The Road to Transformation: A Conversation with Brian Wilson”

Longtime peace activist Brian Wilson became an international symbol of nonviolent resistance when he was run over by a train carrying weapons to Central America at the Concord Naval Weapons Station, near Concord, California, on September 1, 1987.
Brian miraculously survived, but lost both his legs and received a severe head injury. A subsequent investigation revealed that the government train was speeding, that the military drivers could see him for over 650 feet, and that they never applied the brakes as the train ran over him. He had been sitting on the tracks in a widely publicized protest against U.S. military intervention in Central America.
After years of recovery, Brian Wilson continues to speak out against U.S. warmaking, especially with Veterans for Peace. He has traveled the world, speaking for peace, walking for peace, calling humanity back to peace.
John Dear befriended Brian Wilson in the summer of 1986 while they were both working against the U.S. contra war in Washington, D.C. Together, they were supporting Charlie Liteky’s campaign to get honored veterans to return their medals in protest of Reagan’s contra war.
John Dear interviewed Brian Wilson in October, 1989 in San Francisco, California. This interview was later published in “Fellowship” magazine in March, 1990.
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John Dear: You have come a long way from fighting in Vietnam to protesting U.S. military intervention in Central America. Tell me about the beginning of that journey.
Brian Wilson: I was born in Geneva, New York and lived there for nine years. Then my family moved to Ashville, seventy miles southwest of Buffalo, NY. I was drafted in 1966 at age twenty-five. I was in law school at the time. I enlisted in the Air Force rather than being drafted in the Army. I don’t remember knowing much about the war in Vietnam, expect that I totally supported it. I didn’t go to Vietnam until 1969. I wasn’t a passionate military person, but I had no political or philosophical reason to avoid the military. I wasn’t a gung-ho person who needed the military for my identity. I gutted out basic training and then I was commissioned a second lieutenant.
My first two years I served at Air Force headquarters in Washington, D.C. At the end of those two years, I was starting to have some questions about the military. I was having problems with the character of the people, the lifestyle of the people, I was working with. There were still some Baptist in me, even though I was almost completely out of the church by that time.
Dear: When did you go to Vietnam?
Wilson: I went to Vietnam in March, 1969 as a first lieutenant, and I was slightly aware of an anti-war movement at that point. But I didn’t pay much attention to it. I was beginning to have some questions about the war though, although nothing was clear. I went to Binh Thuy, ninety miles south of Saigon. I was in Vietnam for five months.
I was combat security police section leader. I has six six-man fire teams and a mortar team under my supervision, and our job was to protect the Binh Thuy air bases from attacks. When we saw mortars coming into the base, we would try to pinpoint their location and send out mortars.
But I had another peripheral job while I was there. I went with a Vietnamese lieutenant into villages nearby that had bee bombed to asses the “success” of the bombing missions. We did a rough assessment of whether the villages had been hit, how many houses had been destroyed and how many water buffalo and people were killed. I did that a few times. It was a pretty powerful experience. These villages were very small and virtually everything was destroyed. Most of the bodies we found were women and their children.
Recently I found a letter in my files which I wrote from Vietnam that March condemning the war. I don’t think I had been in one of those villages yet. But I was already aware of the bombing missions and the large number of civilian deaths, and had a beginning sense of the insanity of it all before I went to those villages.
Dear: How did the experience of those villages affect you?
Wilson: I saw a lot of Vietnamese people either dead or injured.
Another peripheral job I had was simply going into the nearby villages on a regular basis and gathering information and making contacts with Vietnamese people who could speak English. Some could speak English and I met with them and talked with them about what information they had about whether and when we might be attacked.
Dear: You returned to the States in August of 1969 and what did you do then?
Wilson: I had been affected more than I was aware of. It took me years to fully comprehend how much of a change I went through because of that experience, and I’m probably still only beginning to understand who the real Brian Wilson is.
