Forgetting the Crimes of War

In the U.S. political culture, Memorial Day has become one more chance to glorify American wars and to exploit U.S. soldiers’ deaths to generate sentiment for more wars, a troubling tactic addressed by Gary G. Kohls and S. Brian Willson.

By Gary G. Kohls

One of the many heroes of the peace movement who came out of the Vietnam War was Vietnam veteran S. Brian Willson. Just like millions of other draft-age Americans, law student Willson had been drafted into that illegal and genocidal war – against his will – and came back disturbed and angry.

For reasons discussed below, he joined the anti-war movement after witnessing the Reagan/Bush Central American war after he traveled to Nicaragua and saw peasants being murdered by US-backed Contras (aka “freedom fighters”). Willson joined the antiwar movement in 1986 and has protested vigorously against America’s aggressive war policies ever since.

The bodies of Vietnamese men, women and children piled along a road in My Lai after a U.S. Army massacre on March 16, 1968. (Photo taken by U. S. Army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle)

The bodies of Vietnamese men, women and children piled along a road in My Lai after a U.S. Army massacre on March 16, 1968. (Photo taken by U. S. Army photographer Ronald L. Haeberle)

But his real life change came on Sept. 1, 1987, in Concord, California, where Willson was part of a gathering of antiwar protestors that were symbolically trying to stop the transport of weapons from a U.S. Navy munitions base. The weapons were destined for Nicaragua and El Salvador as part of the U.S.-backed war in Central America.

As a Vietnam veteran, Willson understood well the satanic nature of America’s perpetual wars against peasants, campesinos and other poor people in Third World countries who were unjustly accused of being “communists” as they were seeking relief from the tyranny of their ruling classes. He also knew about the poisonous realities of military toxins that are used in war that regularly poison innocent civilians, children, babies, villages, farm fields, water supplies and all the future inhabitants of the warzone.

Willson felt so strongly about the criminality of his country’s foreign policy against militarily inferior countries, that he put himself directly in harm’s way that day by lying down in front of the weapons supply train, expecting the engineer to stop. Instead of stopping, the engineer actually increased its speed above the speed limit and ran over him, severing both legs. The engineer later testified that he had only been obeying orders on how to deal with antiwar protesters.

Willson survived his near-fatal injuries, and he became a universally celebrated near-martyr for peace. He has vowed to spend the rest of his life speaking out against war. The piece below was written on May 27, 2016, and published in CounterPunch.

The Vietnam War radically changed him from a conservative Republican who had been raised in a Christian fundamentalist household. In Willson’s autobiography, titled Blood on the Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson, he wrote about his war experience:

“in April 1969, I witnessed the incredible destruction that had just been inflicted (by aerial bombing and napalm ‘practice’) … on a typically defenseless village about the size of a large baseball stadium. With smoldering ruins throughout, the ground was strewn with bodies of villagers and their farm animals, many of whom were motionless and bloody, murdered from bomb shrapnel and napalm. Several were trying to get up on their feet, and others were moving ever so slightly as they cried and moaned. Most of the victims I witnessed were women and children.

“At one dramatic moment I encountered at close range a young wounded woman lying on the ground clutching three young disfigured children. I stared, aghast, at the woman’s open eyes. Upon closer examination, I discovered that she, and what I presumed were her children, all were dead, but napalm had melted much of the woman’s facial skin, including her eyelids. As the Vietnamese lieutenant and I silently made the one-plus hour return trip to our airbase in my jeep, I knew that my life was never going to be the same again.”

A U.S. military helicopter spraying the defoliant Agent Orange over Vietnam during the Vietnam War. (U.S. Army photo)

A U.S. military helicopter spraying the defoliant Agent Orange over Vietnam during the Vietnam War. (U.S. Army photo)

An eyewitness to Willson’s 1987 act of resistance to the US War Machine wrote that Brian questioned “the lessons of ‘patriotism’ with which we so proudly indoctrinate our children, especially our boy children. … Nearly twenty years later, I stood just behind Brian on a California train track in a well-publicized effort to block munitions trains carrying American weapons to kill other poor villagers in El Salvador and Nicaragua, thinking about the words he had spoken that morning, before one of those trains ripped his legs from his body. He said, ‘…each train that gets by us is going to kill people, people like you and me. … And the question that I have to ask on these tracks is: am I any more valuable than those people?’”

