal & immoral imperial
wars conducted by our nation. He urges us to a new way of life. "This book
must be required reading for every high school and college student. Their
lives depend on it".
- Blase Bonpane, Ph.D. (Director, Office of the
"Brian Willson and I went to Nicaragua in 1988 to witness the Sopoa Peace
Summit between the Contras and the Sandinistas. The love and respect shown
him by the people there was heart felt and heart warming (he had knelt in
front of a train in the well publicized protest of the shipment of weapons
to be used against the citizens of Nicaragua by the Contras, who were
trained and equipped by the US, who wanted to destabilize the Sandinista
Government). In hospitals full of children and farmers who had lost limbs
because of land mines planted by the Contras, we was obviously and
immediately one of them. He'd done it for them and they loved him for it.
"Brian Wilson's courage, compassion, and commitment to fighting for freedom, and justice, and human rights is an inspiration to the rest of us and a lesson in how to handle Adjustments in our Plans."
- Kris Kristofferson
"Brian Willson's courage, integrity, and dedication to peace and justice and
to a sustainable society have been an inspiration to all of those who seek
to change the course on which we are lurching towards destruction. His
memoir should be read and pondered, and its lessons should be taken to heart by those who hope to create a more decent world."
– Noam Chomsky (linguist, historian, professor, author)
"Brian Willson's memoir boils with alchemy that has turned pain and caring
into moral insistence and political resistance. After seeing what war really
does, he lives every day with the wounds of military madness and the
imperatives of struggling for social sanity. This book takes us away from
the false comforts of clichés and cardboard images, replacing them with a
genuine account of injustice writ large and insistence on humane values.
With this superb narrative of his own life, Brian Willson invites us to
think more clearly and feel more deeply."
- Norman Solomon (media critic; author, War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us
"Brian Willson is a hero in our midst. Descended from early settlers, like
most small town boys, he was born and bred to serve his country, to do his
patriotic duty, and to not ask questions about the worthiness of his
government. His military service in Viet Nam shattered all illusions about
the war itself and the government he was serving. Remaining duty bound,
principled, and determined, he has spent the past four decades as a
non-violent activist against United States' military interventions, and
since 1988, has walked on "third world legs." We are fortunate to have this
book, this testament to the transformative power of consciousness."
– Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (historian, activist, author)
Reviews of "BLOOD ON THE TRACKS: The Life & Times of S. Brian Willson"
The Honesty of a Warrior for Peace
By Michael A. Kroll
This is not an easy book to read, but that is because its author never
flinches from the truth, whether about America's brutal war record in
Vietnam or his own complicity in that Imperial War, and that of all
Americans of a certain age -- just as all Americans share the horror we are
bringing to Afghan and Iraqi and Pakistani villages today. S. Brian Willson,
the 4th of July gung-ho American boy, had already begun to question the
lessons of "patriotism" with which we so proudly indoctrinate our children,
especially our boy children, when, as an officer in Vietnam, he looked down
at the dead eyes of a Vietnamese villager clutching her three bullet-ridden
children, burnt beyond recognition by Napalm, and understood viscerally the
fundamental center of Christ's teachings. As he took in the horror, he
writes, "She was not alive. But at the moment her eyes met mine, it felt
like a lightning bolt jolted through my entire being. 'She is my family' I
Nearly twenty years later, I stood just behind Brian on a California train
track in a well-publicized effort to block munitions trains carrying
American weapons to kill other poor villagers in El Salvador and Nicaragua,
thinking about the words he had spoken that morning, before one of those
trains ripped his legs from his body. He said, "...each train that... gets
by us is going to kill people, people like you and me.. And the question
that I have to ask on these tracks is: am I any more valuable than those
2500 years ago, the great Greek philosopher Diogenes is said to have carried a lamp in broad daylight searching "for an honest man." Blessed to have known S. Brian Willson for 30 years, I can say without equivocation, that had Diogenes met my friend, he could have put down his
lamp and rested, having found what he was looking for.
A Comprehensive, Studious and Very Readable Story of the Life of an American Hero
By Greg King
When I first bought Brian Willson's book I expected an engaging story of an
interesting life of a Vietnam vet who became a peace activist. You know:
there are a lot of such stories. But very shortly into the book I realized
this is no formulaic memoir. Brian is perhaps best remembered as the veteran
who was run over by a train while blocking transportation of munitions in
Concord, California on Sep. 1, 1987. The weapons were destined for U.S. wars
in Central America. Brian lost both legs in the attack, during which the
train conductors were ordered by superiors to triple the legal speed of a
train in that area and, more importantly, not to stop for anyone sitting on
the tracks. It was a targeted attack against a man whose life had
metamorphosed from an All American, "communist hating" young adult, to a
captain in the Air Force, to a man who witnessed firsthand the intentional
targeting by U.S.-led fighter jets of unarmed families in rural villages, to
an Air Force veteran who, upon return to the U.S. actively opposed the war
even while still in the service. Throughout the book Brian is attempting to
answer the question: How was the government able to convince him, a decent
person, that he should pick up his life and travel 9,000 miles to a land
he's almost never heard of and kill people he'd never met? To answer the
question we meet a who's who of philosophers, activists, government
officials, community members, and others whom Brian knew personally or mined as a reader. The book includes too many italicized words and exclamation points that Brian uses for emphasis, when no emphasis is needed, as the material is so compelling. This is one of the best books ever produced on 20th Century America, I can't recommend it highly enough.
"We Are Not Worth More, They Are Not Worth Less".
This is the mantra of S. Brian Willson and the theme that runs throughout
his compelling psycho-historical memoir.
Willson's story begins in small-town, rural America, where he grew up as a
"Commie-hating, baseball-loving Baptist," moves through
life-changing experiences in Viet Nam, Nicaragua and elsewhere & culminates
with his commitment to a localized, sustainable lifestyle.
In telling his story, Willson provides numerous examples of the types of
personal, risk-taking, nonviolent actions he and others have taken in
attempts to educate and effect political change: tax refusal, fasting, and obstruction tactics.
It was such actions that thrust Brian Willson into the public eye in the
mid-'80s, first as a participant in a high-profile, water-only "Veterans Fast for Life" against the Contra war being waged by his government in Nicaragua. Then, on a fateful day in September 1987, the world watched in horror as Willson was run over by a U.S. government munitions train during a nonviolent blocking action in which he expected to be removed from the tracks and arrested.
Throughout his personal journey Willson struggles with the question, "Why
was it so easy for me, a 'good' man, to follow orders to travel 9,000 miles
from home to participate in killing people who clearly were not a threat to me or any of my fellow citizens?" He eventually comes to the realization that the
"American Way of Life" is AWOL from humanity, and that the only way to recover our humanity is by changing our consciousness, one individual at a time, while striving for collective cultural changes toward "less and local." Thus, Willson offers up his personal story as a metaphorical map for anyone who feels the need to be liberated from the American Way of Life-a guidebook for anyone called by conscience to question continued obedience to vertical power structures while longing to reconnect with the human archetypes of cooperation, equity, mutual respect and empathy.