I was sent home early, but had another year left to do in the Air Force. I assume I was sent back early because I was speaking out against the ware while in Vietnam. I was writing letters to my superiors and Congresspeople. I was saying that the bombing and the ware should come to a halt. I advocated a ceasefire and immediate withdrawal of US troops.
I received a response from Senator Charles Goodell of New York acknowledging my position. Later that year, 1969, he proposed a bill ending the war. He was a Republican. No Democrats signed onto the bill. I was a Republican and he and I were from the same rural town in western New York. Maybe my letters had an influence.
Dear: Where did your journey lead you next?
Wilson: I did a year in Louisiana in the military after being in Vietnam, then got out of the Air Force. I returned to and graduated from law school in Washington, DC in 1972. While in law school, I worked for the public defender’s office in Washington, including representing mentally ill patients at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, trying to get them out of the hospital. In 1973, I was admitted to the D.C. Bar, but went to Cincinnati, where I was a consultant to the City Council and the County Commissioner about a new jail they were about to build. In 1968 I had received a master’s degree in penology. I recommended a jail one half the size of the one they wanted to build and so I was fired. They wanted a big jail.
Then I worked with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, coordinating their National Moratorium on Prison Construction office in Washington, D.C. for four years. I traveled all over the country organizing local groups to oppose new jail and prison construction in favor of alternatives.
Then I moved back to upstate New York, where I dairy farmed for two years. I was also the town tax assessor and building inspector and had a logging operation. After my wife and I divorced, I lost the farm and moved back to Boston where I became a legislative aide to a state senator, working on prison, mental health and veterans’ issues. After that, I moved to western Massachusetts and joined an all natural business where we bought milk from local farmers and manufactured kefir and eggnog.
Then, I became director of a Vietnam Veterans Outreach Center in Greenfield, Massachusetts. For two years, I worked with vets, dealing with homelessness, agent orange, post traumatic stress and other issues. During that time, I took guns or knives out of the hands of seven or eight vets who were in the process of threatening to harm themselves or others. At that time, I was beginning to get involved against U.S. military intervention in Central America. I co-founded, with another vet, the Veterans Education Project which enabled us to go into high schools and talk with young people about war and peace issues.
Dear: When you did go to Nicaragua and what did you learn there?
Wilson: I resigned from the outreach center and went to Nicaragua for two months in January and February 1986. I went as a student of the Nica language school. They gave me a scholarship as a Vietnam veteran and paid my airfare, my tuition and my room and board. I was in school in Esteli for one month, and then traveled around Nicaragua for a month to see as much as I could.
I had my second great awakening in Nicaragua. In the next two weeks in Esteli, there were a series of contra attacks. Eleven people were killed by the contras and that really provoked me. It brought Vietnam right in the front of my forehead, very vividly. All the years since Vietnam, I was in conflict between what I had learned viscerally in Vietnam and the desire to be middle class and respectable. Nicaragua clarified the conflict real fast. So, when I came back, I started organizing the Veterans Peace Coalition with Charlie Liteky and others to oppose contra aid.
I came from a working class, right wing reactionary home. I was in the Boy Scouts. I didn’t come from money or an educated family. During that first trip to Nicaragua in 1986, I think what happened was that I dared myself to be the real Brian Wilson. That’s what I’m trying to do now. I’m just clumsily walking along on that journey.
Dear: Why did you go on a long fast in the fall of 1986, on the U.S. Capitol steps?
Wilson: To express my heart and conscience to the North American people in a way that I couldn’t do rhetorically, verbally, specifically about the U.S. war in Central America with a focus on Nicaragua. It was an effort to speak to the hearts and minds and souls of North Americans about the U.S. murder of Central Americans.
Dear: What are your reflections on the experience of the fast as you look back on that time now?