Here is the latest, very powerful testimony about what he thinks of Memorial Day from the American antiwar hero, S. Brian Willson:

Remembering All the Deaths From All of Our Wars

By S. Brian Willson – May 27, 2016

Celebration of Memorial Day in the US, originally Decoration Day, commenced shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War. This is a national holiday to remember the people who died while serving in the armed forces. The day traditionally includes decorating graves of the fallen with flowers.

As a Viet Nam veteran, I know the kinds of pain and suffering incurred by over three million US soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen, 58,313 of whom paid the ultimate price whose names are on The Vietnam Wall in Washington, DC. The Oregon Vietnam Memorial Wall alone, located here in Portland, contains 803 names on its walls.

The function of a memorial is to preserve memory. On this US Memorial Day, May 30, 2016, I want to preserve the memory of all aspects of the US war waged against the Southeast Asian people in Viet Nam, Laos, and Cambodia – what we call the Viet Nam War – as well as the tragic impacts it had on our own people and culture. My own healing and recovery requires me to honestly describe the war and understand how it has impacted me psychically, spiritually, and politically.

Likewise, the same remembrance needs to be practiced for both our soldiers and the victims in all the other countries affected by US wars and aggression. For example, the US incurred nearly 7,000 soldier deaths while causing as many as one million in Afghanistan and Iraq alone, a ratio of 1:143.

It is important to identify very concretely the pain and suffering we caused the Vietnamese – a people who only wanted to be independent from foreign occupiers, whether Chinese, France, Japan, or the United States of America. As honorably, and in some cases heroically, our military served and fought in Southeast Asia, we were nonetheless serving as cannon fodder, in effect mercenaries for reasons other than what we were told.

When I came to understand the true nature of the war, I felt betrayed by my government, by my religion, by my cultural conditioning into “American Exceptionalism,” which did a terrible disservice to my own humanity, my own life’s journey. Thus, telling the truth as I uncover it is necessary for recovering my own dignity.

Air Force F-105s bomb a target in the southern panhandle of North Vietnam on June 14, 1966. (Photo credit: U.S. Air Force)"

Air Force F-105s bomb a target in the southern panhandle of North Vietnam on June 14, 1966. (Photo credit: U.S. Air Force)”

I am staggered by the amount of firepower the US used, and the incredible death and destruction it caused on an innocent people. Here are some statistics:

–Seventy-five percent of South Viet Nam was considered a free-fire zone (i.e., genocidal zones)

–Over 6 million Southeast Asians killed

–Over 64,000 US and Allied soldiers killed

–Over 1,600 US soldiers, and 300,000 Vietnamese soldiers remain missing

–Thousands of amputees, paraplegics, blind, deaf, and other maimings created

–13,000 of 21,000 of Vietnamese villages, or 62 percent, severely damaged or destroyed, mostly by bombing

–Nearly 950 churches and pagodas destroyed by bombing

–350 hospitals and 1,500 maternity wards destroyed by bombing

–Nearly 3,000 high schools and universities destroyed by bombing

–Over 15,000 bridges destroyed by bombing

–10 million cubic meters of dikes destroyed by bombing

–Over 3,700 US fixed-wing aircraft lost

–36,125,000 US helicopter sorties during the war; over 10,000 helicopters were lost or severely damaged

–26 million bomb craters created, the majority from B-52s (a B-52 bomb crater could be 20 feet deep, and 40 feet across)

–39 million acres of land in Indochina (or 91 percent of the land area of South Viet Nam) were littered with fragments of bombs and shells, equivalent to 244,000 (160 acre) farms, or an area the size of all New England except Connecticut

–21 million gallons (80 million liters) of extremely poisonous chemicals (herbicides) were applied in 20,000 chemical spraying missions between 1961 and 1970 in the most intensive use of chemical warfare in human history, with as many as 4.8 million Vietnamese living in nearly 3,200 villages directly sprayed by the chemicals

–24 percent, or 16,100 square miles, of South Viet Nam was sprayed, an area larger than the states of Connecticut, Vermont, and Rhode Island combined, killing tropical forest, food crops, and inland forests

–Over 500,000 Vietnamese have died from chronic conditions related to chemical spraying with an estimated 650,000 still suffering from such conditions; 500,000 children have been born with Agent Orange-induced birth defects, now including third generation offspring

