Afriend writes from Oakland: "I am getting myself back together after the horror of several days ago. Brian ... is, as usual, a source of strength and support for me, even as he lies legless in a hospital bed. I haven't begun to translate the horror of what I experienced into words except to observe that it has provided both the ugliest vision of my life -- the raw, brute reality of the train bearing down -- and the most beautiful: a maimed and bandaged friend whom I had seen smashed and broken only 24 hours before, smiling weakly, and asking for baseball scores."

The letter was about S. Brian Willson. He is the former Air Force officer, now 47, who helped coordinate bombing raids in the Vietnam War and, following a postwar reassessment of his life, has been involved for some time in peace raids.

During one of them, on Sept. 1, outside the Concord (Calif.) Naval Weapons Station, Willson committed nonviolent civil disobedience by kneeling on railroad tracks in an attempt to stop a munitions train. Instead of braking and halting, the crew operating the train rolled on. Others in the group of 25 protesters at the site, who managed to clear away from the tracks, said the train was not even slowed.

One response to Willson's act is, well, what do you expect: Get in front of a moving train and you'll get -- literally -- what's coming to you. Several newspapers, including the New York Post, editorialized that line. It has a touch with logic and would be totally logical if the protest had occurred in South Africa, the Soviet Union or another police state where train schedules and arms deliveries are more sacred than life. But this was the United States, where the government, at least in constitutional theory, deals with dissenters in less bloody ways than running trains into them.

Willson's form of protest may not be fathomable to those accustomed to writing letters to Congress, but it is at the respected core of a long tradition of civil disobedience. Sitting on a railroad track happened to be Brian Willson's expression of defying the government's war plans and following his conscience. Other honorable ways are the refusal to pay war taxes, disrupting traffic at the CIA, sitting in the Capitol Rotunda, trespassing at military bases and emulating Isaiah by trying to convert nuclear bombs into plowshares.

Such dissent is not uncommon. The nation is stronger for it, not to mention consciences that are clearer. Since 1980, more than 70 citizens have taken part in 18 Plowshares disarmament actions. Thirty-seven college students, parents, clergy, social workers and others have been locked away for disobeying civil law.

The prices they willingly pay are anything but overnight slumber parties in the county jail. A Catholic priest is serving 18 years in a federal prison for doing minor damage to a missile silo. Three others in the same protest received sentences of 18, 10 and 8 years. A Kansas City, Mo., judge said: "It was hard for me to imagine a more serious crime" than "destruction of defense property." An appeals court judge, with an imagination in sounder condition, said in a dissent to the 2-to-1 upholding of the decision: "The actions of the ... defendants constitute part of the growing clamor against the nuclear threat. Through their dramatic act of civil disobedience, {they} seem to have sacrificed their own freedom in hopes of awakening the public to the grave danger of nuclear annihilation."

Brian Willson is surely a part of that clamor. While the full story of his victimization is still to come out -- members of Congress are calling for a hearing -- his heroism brings to mind a 1978 railroad demonstration of 140 people at a Colorado nuclear warhead factory.

Jim Wallis, editor of The Sojourner magazine, wrote of his group's occupying the tracks: "Ten minutes after we walked onto the tracks a rain began to fall ... Throughout that wet and bitterly cold night, I thought about what it means to 'wage peace.' I first pictured centuries of soldiers sitting in rain and cold as we were that night. People have always been ready to leave their families, go to faraway places, endure incredible hardship, and even die in order to wage a war. Is it conceivable, I wondered, that the cost of peace could be less?"

Thoreau put it another way in "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience": "Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison." For the just Brian Willson, a hospital ward is the same.