Wilson: I don’t know if I can fully comprehend it. It was liberating, because I was putting my life on the line and working on being free every moment, literally, of my life, to be exactly who I am. There were no career factors, no money factors, no concern about credibility, about what I was going to do next. It meant being all that I am every moment. And I had never experienced that before.
Dear: What happened after the fast that led you to the Concord Naval Weapons Base in California?
Wilson: After the fast, I helped organize the Veterans Peace Action teams. We gathered together a group of Vets that wanted to go into the war zones of Nicaragua to make a statement as former warriors, to begin an atonement process. We wanted to speak with our lives and our bodies, as well as our minds and our souls. We felt that we should go into Nicaragua’s war zones to show solidarity with the Nicaraguan people and to express our revulsion at the U.S. policy of murder.
The first team went down in early 1987. I was there for several weeks and we were in war zones much of the time. It was incredible. We saw so much blood and death and maiming. We often were either just ahead of or just behind the contras. Some days we would go back where we were the previous day, and find the people had just been attacked. I visited several hundred amputees in six hospitals. The experience was very visceral and profound.
Some of us decided to have an action back in the United States that would interdict the supplies of arms to Central America. Concord was the largest Defense Department munitions base in the West. It has been the largest munitions depot for Vietnam. It’s where most of the napalm came from for Vietnam. It had a public right-of-way dividing the base in two, which the munitions had to pass through. It was a logistically convenient spot to block the flow of the munitions.
We began to block munitions trucks in June of 1987. Later, we decided to escalate our presence by blocking munitions trains.
Dear: How did you prepare for that?
Wilson: I didn’t block any trucks, but I was supporting other who were. I saw many white phosphorous rockets and bombs go by. The first day I saw all those rockets go by, I just burst out crying, without even thinking that I would do that. They were piled up on the back of a truck. You could see white phosphorous rockets with “Made in the USA” written on them. Immediately, I could see the images of bodies in my mind; piles of dead people. That was very powerful, watching those trucks and trains going by everyday.
I learn very slowly. It takes me a long time to get clear about things. I’m also very shy. Being conspicuous in public is difficult for me. To do these things I have to feel really right about them, because I do not feel naturally comfortable in such settings.
So I started thinking about how I was going to respond to seeing those weapons. I am a student of Nuremberg and International law. I had seen all those bodies and all that maiming and destruction in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and I knew that some of these weapons were going there. We had copies of the contracts between the Concord Naval Weapons Station and the government of El Salvador.
I had also twice interviewed Eugene Hasenfus, after he was shot down while dropping US supplies to the contras. He discussed the air flight routes from military bases in El Salvador and Honduras to Nicaragua. I thought about all this incredible personal information I was accumulating. I know what the law is. I know about our violating the Nuremberg obligation and the United Nations Charter. I know we are killing people.
As a conscientious citizen, I have an obligation to bring this lawlessness to the attention of the U.S. government and the people. I have to do everything in my power to stop it.
As a trained lawyer, I looked at it legally, but I was also motivated by conscience and moral considerations.
I decided at some point during the summer of 1987 to begin blocking trains and to have another experience of deprivation.
I would go on a water only fast. There would be a lot of adversity from daily sitting on the tracks, being arrested, being pulled off the tracks, going to jail, going back to the tracks, etc. I was going to give myself forty days to atone for the blood I have on my hands as a U.S. citizen and to reflect on more creative forms of resistance and affirmation of life. I was going to use this forty day period beginning September 1 to get to a deeper place.
When I made that decision, I started notifying people. It wasn’t the product of a group process. I simply was going to escalate my own expression of conscience within Nuremberg Actions, as the blockades at Concord were called. Others were welcome to fast and others did join in.
So I spent some of July and all of August really preparing myself, mentally and spiritually, for a forty day fast and for arrest on September 1, which would have been the first time I was arrested in my life.
