It's rare that we can change our lives by conscious will alone. Rather, it's often through direct experience that our prior understanding of the world might shift.
Prior to 1969, Brian Willson was a self-described “happy camper,” fine with putting grad school on hold to serve a tour in Vietnam. There, as an Air Force officer tasked with evaluating the success of U.S air strikes on “enemy” villages, he came upon a direct hit-a village of 200 or so, flattened by a bombing raid. The first body he saw was that of a young woman still holding her three dead children. Her eyes were open and Willson at first thought she was still alive. Then he realized Napalm had burned the lids off her eyes.
It's now Willson's morning ritual to ask the dead girl for forgiveness, and it's his life's mission to speak out against U.S military intervention that, he believes, rarely, if at all, has world peace as the underlying motivation. Neither does he believe the United States fully understands the culture and values of the people affected by military action. Just as Willson stepped blindly into Vietnam, not knowing anything about the country or its people until it was too late, he wonders if the American education system provides its young people with fair and accurate depictions of other ways of life.
As he put it, “We have been raised on an arrogance and an ethnocentricity that is almost like a mental illness.”
Willson spoke for an hour to a mostly white, mostly middle-aged and desperately anti-war crowd at Balboa Park's World Beat Center Sunday afternoon. Prior to taking the stage, four men had to lug in a makeshift podium for Willson to lean on-15 years ago, he lost both his legs below the knees when he was run over by a train carrying weapons to be used in the Reagan administration's dubious push to overthrow Nicaragua's socialist governing system. Willson, who, in attempting to stop the train was joined by three other Vietnam vets, thought that if they physically blocked the train tracks, they'd force the train to stop. Only later did he find out from an FBI source that the conductor had been told that Willson and company were known terrorists planning to hijack the train. The conductor was ordered to move ahead at full speed no matter who was on the tracks, Willson said. The other three men were able to jump out of the way in time. Willson, however, now balances on artificial limbs, though his misfortune has come to serve as a bonding tool with Third-World kids who've been maimed by weapons.
Willson opened his talk by admitting that his determined pacifism has kept him away from San Diego for 13 years-“the center of the world's military establishment,” as he called it. His home is in Humboldt County, where he's whittled his life down to the vital necessities and where, he said, the community is actively engaged in what's called “footprint analysis”-looking closely at what sort of affect one's lifestyle choices have on environment sustainability.
Willson, whose longish, somewhat unruly gray hair was pushed off his forehead with a bandana, spoke, at times circuitously, about the growing peace movement's good fortune-the fact that George W. Bush makes little attempt to hide the motivations driving his neo-imperialist crusade against Iraq. As Willson put it, in a rather reductive example, in what other country can you go to the store at 10 p.m. and choose from literally dozens of different toothpaste brands? We're indoctrinated to be freedom loving, he noted, but it's really our freedom to consume that we hold dear-a fact that's certainly not lost on Bush.
“He's being so honest,” Willson noted of the President, “so bold to make sure our way of life is not impeded that we have to steal from the rest of the world's resources.” He cited twice during his speech the figure repeated often in criticism of the United States' culture of consumption: the 5 percent of the world's population located in our 50 states eats up nearly half of the world's resources. We're ideologically conditioned, he said, to see America as a country of infinite opportunity-almost as a fantasyland of freedoms. But, he said, perhaps we're not so different from our expressed enemies with our white-male-dominated, unbalanced socio-economic system.
To better elucidate this point, Willson took a stab at psychoanalyst Carl Jung's “shadow concept”-when you find fault in others, it's usually a projection of something within yourself that you don't want to admit to.