S. Brian Willson

This site contains essays describing the incredible historic pattern of U.S. arrogance, ethnocentrism, violence and lawlessness in domestic and global affairs, and the severe danger this pattern poses for the future health of Homo sapiens and Mother Earth. Other essays discuss revolutionary, nonviolent alternative approaches based on the principle of radical relational mutuality. This is a term increasingly used by physicists, mathematicians and cosmologists to describe the nature of the omnicentric*, ever-unfolding universe. Every being, every aspect of life energy in the cosmos, is intrinsically interconnected with and affects every other being and aspect of life energy at every moment.

*everything is at the center of the cosmos at every moment

Brian's Blog

All blog entries and essays posted on this site are authored by S. Brian Willson.

The Gated Society: The US love affair with incarceration, solitary confinement and torture

I live in a country (the USA which in 2013 has 315 million people) that imprisons more than 2.5 million of its citizens on an average day in more than 9,000 jails and prisons, boasting the highest per capita detention rate in the world by far – 800 prisoners for every 100,000 people.  [Prisoners in local jails: 745,000; state prisoners: 1,385,000; federal prisoners: 219,000; prisoners in juvenile facilities: 141,000; prisoners in immigrant detention: 34,000 = Grand Total: 2,524,000 U.S. prisoners]. Rwanda has the second highest detention rate at 595; Russia comes in third at 568. The world’s average per capita detention rate is 146, or 18 percent of the US rate of 800.

More than 60 percent of U.S. prisoners are from racial and ethnic minority groups yet they comprise only 36 percent of the general population. The U.S., with 4.6 percent of the world’s population, holds 25 percent of the world’s 10.1 million prisoners. At least 80,000 of these, and as many 110,000, are locked up in solitary confinement in facilities for years such as continues at Pelican Bay Prison in California, and Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana, among dozens of locations. Being held in solitary for more than 15 days was determined by the UN Special Rapporteur Juan Mendez in 2011 to be the point at which devastating, often irreversible physical and mental ill effects occur, and is therefore considered torture. Force-feeding of prisoners on hunger strikes in the U.S. is also not unusual, itself another form of torture in violation of international law. Solitary confinement inevitably contributes to increased risks of prison suicides, of which hundreds are reported every year. Nine Guantanamo prisoners are reported to have died, and at least six of these deaths were suicides.

I studied the regular use of torture in Massachusetts prisons in 1981, where force feeding of striking prisoners was common; as was the withholding of rights and privileges such as necessary medicine, mail, or winter clothing during cold weather; the imposition of hazards such as flooding cells, igniting clothes and bedding, providing too little or too much heat, and spraying mace and tear gas; inflicting physical beatings of prisoners filing prison complaints or litigation, of those protesting conditions using hunger strikes; and various forms of intentional psychological abuse such as arbitrary shakedown of cells and brutal rectal searches, ordering prisoners to lie face down on cold floors or the outside ground before receiving food, and empty announcements of visitors or family only later to say it was a joke. [“Walpole State Prison: An Exercise in Torture (June 1981), brianwillson.com/Walpole-state-prison-an-exercise-in-torture/].

During the Spanish-American war in the Philippines, President Teddy Roosevelt proudly defended water boarding torture as part of the arsenal of techniques to achieve “the triumph of civilization over the black chaos of savagery and barbarism” of the Filipinos, or “googoos”. In Haiti in 1920, the NAACP investigated the conduct of U.S. Marines who were murdering thousands of Haitians while practicing widespread torture to overcome a Haitian revolt of “savage monkeys” against the continuing unwanted U.S. presence there. The word googoo morphed into “gook” as the derogatory term used by U.S. soldiers against the Vietnamese.

In 1931 President Hoover’s Wickersham Report (National Commission on Law Observance and Enforcement) concluded that the use of torture (intentional infliction of various methods of pain and suffering) was “widespread” throughout the entire U.S. criminal justice system. The U.S. school of the Americas has been teaching torture (“interrogation”) to Latin American military personnel since 1946.

Torture IS U.S. policy.


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.

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 fireballing 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 ordance 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
  • 13.7 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.

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.

S. Brian Willson, as a 1st lieutenant, served as commander of a US Air Force combat security police unit in Viet Nam’s Mekong Delta in 1969. He is a trained lawyer who has been an anti-war, peace and justice activist for more than forty years. His psychohistorical memoir, “Blood On The Tracks: The Life and Times of S. Brian Willson” was published in 2011 by PM Press. A long time member of Veterans For Peace, he currently resides in Portland, Oregon.