I have not been a participant in civil disobedience. I prefer to call it civil obedience. For some, it’s a great thing. Quite frankly, I’d rather be going to a ballgame. But when I’m going to do something that might lead to jail, I have to be really prepared. I don’t want to hate the police. I am a violent person. I’m educated and trained in the United States. I don’t have any particular upbringing in nonviolence; its new for me. Even though I believe in nonviolence and am committed to it, I’m not nonviolent by nature. I had to prepare myself. I had to think a lot about loving people, about loving the police, the people in the military.
Dear: What are your reflections now about what happened on September 1, 1987?
Wilson: I became one of thousands in the Americas made legless by U.S. militarism.
Dear: How do you continue your nonviolent spirit toward the people at the Concord base?
Wilson: I really hated my father, and had to work through that in the earlier part of this decade. It so affected my life, my work. I learned how to love my father unconditionally. If I could love my father unconditionally, who was mean and cruel much of my life, I could love anybody unconditionally. I didn’t have to like people to love them. People can be mean, but I can understand a sense of connection with them, though not without great difficulty. I increasingly understand about this profound connection in life. There’s something about the sacredness of life that calls me to stand in the way of people who might be participating in evil without hating them as people.
I was on the tracks because I felt this was a right thing to do; it was a conscientious thing to do. It was an act of conscience. I felt called to do that. Whatever the train crew and the Navy wanted to do in response to that was their business and their problem.
Lying in the hospital without my legs and with this big hole in my head, I was happy to be alive. I was very appreciative that I had survived and I know that my work was going to continue; that the real Brian Wilson was still intact; that I was going to continue my life and my work, hopefully in some cooperative manner with the will of the Great Spirit. The train crew was caught between following their conscience and following orders. They weren’t doing, it seemed to me, what they really wanted to do. I don’t think people really want to be running over other people. I was them as victims, as well as participants in the crime of the U.S. government. They’re front line people like we vets were in Vietnam.
In some way, I felt sympathy for them, without in any way condoning what they did. But I have a deeper sense of commitment and connection to the life force and the people of Central America who continue to be maimed and devastated by the policies of my government. I was trying to take responsibility as one person for that ware being waged in my name.
Dear: Since that time, what have you been doing?
Wilson: Mostly speaking, networking and strategizing with people about ways to express conscience. I’ve been to Central America ten times in the last three years. That includes El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, as well as Nicaragua, I’ve also visited North Korea, China, Northern Ireland, Mexico and the Middle East, where I spent some time in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
I’m really becoming a student of revolutions, of struggles for justice. Since my first visit to Nicaragua, my whole thesis is that we in the U.S. desperately need a revolution or a transformation. I was going through an intense transformation myself, having come from such a normal U.S. background. I thought I could be a good case study. I was typical in my conditioning by the culture and all its sickness. I felt I had become almost psychotic in my complicity in this madness, but was now working on being extricated from that complicity. This is a very healing process.
I’ve been working both with people involved in nonviolence and with people who are struggling for justice, whether through violence or nonviolence. I’m trying to understand the dynamic of how people respond to repression, oppression and injustice and I’m learning the process from them. In my opinion, we’re just beginning to learn how to become revolutionaries.
Dear: What is your understanding of nonviolence?
Wilson: I think nonviolence is not so much a tactic as a way of experiencing the world within yourself, of understanding the sacred connection with all of life.
It’s an understanding of how everything is interconnected and how everything is in a continuing state of interrelationship. We are going against our own nature when we start disrespecting all the other parts of life: people, plants, animals, water, sunlight, clouds. I think nonviolence is an attitude and way of life with a spiritual ecological dimension that is aware of how everything is interconnected and responds honestly to that.
Dear: What is your upcoming trial about?
Wilson: The trial will begin in federal court in San Francisco in the Spring of 1990. The train crew’s suit against me and my wife, for emotional duress and for interfering with their jobs, was recently thrown out by the federal judge. My wife and I had three others are suing the United States Navy as an entity, as well as, in a separate suit, the train crew and several levels in the chain of command for negligence and for violating my rights to free speech and assembly, and my right to due process. My body has been maimed without due process. These are constitutional and tort issues.