–Nearly 375,000 tons of fire-balling napalm was dropped on villages

–Huge Rome Plows (made in Rome, Georgia), 20-ton earthmoving D7E Caterpillar tractors, fitted with a nearly 2.5-ton curved 11-foot wide attached blade protected by 14 additional tons of armor plate, scraped clean between 700,000 and 750,000 acres (1,200 square miles), an area equivalent to Rhode Island, leaving bare earth, rocks, and smashed trees

–As many as 36,000,000 total tons of ordnance expended from aerial and naval bombing, artillery, and ground combat firepower. On an average day, US artillery expended 10,000 rounds costing $1 million per day; 150,000-300,000 tons of UXO remain scattered around Southeast Asia: 40,000 have been killed in Viet Nam since the end of the war in 1975, and nearly 70,000 injured; 20,000 Laotians have been killed or injured since the end of the war

–7 billion gallons of fuel were consumed by US forces during the war

–If there was space for all 6,000,000 names of Southeast Asian dead on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, DC, it would be over 9 sobering miles long, or nearly 100 times its current 493 foot length

I am not able to memorialize our sacrificed US soldiers without also remembering the death and destroyed civilian infrastructure we caused in our illegal invasion and occupation of Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia. It has been 47 years since I carried out my duties in Viet Nam. My “service” included being an eyewitness to the aftermath of bombings from the air of undefended fishing villages where virtually all the inhabitants were massacred, the vast majority being small children. In that experience, I felt complicit in a diabolical crime against humanity. This experience led me to deeply grasping that I am not worth more than any other human being, and they are not worth less than me.

Recently I spent more than three weeks in Viet Nam, my first trip back since involuntarily being sent there in 1969. I was struck by the multitudes of children suffering from birth defects, most caused presumably by the US chemical spraying some 50 years ago. I experienced deep angst knowing that the US is directly responsible for this genetic damage now being passed on from one generation to the next. I am ashamed that the US government has never acknowledged responsibility or paid reparations. I found myself apologizing to the people for the crimes of my country.

A US Marine pinned down by North Vietnamese Army sniper fire in the Citadel 1968 at Tet. (Photo credit: Don North)

A US Marine pinned down by North Vietnamese Army sniper fire in the Citadel 1968 at Tet. (Photo credit: Don North)

When we only memorialize US soldiers while ignoring the victims of our aggression, we in effect are memorializing war. I cannot do that. War is insane, and our country continues to perpetuate its insanity on others, having been constantly at war since at least 1991. We fail our duties as citizens if we remain silent rather than calling our US wars for what they are – criminal and deceitful aggressions violating international and US law to assure control of geostrategic resources, deemed necessary to further our insatiable American Way Of Life (AWOL).

Memorial Day for me requires remembering all of the deaths and devastation of our wars, and it should remind all of us of the need to end the madness. If we want to end war, we must begin to directly address our out-of-control capitalist political economy that knows no limits to profits for a few at the expense of the many, including our soldiers.

Gary G. Kohls is a retired physician from Duluth, Minnesota. He writes a weekly column for the Reader, Duluth’s alternative newsweekly magazine. His columns often deal with the dangers of American fascism, corporatism and militarism. Many of his columns are archived at and at

17 comments for “Forgetting the Crimes of War

  1. k
    June 4, 2016 at 04:25

    nice to see an american with sanity.

  2. Robert Anderson
    June 1, 2016 at 18:45

    Even the Nazi’s played the “support our troops” game.

  3. Mike Gajda
    May 31, 2016 at 09:06

    Thanks for posting this article. I passed it on to several people, some of whom probably won’t like reading it. And will probably try to discredit it or ignore it, maybe even attack it, while trying to remain in culturally-conditioned denial. But as more than one wise person has stated before, speaking and acting with integrity and in defense of truth will often mean being ostracized, marginalized, or worse. I wish I could summon up an ounce of the courage that S. Brian Wilson has demonstrated through his words an actions. I thank and honor him for his bravery and inspiration.

  4. Joe Tedesky
    May 31, 2016 at 02:08

    One group of veterans that should receive some recognition for their service, is the crew of the USS Liberty. As the website has posted in a recent article; “The President of the USS Liberty Veterans Association, Ernest A. Gallo, sent a letter dated January 10, 2016 to President Barack Obama requesting that he invite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to attend a Memorial Service at Arlington National Cemetery at noon on June 8, 2016 commemorating the June 8, 1967 Israeli attack on the USS LIBERTY (AGTR-5) in which 32 Americans were killed and 171 were wounded.”