The Indian Problem

I grew up in central New York State where the Iroquois Indians had resided for generations before they were in effect virtually wiped out during the Eurocentric Revolutionary War. The problem turns out that they were Indians, not civilized “Americans”– they lived collectively instead of as individuals with private property. The policy became “kill the Indian, save the man” – be assimilated OR eliminated. No wonder my cultural conditioning led me (and millions of others) to believe that the Indians were merciless savages, as Thomas Jefferson told us in our sacred document, the Declaration of Independence.

In my 7th Grade history textbook, “Exploring New York State”, we were instructed that George Washington had traveled through the state in 1783 when he suggested “that it might become the ‘seat of empire’”. The authors defined empire: “vast power and wealth”, “supreme or greatest”, “the first among many”, and “the leader”.

The authors declared “The Iroquois were the Indian Masters of the State for thousands of years before the first white man came to America” but described as “primitive”, possessing “no machinery of any kind”, and their vast areas were covered with thick forests, unlike today when “more than half the land is cleared for ploughing and pasture”.

The authors then proudly proclaimed that “The coming of the white man changed the life of the Indian almost entirely…. During the Revolution which followed soon after the French wars ["French and Indian Wars", 1754-1763], four of the Iroquois nations sided with the English”, such that “the principal Iroquois villages were destroyed…and their power was gone forever”. During the Revolutionary War, General George Washington intended “To put an end to these destructive attacks on the frontier settlements by ordering his army to crush the Indians” which culminated in the virtual total destruction of the Iroquois Confederacy from which they “never recovered” with all their villages destroyed along with their fruit orchards, growing crops, and their stores of food”.

One hundred years later, the Eurocentric New York State Assembly conducted an “Investigation of the INDIAN PROBLEM of the State of New York”(The Whipple Report, 1889). The Committee asked: “What can be done for the good of the Indian?”. The invariable response: “Exterminate the tribe and preserve the individual…”.

Testimonies before the Committee:

Syracuse Univ Chancellor Sims, declared the need to “Obliterate the whole tribe; make them citizens; divide all the lands among them and put them under the laws of citizenship in the State. It is the merest farce in the world to treat them as a nation.”

The Syracuse Congregational Sunday School Field Secretary William A. Duncan: “The Indian will never be civilized until he ceases to be a communist. This tribal relationship is the bane of civilization, the strongest ally of savagery.”

T.W. Jackson, US agent for the Six Nations: “the quicker there is something done to force them to citizenship, to force them to school and to act like men, the quicker they will learn.”

Dr. Jonathan Kneelant of Syracuse, NY, a physician to the Onondaga tribe: “I have recommended that they be detribalized and made citizens.”

Mr. William Newman, supt of schools on the Onondaga reservation: “They ought to be put just where you and I are, under the same law, the same hopes, the same rewards and punishments, and be absorbed into citizenship.”

New York State Supt of Education Andrew Draper: “Action should be taken which…will result finally in breaking up the reservation system and in the absorption of these wards into the citizenship of the state.”

Bishop Huntington of Syracuse: “The present tribal arrangement is a fatal bar to real progress and utterly destructive of anything that deserves to be called civilization. It discourages industry, it lowers self-respect, it shelters laziness, it destroys all wholesome stimulus to thrift and economy.”

US Secretary of the Interior, L.Q.C. Lamar, in his 1886 annual report, said: “As I stated in my last annual report, the only alternative now presented to the American Indian race is speedy entrance into the pale of American civilization or absolute extinction.”

The Committee Members Reported: “If the State or nation must support and protect the Indians, it should also have control over them….Plainly and bluntly, his consent to any measures manifestly and clearly tending to benefit and improve him should no longer be asked.  No harm can come from this course, because if past history is any guide, whatever may have occurred or is likely to happen elsewhere, there is little danger that the State of New York will do any injustice to its Indians.”

It is the belief of the committee that no body of men ever prospered who held property in land in common.  The plan destroys individual effort, and takes away the desire and ambition to acquire and own rights in property separate from others, which is so important a factor in the progress of any race.  Land in severalty has, in all cases where the experiment has been tried, proved a success.

