Originally published on Oct. 16, 2017
Will Williams wants you to know something right off the bat: Protesting injustice, immorality, or any circumstance where the United States is not living up to its creed is the most patriotic thing that you can do as an American and is critically important in elevating the voices of the most vulnerable in our nation.
“It angers me to see politicians use veterans as pawns in their arguments constantly. It’s not because they support and care for them, but because it fits the end that they are trying to meet,” Williams tells Madison365. “But, man, if you really want to be patriotic – take care of your veterans after they fight and lose limbs – and sometimes their minds – for you. Take care of the American people. Don’t let people fight and die in unnecessary wars. This poseur patriotism that has engulfed us will be the end of us.”
Seventy-four-year-old Williams is as feisty and outspoken as they come when the subject is supporting Colin Kaepernick and other NFL players as they quietly kneel during the national anthem to draw attention to racial justice and inequality. And that sometimes angers many veterans and wanna-be-veterans alike that he comes into contact with.
All too often, counter-arguments about protesting during the national anthem – especially numerous online arguments – will be less about facts and more about “You didn’t serve! I did. You can’t comment on this!”
Not so fast. Here, Williams has the trump card, no pun intended. Williams put his life on the line for his country with tours serving in Vietnam – twice. His good friend, Demarchi, whom he used to sing doo-wop together with, died in his arms while they were on patrol together. Williams has endured decades and decades of the nightmares and flashbacks that were part of his post-traumatic stress disorder. In short: he served.
Williams’ trump card is much larger than you think. Unlike his white military veteran counterparts, he put his life on the line for a country that up to that point in his life – growing up in nasty and racist Jim Crow Mississippi – fell dreadly short in providing him the freedoms they told him he was fighting for.
In fact, Williams was two years younger than 14-year-old Emmitt Till was at the time that he was brutally mutilated, disfigured, shot, and thrown into the river by a gang of white men for allegedly flirting with a white woman. Williams’s hometown of Crystal Springs was just a little over two hours south of Money, Mississippi, where Emmitt was murdered.
So, Williams has walked the walk and when he speaks about the military, patriotism, protests, Kaepernick and more, he’s not afraid to talk and when he does, he brings it. Hard.
“What you’re seeing right now is a game that the country has been playing on people for a long time. A lot of it has to do with the grip that the military-industrial complex has on people of all walks of life in this country where they are dependent on that complex for their daily bread,” Williams says. “People are caught in a catch-22 and they can’t speak out because their lives depend on it.
“The Pentagon is totally responsible for the growth of what I call ‘Poseur Patriotism’ in this nation. You get these kids started really early and you get them enlisted and they don’t really understand what’s going on. You make sure they don’t ask questions. Get them to be conformists. And it’s easy to pull them in to prove their patriotism,” he adds.
Poser patriotism is the charade of acting like a patriot, Williams says, but in reality, not having the love and devotion to your country or its veterans.
“You don’t have money for the programs that are really needed to help our veterans who are hurt and are committing suicide? You don’t have money to take care of all of people in American who desperately need it?” Williams asks. “It really bothers me when they say that athletes are ‘disrespecting the flag’ and they are ‘dishonoring veterans who fought and died protecting our freedom.’ That’s crap. It’s bull. I don’t know when this country really fought for the freedom that we’re all supposed to have. You might have to go to the Revolutionary War.
“It’s all a game. To me, that flag stuff is all a ritual that’s trying to galvanize people to support militarism. And hopefully, not to think too much,” he adds. “I think people are brainwashed if they think that America fights to protect our freedoms. Not with these wars of choice we have been sending people to die in. They have not been able to put two and two together. They missed the boat a long ago.”
“Country was founded on protest”
Williams and I are sitting on one of the benches that go around the Wisconsin State Capitol Rotunda as we chat. We’ve got about an hour before he has to head to the VA Hospital to deal with an injury on his foot. We watch kids go by as they do tours and the occasional politician shuffling to a meeting.