    Click the following link, and read the whole short article;

  5. rick sterling
    May 31, 2016 at 02:01

    Thanks for this eloquent testimonial and viewpoint on Memorial Day. It’s especially important as there is so much senseless flag waving. In the Concord area we will be working to name a large new park in Brian S. Willson’s name. Now you know why.

  6. angryspittle
    May 30, 2016 at 22:20

    Memorial Day has been perverted beyond belief. It is now a celebration of war and warriors who have sacrificed their lives in the altar of Imperial avarice and corporate greed and has been for the past 70 years. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and all of the rest have been nothing more than cash cows for the MIC. They have not been about protecting freedom or democracy or any of the shit they sell us with bunting and parades.

  7. ROB
    May 30, 2016 at 17:49

    “Vietnamese – a people who only wanted to be independent from foreign occupiers, whether Chinese, France, Japan, or the United States of America.”

    Yeah right, a people who just wanted to be free from foreign occupiers. Which is which why they waged a great war of resistance to throw out the invaders, and, you know, serve the geopolitical interests of the USSR. All they wanted was to be free and independent, which is why they became part of the Soviet Empire and implemented a foreign political ideology, Stalinism, on their own people and gruesomely purged everyone who didn’t obey. Had South Vietnam survived than today it might have looked something like South Korea or Taiwan, but who needs that when when Soviet imperialism offered indefinite tyranny, poverty and humiliation. Clearly these were brave resistance fighters facing down foreign aggressors, don’t ever let those mean militarists with their pesky historical perspective ever tell you differently.

    • angryspittle
      May 30, 2016 at 22:22

      Your historical ignorance is only surpassed by your stupidity.

    • Roger
      May 31, 2016 at 07:20

      Rob, any people can choose their own form of government. Even if imposed against their wishes by a dictator, he’s THEIR dictator, and their resposability to throw him out if they can.
      America has no right to act as a policeman for democracy – or rather to pretend to act as a policeman. Your country ( I assume you are american) supports the most vile regimes like Suharto, Saddam hussei against iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia,many regimes in S. America, and now Kiev, it it suits their interest. Your government is false to the bone, hypocritical, and unbearably holier-than-thou. So gimme a break.

    • Erik
      May 31, 2016 at 08:29

      Ho Chi Minh noted after the war that “I was a nationalist first and a communist second.” He was a photographer in Paris and tried to convince the peace conference to adopt those of Wilson’s fourteen points that provided for self-determination for the people of colonized nations, but the colonizers weren’t buying.

      So the USSR provided the only available package of ideology and arms sufficient for those revolutions, but the argument that it had only geopolitical aims doesn’t seem to work. Its ideology was adopted by anti-colonial nationalist rebellions as the only path to self-determination in the face of military opposition far greater than the US faced in its own revolution. The USSR got nothing of value to itself, so far as I know.

      While England was a vigorous colonial power, it had the sense to get out when insurgencies became overwhelming, and thereby fathered the two largest democracies in the world, the US and India. If the US had followed that example early, it might well have created a democracy in Vietnam. But where there has been a long history of savage exploitation as in NV, it may be best to just stay out and try to moderate things with humanitarian projects. Extending the conflict only extends the human disaster.

    • John Puma
      June 1, 2016 at 16:04

      Imagine a country besides the US having the nerve to possess geopolitical interests.

      Of all the arrogant nerve.

      BOMB the mo-fos!!!

  8. May 30, 2016 at 16:10

    For me, only two good things came out of the conflict with Viet Nam: meeting my wife, Lan, born and raised in Central Viet Nam’s Quang Ngai province; and realizing that there really is no “good war”. All wars set up the conditions that always result in further wars.