The Committee Report recommends for the consideration of the Assembly: (1) That a compulsory attendance school law be enacted…. and (2) That the lands of the several reservations be allotted in severalty among the several members of the tribe…This allotment in severalty…should comprise a radical uprooting of the whole tribal system, giving to each individual absolute ownership of his share of the land in fee.

The Committee concluded: “These Indian people have been kept as “wards” or children long enough. They should now be educated to be men, not Indians, and it is the earnest belief of the committee that when the suggestions made, or at least the more important of them are accomplished facts, and the Indians of the State are absorbed into the great mass of the American people, then, and not before, will the ‘Indian problem’ be solved”.


The most egregious offense of federal agents, i.e., military recruiters, is that they are recruiting young people who, it can be reasonably predicted, will have a great probability to be ordered to participate in illegal wars and occupations (crimes against peace, and possibly crimes against humanity) and to target civilians and civilian infrastructure (war crimes).

The U.S.-led wars against and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, 2002 to the present, are illegal on their face.  No war was declared as required by the U.S. Constitution.  The United Nations (UN) Charter to which the U.S. is a signatory, allows military action in only two instances: (1) if authorized by the UN Security Council, or (2) if undertaken in self-defense against an existing or imminent armed attack.  Neither of these conditions were met or sought.  Under Article VI, Clause 2, of the U.S. Constitution, the provisions of the UN Charter are incorporated into the Supreme Law of the Land of the United States, and therefore the U.S. violated both the UN Charter, and its own Constitution.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has publicly declared that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was and remains an illegal act that contravenes the UN Charter.[1]

Richard Perle in 2003, when a senior advisor to the Department of Defense Policy Board, admitted that the Iraq war was illegal because the U.S. had broken international law, behavior not consistent with the rules of the UN.[2]

U.S. military judge, Lt. Commander Robert Klant, in May 2005, found Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Pablo Paredes had “reasonable cause to believe that the wars in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Iraq were illegal.”  He came to this legal conclusion after hearing testimony at Paredes’ trial that: (1) the wars violated the UN Charter, ratified by the U.S., which forbids force unless carried out in self-defense or with the approval of the UN Security Council, neither of which were applicable to or sought by the U.S.; (2) torture and inhumane treatment well documented in Iraqi prisons constitute grave breaches of the Geneva Convention, ratified by the U.S., and are considered war crimes under the U.S. War Crimes Statute; (3) both the UN Charter and Geneva Conventions are part of the Supreme U.S. Law under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution; (4) the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) requires all military personnel to obey lawful orders, that a general order or regulation is lawful unless it is contrary to the Constitution and laws of the U.S.; (5) the Nuremberg Principles, applicable to the U.S. and each of its citizens as part of international law, and the U.S. Army Field Manual, create a duty to disobey unlawful orders; and (6) Article 509 of Army Field Manual 27-10 specifies that “following superior orders” is not a defense to the commission of war crimes unless the accused “did not know and could not reasonably have been expected to know that the act ordered was unlawful.”[3]

We now have the benefit of the seven leaked confidential British Downing Street Memos, dated from March to July 2002, that paint a damning portrait of the U.S. march to war a full year before its March 2003 invasion.  The head of the British Intelligence Service M16 reported in these 2002 memos that “war was now seen as inevitable,” that “intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.”  “Regime change” was the policy, but without any justification, and “has no basis under international law.”  The memos also declare: “There is no recent evidence of Iraq complicity with international terrorism…There is no credible evidence to link Iraq with Usama Bin Laden.”  Regarding Iraq’s possession of WMD, the “intelligence is poor.”[4]


Reports of serious recruiter improprieties — including fraud and coercion has surfaced and the Army has been forced to recently investigate 1,118 allegations of impropriety by recruiters, or nearly one in five of all recruiters!  One recruiter was caught encouraging a recruit to create a fake high school diploma to cover for the fact that he had dropped out.  Another recruiter was discovered driving a recruit to a store to purchase a detoxification kit to rid his system of supposed marijuana traces.

Recruiters in Ohio, New York, Washington, Texas and New England said that as long as an offending recruiter met his enlistment quota of roughly two recruits a month, punishment was unlikely.  “The saying here is, ‘Production is power,’ ” the recruiter in northern Ohio said. “Produce, and all is good.”