The topic of Colin Kaepernick and NFL protests keep coming up.
“This country was founded on protest … protest and violence. Now, all of sudden, it’s not nice to protest? You are unpatriotic if you protest? That’s a problem,” he says.
“We need to get to the crux of what the problem is and what Colin Kaepernick has been talking about this whole time. He wasn’t protesting the flag or about the veterans,” Williams adds. “He was talking about what is happening to people of color since the very beginning of United States history. He wanted to raise the issue of it because he had a platform to do it.
“What you see on TV with this national anthem and standing and putting your hand over your heart … that’s not real patriotism,” he continues. “In a sense, it has been forced to be at the level where it is now because you didn’t see that crap before 2009.”
Before 2009, players weren’t on the field for the national anthem and instead generally remained in the locker room before the NFL received millions of taxpayer dollars from the Department of Defense and the National Guard for patriotic displays.
“The Pentagon spent millions of dollars for this. It was a great recruitment tool. It fostered and bolstered patriotism. It fostered militarism,” Williams says.
Williams is old school. At 74, it’s safe to say that he has seen it all. What you’re seeing with today’s athletes isn’t new, he says. “Kaepernick wasn’t even close to the first person to bring this conversation up. Jackie Robinson did. Muhammad Ali did many times. Muhammad Ali said, ‘Vietnamese never called him nigger.’ [1968 Olympic athletes] Tommie Smith and John Carlos … they did it. The guy for the Denver Nuggets [Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf] who refused to stand for the anthem,” Williams says. “This is nothing new. But people didn’t pay attention enough during that time.
“Martin Luther King talked about guys fighting and dying in the same foxholes but couldn’t eat in the same restaurants when they came back to America,” he adds. “He talked about it quite a bit.”
Very few white people, including his fellow freedom-loving Vietnam soldiers, questioned why Williams was being treated like less than a human in the deep south as he risked his life for his country. It’s not a comfortable to think about. Williams notes that America has never been comfortable about self-examination of its own blatant hypocrisy.
“The other night I was thinking about all of this stuff that was going on with this ‘disrespecting the flag’ and the thought came to me what would have happened if this country would have always honored the preamble to the Declaration of Independence – we hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal,” Williams says. “If they would have truly used those words to form the union on, would we have had the annihilations and the massacres of the Native Americans in America? Would we even had slavery? I don’t think so.”
Williams knows that most of the people that go off to fight for the military-industrial complex are poor like he once was. They didn’t have many options in life and they didn’t know what they were getting into. Williams agrees that one of the toughest things for a military person to do is to think that you lost a dear friend, an arm, a leg, or, in too many cases, your sanity … for reasons that are less than noble. It’s heart-wrenching to think that 58,000 young, promising Americans lost their lives in Vietnam because the Gulf of Tonkin incident was fabricated and a war was fought under false pretenses.
So people will force themselves to not think about it all.
“Many feel bad because they feel duped that they fell for it. But they won’t say it. Many of them were really gung-ho and felt like they had to do this for the country,” Williams says. “That comes from the way that militarism works in this society that takes kids when they are very young and teaches them the pledge and portrays this country as this shining beacon of freedom on the hill … and they believe them. Men will carry that to their graves. So, if something happens, and it goes against the narrative they believe, they ignore it.
Williams is able to unleash a long list of disastrous “wars of choice of the United States” to me off the top of his head, but I can tell that the Iraq War is one of his biggest bugaboos of all the “wars of choice” that America has been involved in. WMD in Iraq turned out to be a lie. The “Al-Queada ties” turned out to be a lie.
“’Well, Saddam was a bad man’ turned out to be the rationale behind us going in there,” Williams says.
I respond back to Williams: But instead of killing millions and millions of innocent Iraqis, why not go after the people that aided and abetted this “bad man” during his worst atrocities towards mankind – dropping chemical weapons on the Kurds including women and children?