I had to think whether or not I wanted to be involved with a trial, whether that was a conflict with my philosophy of nonviolence. My philosophy of justice and nonviolence tends not to be very rigid. As I’m unfolding, I take each thing as it comes without any absolute preconceived rules, but of course strong guiding principles. I’ve concluded that it was important to get information out about how this happened. I couldn’t do that without the force of depositions and a trial. We might lose the case judicially, but as a person I don’t believe I can lose because I’m simply expressing my conscience. When you speak the truth of your own heart, you can never lose. It’s when you get off that track, that you get on shaky ground.
The trial in a sense will develop a photograph of our militarized society racing out of control against the plea of citizens saying “Please stop!” “Please stop!” It’s a grotesque example of how the government responds to people power, to people expressing their first amendment right to dissent. The government response in my case was more extreme than a break-in or phone or mail surveillance. It’s really so bizarre that one wonders whether jurors can believe a government would move a train against its own citizens, even after hearing the evidence. It’s so bizarre that many people still have to believe that I’m the one who caused this. The question many people ask is, “Why didn’t you get out of the way?” instead of “Why didn’t the government stop the train?” If we understood U.S. history fully, we’d know that we’ve been barbaric from the beginning. I’m hoping to help develop these issues in the public mind.
Dear: Some of us in the peace movement have been talking lately about moving beyond this concept of resistance to transformation. Could you share your own understanding of the transformation which we all need to undergo?
Wilson: Resistance is part of affirmation. I don’t believe in responding solely by resisting. It maybe necessary to resist trucks and trains carrying weapons, but that occurs, I think, while you’re advocating a vision.
Although there were many seeds planted in my early life, my transformation started in Vietnam. When I saw dead bodies of Vietnamese I realized they were sisters and brothers. I had been taught they were the enemy. At some deeper place, the real Brian Wilson was trying to come out. I remember looking at the face of a Vietnamese mother as she lay on the ground dead and wondering, “What makes her a communist?” In a half second, all that upbringing about “communism” completely evaporated.
That transformation in me and in us all is a constant process. It took me until Nicaragua to decide that I needed to live my life as holistically as I could, with my mind, body and soul in sync, like a synthesis, an integration.
Transformation begins when we realize that everyone and everything is connected. Truth is tied to justice. Justice concerns replace our focus on material things, careers, money. Transformation means a change from “getting what you can” to an understanding of justice and the insight that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
That transformation means for me that every day is a new commitment to be part of the life force of the world, which I call the Great Spirit. The Great Spirit is in me, not just out there. It’s in here and out there, and everything, everyone, is inextricably connected.
A theology of transformation would include the resistance of evil and standing in the way of evil, but I believe its effectiveness increases as we proclaim with our lives a total affirmation of life. Transformation is a daily process, for the rest of my life, developing new consciousness. My challenge is to be open to that process constantly wherever I am, in whatever I’m doing.
A theology of transformation has to do with forgiveness, atonement, and reconciliation, and that means dramatic changes in the way I live, the way I express myself, the way I relate to everyone.
That’s the message I want to convey to our culture. Our lifestyle is so violent; it violates every principle of life on this planet. It causes tremendous destruction and death to the sacredness of life everywhere. We need to understand that and we need to change our conscientiousness, and the way we live our lives and make our living. A new consciousness understands how everything is connected. I happen to believe that consciousness is already in process.
The prevailing value system is going to fight like hell to survive, but it’s a totally unsustainable model. It has to keep lying, staying in denial, putting out more propaganda, building more weapons. That process is in painful conflict with an irreversible development of consciousness all over the planet. I find that very powerful. We’re almost at the point where the polarization is going to be intensely manifested. The future is going to be very painful, very exciting, very dynamic and I think very dramatic.