He said that in the last year, he had seen recruiters falsify documents so that applicants could earn ranks they were not qualified to hold. When enlistees tested positive for marijuana, he said, recruiters coached them to drink gallons of water before visiting military doctors. Occasionally, the recruiter said, he has been ordered to conceal police records and minor medical conditions like attention deficit disorder, which usually disqualifies a candidate. When he and others resisted such orders, he said, superiors threatened to ruin their careers.

The recruiter said one in every three people he had enlisted had a problem that needed concealing, or a waiver. “The only people who want to join the Army now have issues,” he said. “They’re troubled, with health, police or drug problems.”

The recruiter said he believed in the Army and his job, often working 80-hour weeks. But he sometimes worries about the mental capabilities of those who are enlisted, he said, especially as they move up the ranks. “If they are in a leadership position and they’re sending 10 or 11 people all over the place because they can’t focus on the job at hand,” he said, “we’re in trouble.”

One recruiter described that he has been bending or breaking enlistment rules for months, he said, hiding police records and medical histories of potential recruits. His commanders have encouraged such deception, he said, because they know there is no other way to meet the Army’s stiff recruitment quotas. “The problem is that no one wants to join,” the recruiter said. “We have to play fast and loose with the rules just to get by.”

US Army Recruiting Command provides a recruiting handbook to the 7,500 recruiters who are ordered to approach tenth, eleventh and twelfth graders–repeatedly. Army officials spell out the rules of engagement: Recruiters are told to dig in deep at their assigned high schools, to offer their services as assistant football coaches–or basketball coaches or track coaches or wrestling coaches or baseball coaches (interestingly, not softball coaches or volleyball coaches)–to “offer to be a chaperon [sic] or escort for homecoming activities and coronations” (though not thespian ones), to “Deliver donuts and coffee for the faculty once a month,” to participate visibly in Hispanic Heritage and Black History Month activities, to “get involved with local Boy Scout troops” (Girl Scouts aren’t mentioned), to “offer to be a timekeeper at football games,” to “serve as test proctors,” to “eat lunch in the school cafeteria several times each month” and to “always remember secretary’s week with a card or flowers.”

They should befriend student leaders and school staff: “Know your student influencers,” they are told. “Identify these individuals and develop them as COIs” (centers of influence). After all, “some influential students such as the student president or the captain of the football team may not enlist; however, they can and will provide you with referrals who will enlist.” Cast a wide net, recruiters are told. Go for the Jocks, but don’t ignore the Brains. “Encourage college-capable individuals to defer their college until they have served in the Army.”

Army brass urge recruiters to use a “trimester system of senior contacts,” reaching out to high school seniors at three vulnerable points. In the spring, when students’ futures loom largest, the handbook advises: “For some it is clear that college is not an option, at least for now. Let them know that the Army can fulfill their college aspirations later on.”[5]

CONCLUSION: Prohibit Military Recruiting in Public Schools

U.S. military recruiters should be prohibited from public schools. They induce, through historical patterns of misrepresentations while applying various kinds of pressure, the signing of contracts with young people who, it can be reasonably predicted, will have a high probability of being ordered to participate in acts prohibited under international and U.S. Constitutional and statutory law. Thus, military recruiters effectively serve as accomplices to commission of serious lawlessness and criminal activity. Enlistees become indentured servants ordered to behave, in effect, as criminal mercenaries.

Recruiters accrue personal gain in career promotions when meeting superior-mandated recruiting quotas as they induce young people to sign a military contract where the recruits will likely participate in grotesque, prohibited activities. Meeting quotas assures advancement. Not meeting quotas often means demotion. In effect, the recruiter participates in a conspiracy with his/her superiors to meet quotas by often relying on a variety of misrepresentations.

[1] “Iraq war illegal, says Annan,” BBC, Thursday, 16 September, 2004.

[2] The Guardian, “War critics astonished as US hawk admits invasion was illegal,” by Oliver Burkeman and Julian Borger in Washington, November 20, 2003.

[3] “Navy judge paves way for honest conscientious objectors — Government proves recent U.S. wars ‘illegal’ in Paredes decision,“ Idaho Observer, June 2005.

[4] “The Downing Street Reader: a cheat sheet on the memos behind the scandal,” The Rolling Stone Blog, June 22, 2005.

