Protester Felt Driven to Go Above and Beyond
On Nov. 2, 1965, Norm Morrison--an American whose name has long since been forgotten in the United States--doused himself with gas and set himself on fire on the steps of the Pentagon to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
It was Morrison’s image that came to mind when I learned that my friend Brian Willson had been struck by an ammunition train during demonstrations at the Concord Naval Weapons Station on Wednesday. Morrison was the beginning of Brian’s transformation from kill warrior to peace warrior--from Air Force intelligence officer monitoring aerial barrages in Vietnam to Vietnam veteran trying to block the shipment of U.S. weapons to Central America.
Several years ago Brian shared the story with Vietnam vets meeting to discuss how to translate our revulsion at seeing the United States repeat Vietnam in Central America. Brian recalled how 20 years earlier he heard a radio broadcast that would change his life. A news announcement said that at 5 o’clock that afternoon a certain Norm Morrison had burned himself alive three stories below the office of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.
Willson and Morrison had grown up in the same small town, Asheville, in upstate New York, and had attended the same high school. Norm was a little older than Brian. He had left the town a few years earlier. That November afternoon was the first time Brian had heard of Norm since then.
But it wasn’t going to be the last. At the time, Brian said that he dismissed Norm Morrison’s action as irrational. Three years later, Willson was an intelligence and security officer at the Binh Thuy air command bunker in South Vietnam. Binh Thuy coordinated Air Force strikes in Southeast Asia, and for this reason was but-tressed to survive even nuclear attacks.
Willson’s job was to gather intelligence in order to ferret out reports of planned attacks against the facility. He would visit the base library often and read all that he could about the nature and history of the Vietnam War. This was part of his duties, but he also had some doubts. His assignment required him to visit the sites of U.S. aerial bombardments and assess the damage.
On one occasion he encountered an old man walking out in a daze from his village, which lay in smoking ruins. The terror in that man’s eyes never left him, Brian said.
Then one day the base librarian, a Vietnamese woman, invited Brian to dinner at her home. During the visit, Brian met her father, a man who had been turned into a human crab while imprisoned for opposing then-President Ngo Din Diem.
After dinner, the young woman sang Vietnamese folk songs.
One was about a young American Quaker and father of three who had done what Buddhist monks in Vietnam were then doing to protest the slaughter of their compatriots. It was titled “An Ode to Norm Morrison.” When she translated the song, Brian wept.
The years that followed gave no real hint that Brian Willson’s professional life would one day parallel Norm Morrison’s. Brian left the Air Force in 1970 with the rank of captain, and started his legal practice in 1972. But beneath the professional successes was a growing undertow pushing him to do something above and beyond his career.
In 1974 Willson founded the National Moratorium on Prison Construction. He later bought a dairy farm in upstate New York, where he was elected his town’s tax assessor. In 1982 he was appointed vice president of marketing for the New England Country Dairy. Later he served as an aide to Massachusetts state Sen. Jack Backman on issues of prison reform and veterans’ affairs. In 1984-85 he ran a Vietnam veterans’ outreach center in Greenfield, Mass., counseling vets suffering from drug problems, alcoholism, joblessness, homelessness and suicidal depression as a result of their war experiences.
For his work with vets and his advocacy of veterans’ rights, Brian received a commendation for exemplary service from Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.
Last year, after a trip through Nicaragua’s war zones, Brian and another Vietnam vet went on a hunger strike for 26 days on the Capitol steps to bring public attention to the human suffering that U.S. policies were creating in Central America.
Moments before the Navy train severed his leg, Brian told friends that sometimes the trains try to play “chicken,” and that once a train had stopped only 18 inches away from his face. Brian expected the train to stop again, but he also said that he was prepared to give his life waging peace, to stop the bombing of people in Central America.
Norm Morrison became a Vietnamese hero. There’s a monument to him in Hanoi, and city streets bear his name. Brian Willson is known and loved in Nicaragua, from government officials in Managua to campesinos in Jinotega.
One example shaped another. Norm Morrison turned out to be not only a hero to his own ideals but also a prophet in what he understood about America and its foreign policies. Twenty years separate Brian Willson from Norm Morrison. Whose lives now will Brian’s example change?