Oh, wait, that was the United States.
“I’ve seen and met many parents who buried their children who were killed in Iraq. They were proud that they died fighting for their country. But it’s a mirage,” Williams says. “For years and years, it’s been wars of choice that the United States has been involved in. It’s choices that we make for specific reasons. Unfortunately, it’s corporate interests. Unfortunately, the reasons for us having caused all of this death and destruction all over the world has absolutely nothing to do with freedom.”
The Good Soldier
Williams is a charter member of the Clarence Kailin Chapter #25 in Madison of Veterans for Peace, a national non-profit educational and humanitarian organization dedicated to the abolition of war. It was founded in 1985 by ex-service members committed to sharing the horrors they experienced in war. He travels throughout the state to warn people and to tell his story. He does meet resistance but also plenty of people who want to honor and praise him. Williams, after all, is a man with a purple heart and two bronze stars who had two friends die in front of him on the battlefield. Many people want to tell him that he is a hero, a patriot, and ‘thank you for your service.’
Williams would rather that you not.
“Even though people might mean it from their heart and really want to thank me, I would rather that they take a stand on what’s wrong with this country that is keeping it from being the perfect union that it could be,” Williams says.
“I don’t deserve ‘thank yous’ or ‘you’re my hero.’ If you doing something ignoble, you should get no gratification from it. No ‘thank yous.’ When I came back from ‘nam, I didn’t want anybody thanking me,” Williams adds. “And if I had wanted it, it would have been the government and the Congress that lied about the Tonkin Gulf. It would have been [former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert] McNamara. It would have been the people who had a direct effect on me being sent there.
“I’d also probably want some money from the corporations that profited off the bloodshed of the many that died and were mortally wounded,” he adds.
For decades and decades, Williams has had uncomfortable questions for the government that sent him off to war under false pretenses, and for those politicians and chickenhawks who cheerleaded it. Now he has uncomfortable questions for conservative military veterans who defend Trump as a “patriot” in his fight against NFL players. The same Trump who dodged the military, prefers soldiers and POWs that “don’t get captured,” who said he knew more than the generals, who called the U.S. military a disaster, who insulted the parents of a Gold Star captain. And so much more.
“It doesn’t make sense,” Williams says. “But, then again, throughout our history it’s never really made sense why this person is a patriot and that person is not.”
Williams was one of the stars of “The Good Soldier,” a 2009 documentary film directed and produced by American filmmakers Lexy Lovell and Michael Uys. The film is composed of candid interviews with five veterans from five different generations of American wars, who marched eagerly to defend their country in 1944, 1966, 1991, or 2003 only to return conflicted by the atrocities they saw and participated in, and questioning what true service to your country really means.
“It bothered me at the time if I didn’t get a chance to kill someone. It went beyond the call of duty and it turned into something else. The hate that I had growing up in the south had expanded because of what had happened in the Vietnam … because of losing people,” Williams said in “The Good Soldier” documentary. “I feel like I had become an animal.”
It’s still more than a half-century later, and Williams, like many other military veterans, still struggles with what he saw and what he did in Vietnam. Williams and I have a lengthy side discussion on all of the things that veterans like him are battling post-war. He doesn’t want anybody to ever have to go through what he’s going through again.
“I know a lot of vets who don’t believe as I do. I respect them and their opinion even though they don’t respect mine. If that’s what you believe, that’s what you believe,” Williams says. “I’ve moved beyond that area where I’m a conformist long ago … where you have to be politically correct. You have to speak your mind. You have to be real.”
People are too scared to speak up about the military, he says. Check that: people are often too afraid to speak up about anything, he adds.
“When Tony Robinson was killed, I watched some of the leaders out in the streets up at East High School telling the kids, ‘Don’t do this. Don’t do that. Don’t go out in the streets because your mother will get a fine and she can’t afford to pay that,’” Williams remembers. “I’m saying, ‘Wow. What are they teaching these young people?’ If people hadn’t taken a stand years ago, we wouldn’t be where we are today – woman, African-American, Latinos, so many groups. Everything that has happened that has had a huge effect on society was done by people rising up from the bottom. It wasn’t done by people on the top.