[5] SOURCES identifying selected recruiting violations:

(1) “Army Recruiters Say They Feel Pressure to Bend Rules” By Damien Cave, The New York Times, Tuesday, May 3, 2005;

(2) “When Marine recruiters go way beyond the call” By Susan Paynter,

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Wednesday, June 8, 2005, http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/paynter/227497_paynter08.html;

(3) “Military Enlists Marketer to Get Data on Students for Recruiters,” by Mark Mazzetti, The Los Angeles Times, Thursday, June 23, 2005;

(4) “GEDs no longer required,” By Joseph R. Chenelly, ArmyTimes.com, September 20, 2005;

(5) “Army pair’s tactics eyed: Student-led sting ensnarls recruiters,” By John Aguilar, Rocky Mountain News, April 30, 2005, http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/local/article/0,1299,DRMN_15_3741396,00.html;

(6) “The Recruitment Minefield,” Rethinking Schools Online, Vol.19, No. 3 – Spring 2005, http://www.rethinkingschools.com/archive/19_03/recr193.shtml;

(7) “Critical literacy activities can protect students against predatory military recruiting,” by Bill Bigelow. Bigelow is an editor of Rethinking Schools. With Bob Peterson he co-edited Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World, Spring 2005.

(7) “Let the Pentagon Pay Off Those Loans: LIES Recruiters Tell,” by Ron Jacobs, CounterPunch Weekend Edition, March 5/6, 2005;

(8) “Who’s Next?” by Karen Houppert, The Nation, September 12, 2005, http://www.thenation.com/doc/20050912/houppert.


Shame is the Wool IN our Eyes

Shame is a silent and serious impediment to good health, to a healthy identity, both individual and culturally collective. However, it is usually so deeply hidden from our consciousness we are unaware of it. Many of us grow up in shame-based upbringings (violence or regular put downs) which leave their mark on our psyches, impacting our adult behavior. If we experience a hint of invalidity we quickly repress it as being too painful to acknowledge, or address.

A number of years after my participation in the US military, I began to experience a sense of deep invalidity, a kind of worthlessness, even as I was functioning pretty well in my public political life. This feeling might be called shame, something very dreaded for sure. I increasingly found myself pushing the feeling aside so as not to become disabled in my work life. But a question continued to nag me – how could I have achieved bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and been halfway through law school, only to then follow orders to Viet Nam when I knew nothing about the history of the Vietnamese and our criminal war against its people? I mean, what had they done to us, or to me? It seemed absurd, but much worse – diabolical and I had been part of it. I followed orders to participate in a mass murder machine. What the fuck?!


In human history, the emergence of vertical authority structures – the rule of kings and nobles – ripped people from historical patterns of living in small tribal groups. Along with forced stratification (primarily class), the separation of people from their intimate connections with the earth produced deep insecurity, fear, and trauma to the psyche. Ecopsychologists suggest that such fragmentation led to an ecological unconscious and a primordial breach[1]. It has left us adrift without a solid grounding to the Earth. This trauma is exacerbated as we accept legitimacy of vertical authority structures that in effect require us to bury unpleasant feelings of unworthiness and invalidity associated with class. Obedience is necessary, we are conditioned to think, to receive desired acceptance, to be “successful”. But these dreaded shame feelings are more than mot lodged so deeply in our psyche that we normally do not recognize it.


A major consequence of civilization, then, is that each of us likely nurses deep psychic trauma in the form of insecurity and shame. These feelings are usually so unbearable that in order to create viable personas we must develop defense mechanisms to mask them. Carl Jung described how we often play a trick on ourselves by projecting our dark inner shadows onto others. Arrogance rather than humility, ignorance rather than awareness, and violence against “others” rather than mutual respect, have become major mechanisms to relieve the anxiety created by these insecurities.[2] Denial serves as a convenient, unconscious defense mechanism that covers over or obscures painful reality.


It is important to understand how and why our US American culture is deeply shame-based itself.

Extraordinarily gruesome Eurocentric values were introduced into the New World with the invasion of Columbus and his men in 1492 and succeeding years. Bartolomé de las Casas, a Spanish priest who arrived in Hispaniola in 1502, became known as the “Apostle of the Indians” as he was shocked to witness unspeakable punishments being inflicted on the peaceful Indigenous inhabitants. He spelled out the Spaniards’ behavior: vicious search for wealth with “dreadful . . . unlimited close-fisted avarice” and their commitment of “such inhumanities and barbarisms . . . as no age can parallel” in “a continuous recreational slaughter . . . cruelty never before seen, nor heard of, nor read of”. He identified routine murder, rape, theft, kidnapping, vandalism, child molestation, acts of cruelty, torture, humiliation, dismemberment, and beheading.[3] The Indigenous, he said, possessed no vocabulary to even describe such bestiality.