    When my wife and I were getting married in Sai Gon after my discharge from the US Army in the states and my return to Viet Nam as a civilian contractor, she had to have friends swear out affidavits attesting to her having been born and raised in Duc Hai village, Quang Ngai province – this was necessary, she said, because her birth certificate had been destroyed in a fire in the village in 1965. It wasn’t until after we came back to the U. S. in 1968 that I found out the cause of that fire: Because a U. S. patrol had received fire from the direction of the village – there were no American casualties – the U. S. military commenced artillery, air and naval bombardment of Duc Hai for several months until over 75% of the buildings there were demolished by direct hits or by fires caused by the bombardment. Neil Sheehan had recorded Duc Hai’s fate in one of his many articles about the war in the NY Times. In that Nov 30, 1968 article about a two month period in 1965, Sheehan said that at least 184 villagers had died – although other, trustworthy sources said the death toll may have been as high as 600.

    After reading Sheehan’s article, I asked Lan why she didn’t give me all the facts when we were still in Viet Nam getting married, she said, in her inimitably gentle way: “I was afraid that you would get too angry at your own people…” She knew me too well.

    Nowadays, Memorial Day for me is a day I remember all the dead of all the wars in my lifetime, both “friends” and “enemies” alike. What a waste of effort, treasure, human feeling, and life is war!

    • Joe Tedesky
      May 30, 2016 at 23:50

      Gregory, although what you described as to how our military inflicted such horrific pain upon these Vietnamese villagers, is throughly a war crime on every level, I came away very touched by your wife Lan’s thoughtfulness and concern regarding you and ‘your people’. I can’t recall ever hearing of such as good of a story ever, coming out of that tragic and terrible war, but yours is truly a ‘love story’. Thanks for sharing, and stay happy.

  9. Erik
    May 30, 2016 at 14:33

    Those veterans who have returned and had the courage to tell the US that it was wrong and remains wrong, are the only veterans who deserve to be honored on Memorial Day. Those who have seen the wrongs and have returned must speak out to deserve that honor. And those who work to end the mad wars and expose the warmongers as enemies of the United States also deserve our recognition. The future Memorial Day will commemorate those who exposed the right wing, who since long before Aristotle warned of this millennia ago, have started foreign wars to pose as false protectors to demand power and falsely accuse their moral superiors of disloyalty.

    Only when US citizens understand this will they earn the restoration of their former democracy.

    They must demand constitutional amendments to restrict funding of elections and mass media to limited registered individual contributions. Those are the tools of democracy and we do not have them.

    They must demand the restriction of war making power to Congress, the impeachment of presidents who conduct secret wars, and the repudiation of the NATO treaty, so that only Congress can declare war. They must severely restrict the NSC and end influence of the military and secret agencies upon the executive.

    Only then will US citizens have something to commemorate on Memorial day.

  10. May 30, 2016 at 14:07

    “A few profit — and the many pay. But there is a way to stop it. You can’t end it by disarmament conferences. You can’t eliminate it by peace parleys at Geneva. Well-meaning but impractical groups can’t wipe it out by resolutions. It can be smashed effectively only by taking the profit out of war.”

    “War is a Racket”
    M. Gen S. D. Butler

  11. F. O. Lambert
    May 30, 2016 at 13:17

    Thank you, Dr. Kohl, for publishing S. Brian Wilson’s article, and thank you Robert Parry, for publishing it on this “Miserable Day” where we genuflect and praise our members of the “armed forces” who seem to be constantly at war with the world for a very long time.

    I had the honor of meeting Brian Wilson a number of years ago at a Veterans For Peace event and have his book. I have the deepest respect and admiration for Brian and regard him as the real type of hero the world needs if this planet is to survive.

    As a former infantry squad leader in Vietnam (1966-67), I returned, disillusioned about the so-called “war,” and never trusted the U.S. government’s reasons for engaging in warfare ever since. Brother Wilson’s statistical data above says it all.

    May our young people, most vulnerable to the Wall Street/Pentagon/State Department/Hollywood/CIA Dept of Propaganda wake up and resist the “macho temptation” to be used as cannon fodder for the ruling class for the Full Spectrum Dominance policy of American imperialism for world conquest.

  12. Bill Bodden
    May 30, 2016 at 12:46

    When I came to understand the true nature of the war, I felt betrayed by my government, by my religion, by my cultural conditioning into “American Exceptionalism,” which did a terrible disservice to my own humanity, my own life’s journey. Thus, telling the truth as I uncover it is necessary for recovering my own dignity.

    If the United States is ever to become a civilized society, then among the first steps its citizens must take is a pursuit of truth and exposure and rejection of the lies and myths that are so prevalent.

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