“Cuz the people at the top like where they are at,” adds Williams.
The change that needs to happen in the United States, Williams says, must come from the grassroots. That’s why Williams doesn’t like what he sees with the NFL owners and coaches that have co-opted the protest with the arms linked in unity.
“I wonder, if it was really in their hearts, many of them wouldn’t have blackballed Kaepernick in the first place. He should be there. These owners are simply doing this because it’s the business things to do. They can’t have protests and boycotts. That affects their money. These owners weren’t doing it out of heart,” Williams says. “I think if Vince Lombardi was here and he did it, it would have been from his heart because he proved where his heart was when he signed Willie Davis when he was in an interracial marriage and nobody else would touch him. When Lombardi pulled his team out of hotels that were segregated. To me, there are no more Vince Lombardi’s. It’s all business now without real care for the people who are making them so much money.”
So what would it take to really live in a United States where more people would want to salute the flag and sing its anthem? Where people would never even think about kneeling.
“When this country starts believing and acting and voicing the equality for all; the justice for all. Once that happens, I think people will. I think that’s the reason why I haven’t done it since I got out of the service. It’s because of that,” Williams says. “To me, it’s always been a false image of what this country is about. They talk about “The land of the free and the home of the brave.’ That’s not what it is. They say, ‘All people are created equal.’ They aren’t. I think when this country gets to a point where it can do that, it will be the end of the protests.
“I have faith in young people. I think it will happen. Young people now can get more material much easier than what I was getting back in the day. I think the tide is changing,” Williams adds. “I think these young people will take that stand that many stopped taking after Martin Luther King was assassinated. I think if people had kept their eye on the prize, perhaps we would be closer to that perfect union than now.”
Williams feels like more and more white Americans will join in the protest movement in the future – led by those young people. American economic inequality – the giant gap between the 1 percent of the 1 percent and the increasingly poorer rest of the population – continues to get worse and worse. White people, historically shielded from feeling this pain by inheritance, are feeling the pinch more and more and starting to wake up, he says. More and more are realizing that beyond the red, white, and blue jingoism they’ve been taught to salute, that the game is rigged.
“It’s always been rigged … but I don’t think it’s ever been this obvious,” Williams says. “It’s our kids that have always fought and died in these endless wars of choice; not theirs. They are profiting from it immensely; not you.”
Protest in the future, Williams says, will be very important.
“They have us divided right now, but someday it’s going to take every different group realizing that their oppression is coming from the same place. It’s one umbrella … and everything is coming from that,” Williams says. “I think people will realize it one day soon and all of these voices will come together. There will be change, but I don’t think it will be without a fight.
“We’re on a path right now to it, and it’s not as far away as it might seem,” he adds. “There will be a revolution in this country where you see people actually sacrifice because they have been driven to such a low point. And that will be everybody. This income divide that is only getting worse and worse and it affects everybody and devastating more and more people … of all races.”
Williams says that there is nothing more American than these NFL protests going on right now and that he still has faith that this country can become what it is supposed to be.
“The protests have caused some people to take a look at something they wouldn’t have ordinarily look at. It has opened many eyes. But many eyes remain closed,” Williams says. “But you can’t slow down right now. You can’t quit. It’s easier to push something while it’s rolling. You can’t fall off. We can’t stop. Hopefully, years later, these people that are being ridiculed and are being scorned right now … hopefully, we’ll realize just how patriotic they were being.
“Do you want to talk about patriotism? I feel like I’m a patriot,” Williams continues, his tone becoming very serious. “You don’t have to wear a lapel pin. You don’t have to wrap yourself in the flag to be patriotic.
“Everybody that stands against what is destroying this country is a patriot,” adds Williams.