From our origins, European settlers of the New World organized irregular armed units to viciously attack and murder unarmed civilians—Indigenous women, children, and elderly—using unlimited violent means, including outright massacres and the burning of towns and food stocks. The first two centuries of British colonization, the 1600s to 1800s, produced several generations of experienced “Indian fighters” (early version of “rangers”). Settlers, mostly farmers by trade, waged battles totally independent of any formal military organization.[4] And, between 1775 and 1902, US Continental and Regular Army units incurred serious casualties (wounded/killed) in 1,240 battles waged against Native Americans across the continent.[5]

This violent example continued until about 1900 as the Eurocentric settlers methodically succeeded to occupy the whole continent, taking advantage of the “empty land”. The only impediment were the inhabitants, considered “savages”[6], to be exterminated at will, or forcefully assimilated into European values such as private, versus collective property. In Humboldt County, California, journalist Bret Harte reported in 1860 on one of countless massacres: “Little children and old women were mercilessly stabbed and their skulls crushed by axes. When the bodies were landed in Union [present day Arcata] a more shocking and revolting spectacle never was exhibited to the eyes of a Christian and civilized people. Old women, wrinkled and decrepit, lay weltering in blood, their brains dashed out and dabbed with long grey hair. Infants sparce a span long, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly wounds...”.[7] But, between 1850-1864, there were at least 56 massacres of five or more in the Humboldt region of northern California alone, mostly committed by paramilitary bands of settlers[8].

Because our official life as a nation is enabled and built on collective denial of extremely painful realities—the forceful, unspeakable dispossession of others—fantasy politics in the U.S. has become a way of life in our country.[9] The shame of it is too much to bear. Individual psychic defenses reflect the manner in which the civilization itself developed, as successive generations of shame-based upbringing and shame-based ethics have “guided” our culture to self-righteous systemic patterns of violence, a “poisonous pedagogy”[10] and a “pathology of violence.”[11] Ancestral desire for collective mutuality has been turned into collective blood-lust against our “enemies.”[12] Societies based on materialism have hampered the development of deeper human relationships based on mutual respect and caring[13]. The US culture with all its academic teachings, religious sermons, entertainment business, political rhetoric, and manner of parental upbringing, collectively choose to ignore the painful reality of our origins. It is simply out of the question to even acknowledge our unspeakable, beastial foundations, as simply too painful to deal with. Thus our eyes are like wool. No other covering is necessary. Shame is tenaciously shielded with massive denial, like a terminal mental illness.


[1] Roszak, Gomes, and Kanner, eds., Ecopsychology. Ecopsychology concludes that there can be no personal healing without healing the earth, and that rediscovering our sacred relationship with it, i.e., our intimate earthiness, is indispensable for personal and global healing and mutual respect.

[2] Michael A. Milburn and Sheree D. Conrad, The Politics of Denial (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996), 1–29.

[3] Bartolomé de las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, 1552, as cited in Barry Lopez, The Rediscovery of North America (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1990), 1-9.

[4] Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), 58-60.

[5] Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of the United States Army, 1789-1903, Vol II (Washington, DC: GPO, 1903), 295.

[6] Thomas Jefferson coined in the Declaration of Independence the words, “merciless Indian savages”, which Jefferson accused King George III of organizing the attacking of English settlers who were invading and occupying historic Indigenous lands.

[7] Bret Harte, “Indiscriminate Massacre of Indians, Women and Children Butchered”, Northern Californian (Vol. 2, Issue 9, February 29, 1860, p. 1), describing the February 25, 1860 brutal massacre of 188 Indians at Indian Island in Eureka, CA.

[8] Ray Raphael and Freeman House, Two Peoples, One Place (Eureka, CA: Humboldt County Historical Society and Writing Humboldt History Project, 2007), 172-178.

[9] Milburn, 3.

[10] Alice Miller, For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1983), 3–91.

[11] James Gilligan, Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 1–85.

[12] Barbara Ehrenreich, Blood Rites (New York: Metropolitan Books, 1997).

[13] Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, [London, 1902; Boston: Extending Horizon Books, pp. xii - xiv (Kropotkin’s Introduction); 298 – 300.

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