Brian Willson is raging against the machine. In his autobiography, Blood on the Tracks, Willson, a Vietnam vet and antiwar and environmental activist, recalls his dark memories from the Vietnam War and how those memories are the same as those that haunt veterans of today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The diabolical nature of U.S. imperialism, he says, has ruined this country. The American public has been numbed down and dumbed down long enough, and it’s time for a great awakening. His mission on his two prosthetic legs — educate as many people about U.S. imperialism, the travesty of war and the havoc being wreaked on our environment.
Willson will be in Ventura this Friday at the Unitarian Universalist Church, delivering his presentation "AWOL from the American Way of life." He discussed the Vietnam War and his mission for peace and saving the environment with the Reporter this week.
VCReporter: Tell me about your experience enlisting in Vietnam.
Brian Willson: I was actually drafted out of graduate school when I was 25, which was unusual. The normal age was probably 19 or 20. I actually tried to enlist in 1964 but was rejected because of a health issue that had to do with my feet. I went to graduate school, thinking I wouldn’t be called because of what I thought was a non-waivable condition.
When I was drafted, I thought it was a mistake. They explained I had fallen through a loophole.
What were your feelings about the Vietnam War?
I was for the war. I had no political or philosophical issues. Then, realizing I had to go, I enlisted in the Air Force for four years. I got my orders to go to Fort Campbell in Kentucky and was trained in a special Air Force Ranger unit.
After 12 weeks in training, I was sent with my 40 men to Vietnam, and we were actually considered a highly specialized security unit, and highly trained with heavy weapons to secure air bases. . . . We were sent to different air bases to protect them from attacks. One [mission] was in the Mekong Delta, assessing the success or not of bombing missions. It really exposed me [to what was going on there].
Were you having some conflicts at that time about what you were ordered to do, or was it not until afterward that you realized there were major issues with what you were asked to do?
I was almost immediately troubled by what I was hearing and seeing: body bags, planes landing and taking off every minute, very noisy — a lot of commotion. We were also being attacked once every 10 days or so, and I had an experience in Ranger training where I refused to do the bayonet training. I was repulsed by the bayonet training and shouting kill a hundred times. . . . But that was a clue that something else inside of me was percolating. I was already beginning to question who I was and what I was doing. When I went into the villages, what I saw was so extraordinarily shocking and just devastating to me. I was no longer in doubt that this war was both illegal and immoral.
The antiwar movement was in full effect back home during that time. Were you impressed by what was going on in our country and was that resonating with you?
I wasn’t very in tune with the antiwar movement before I went to Vietnam. But when you have visceral experiences it’s a whole other dimension than being intellectually aware that there is something wrong with the policies. I have to say, it seemed kind of almost astounding to me that I wouldn’t have registered something about the war before I had those experiences. After, I thought, my gosh, the people opposed to the war know about how this is assault on human nature. And perhaps they had some kind of sense about it just from the way they grew up. They had an innate sense of something I didn’t seem to have before I had those experiences. I don’t want to say people can’t have those. I was a slow learner. I was really grooming myself to be a part of the system. I was very content. I was in law school, a master’s program. . . . As far as I was concerned, it was all going to work for me.
What do you feel are the similarities and differences between the Vietnam War and the wars in the Middle East?
I don’t know if there is that much difference in wars, but there are differences where they are fought, conditions on the ground; but the big difference between Vietnam and now, is that there was conscription in Vietnam. There is not conscription now. You can call it an economic draft, but it’s not touching a cross section of the population
What are the consequences of not touching the cross section of the population?[b]
People are just disassociated emotionally from the war. When you think that someone in your family is basically conscripted to be a slave for two or three years, in life-threatening situations that might not be for worthwhile causes, the visceral experience of a relative, as well as those that are of the age groups who are going to be drafted, it’s an emotional charge that doesn’t exist if it’s just an idea. If you really think you or your loved ones are going to be grabbed by the government to go into the military, that is a whole different emotional charge.
What are the similarities and differences between the general attitude and outlook of veterans of the two different conflicts?
I know a lot of vets from Vietnam who came back and wanted to put it behind them. Only a minority of vets from my generation became actively antiwar. In my own case, I would say for almost 11 years, I did not want to talk about Vietnam and did not want to be around veterans. I became an activist for domestic justice issues, but probably wouldn’t have happened without my epiphany in Vietnam. Nonetheless, I was not involved with vets and the peace movement.
What was life like for you when you returned from war?
I had a flashback, it was horrible. It was 1981, 12 years after. I was working at a prison in Massachusetts and witnessed two guards beating a prisoner and the screaming that went with it. They were being hit with billy clubs and being kicked. I’m witnessing this from far end of the cell block where I was interviewing prisoners at the time, and I had a flashback. All of a sudden, I was in a village in Vietnam. It was very vivid, the smells the scenes. . . . I knew I had to get out of the prison. I was staggering down the gangway in front of the cell block because I was literally tripping over bodies. I did get out seven interior gates to get to my car. I was just sobbing, for probably an hour and a half. I couldn’t drive. I was just uncontrollably crying, and just sat there, just drooling in saliva. It was horrible. I didn’t know what it was. I thought I was going crazy. After I was able to get enough composure to drive where I lived in Cambridge, I got myself into a veterans rap group, because I really needed help.
What happened at that point? Sounds like this was a huge trigger for you to change from your domestic justice into more of a world peace, veterans for peace mentality. What was that process like for you?
It took me about six months to recover from that flashback. I had a tremor in my hands, and took a leave of absences from my job as an aide to a state senator in Massachusetts. In that six months, I got stabilized again and became an advocate for veterans.
Your flashback was likely a symptom of PTSD. How many people have gone through this and understand they need treatment? Numerous homeless people here have been through war and maybe are not grasping what these flashbacks are doing. What does PTSD do to veterans?
I think that, statistically, one out of three are identified as having PTSD. It’s an identity disorder, meaning that we had experiences that taught us something very profound about reality, and reality is very different than what we were taught about our country, values, history, mythology about our so-called exceptionality. . . . You’re asked to adapt to an old identity that no longer fits. We have a moral disorder, versus an anxiety disorder, and can’t meet the expectations of the culture. You can’t fit into the culture. I’m still working on that myself.
Brian Willson will be speaking on “AWOL from the American Way of Life” at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 2, at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ventura. It is located at 5654 Ralston St.