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Viewpoint: Paying the Price for Peace

Paying the Price for Peacewith S. Brian Willson
A Film and Conversation for the 2016 International Day of Peace
By Jack Dresser and Mariah Leung
Co-directors, Al-Nakba Awareness Project

 Eugene takes its peace activism seriously, and a nationally known activist with a compelling story will be visiting Eugene next week on the International Day of Peace, together with a feature-length documentary film about his life. The moral of his story is that yes, it’s risky to challenge ruthless, unprincipled power, but the risks of our obedience are far greater to people elsewhere unprotected by U.S. citizenship.

The film begins in the 1980s as the Reagan administration was covertly supporting Nicaraguan Contras against the socialist government of Daniel Ortega. Not coincidentally, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution in 1981 sponsored by its Central American neighbor, Costa Rica, to establish an International Day of Peace, now commemorated each Sept. 21.

… As the carnage and atrocities in Nicaragua increased with secret administration support of the Contras, circumventing U.S. congressional resolutions from 1982 to 1984 explicitly prohibiting such support, Veterans for Peace was established to oppose these US military interventions as well as the nuclear arms race.

It was at this time that Vietnam War veteran S. Brian Willson, a once-horrified witness to our country’s criminal destruction of innocent peoples and their societies in Southeast Asia, became ignited into activism with recognition of similar U.S.-engineered atrocities in Central America. He traveled to Nicaragua and El Salvador, meeting, talking, witnessing, making friends and losing friends to US-orchestrated violence. He explains simply, “They were my family, and my family members were being killed,” and was moved to take non-violent direct action resisting our government.

This took the form of confrontation with U.S. weapons transfers to Contra terrorists attacking Ortega’s recently established government and to the Salvadoran dictatorship operating School of the Americas-trained death squads against a populist uprising among poor Salvadoran campesinos. Willson joined with other anti-war activists, including fellow veterans, to obstruct government munitions trains shipping arms from the Concord Naval Weapons Station in California to the Contras by blocking the tracks. This would force the trains to stop, disrupt their operation, and draw media attention.

But on Sept. 1, 1987 a government munitions train not only failed to stop but accelerated to three times its legal speed limit and ran over Brian, severing one leg and mangling the other, and inflicting a severe frontal lobe brain injury. Miraculously, he and his cognitive functioning survived.

The day he awoke in the hospital some 900 furious citizens tore up 300 feet of train track and launched a 28-month, 24/7 occupation of the tracks and road, blocking every train and truck shipping munitions. Each shipment was significantly delayed while police removed up to 200 camping demonstrators. Some 2,100 were arrested. 

(This, incidentally, begs the question, where is a comparable outrage today as our imperial war machine rolls on, laying waste to the Middle East?)

What the U.S. government did to him, Willson reflects, is what it does to countless others worldwide in its relentless quest for domination and empire.  His book, Blood on the Tracks tells the story of Willson’s conventional family upbringing in small town, rural America, two epiphanies he identifies as “irreversible knowledge” that radically changed his life course, and the experiences, readings and reflections leading to an understanding of fundamental human archetypes repressed in the West, his decision that “dignity trumps longevity,” and belief in a horizontal worldview radically different from ours - that “we are not worth more, they are not worth less.”

Based on the book, a feature-length film titled Paying the Price for Peace was produced and directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker Bo Boudart, narrated by Peter Coyote. More than four years in the making, the film includes compelling archival footage and many prominent peace activists and political figures including Daniel Ellsberg, Alice Walker, Martin Sheen, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Medea Benjamin, Amy Goodman, Chelsea Manning, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, former U.S. soldier Camila Mejia court-martialed for refusing service in Iraq, Phil Donahue, Bruce Gagnon, former Veterans for Peace president Leah Bolger, Cindy Sheehan, Born on the Fourth of July author Ron Kovic and Col. Ann Wright who resigned from the State Department in protest over the invasion of Iraq.

Willson paid not only with his legs but also with attachment to institutional reward structures of our society, freed in exchange to live directed by awareness, empathy and conscience — essential preconditions for peace within and between people. Were this state of mind to become universal, we would have 365 days of international peace each year.

Co-sponsored by Al-Nakba Awareness Project, Women’s Action for New Directions (WAND) and Veterans for Peace, the film will be screened on 6 pm Wednesday, Sept. 21, at the Campbell Center, 155 High St., followed by Q&A conversation with Brian.