Doctor’s Plot

At eleven in the morning of a drizzly day in June, Captain Howard Brett Levy, M.D., was seized and manacled, hurried from a barracks courtroom, and carried off in a staff car to the stockade at Fort Jackson, S.C. He stayed the night in a small bare cell behind a crude wood-and-wire door, and the next day was inexplicably moved to an empty ward at the post hospital where he had served for nearly two years. There he is confined, under constant watch by an M.P., as he begins a sentence of three years at hard labor for crimes of conscience and belief. In a sense, Levy concurred in the findings of the court martial. He did what they said he did, and he is not sorry. He killed no guard, threw no bomb, raped no white woman, stole no secrets, packed no pumpkin. Nobody framed him; he is the wanted man. What is in contention is not the fact of his actions, but their meaning. Levy refuses to be complicit in a war he abhors; the Army calls that disobedient. He accepts responsibility for the consequences of his acts; that is unbecoming conduct, and it promotes disloyalty. Levy did not seek to change the Army, but to ignore it, and he wanted not martyrdom but expression. The Army, in the way it often does, gave him just what he did not want.

Levy’s progress from Brooklyn, where he was born thirty years ago, to the Fort Jackson stockade is lined with milestones familiar to his generation. He was the only child of conventionally nice Jewish parents. Toward the end of high school, he became vaguely aware of politics: “If I had been old enough I would have voted for Eisenhower.” At N.Y.U. he studied hard (I had to, I wasn’t brilliant”), assembled a respectable record, and became the president of a fraternity which he helped found. “It was designed to do everything that fraternities don’t do,” he said. In that case, it was a useful way of avoiding the conformism of the era without actually opting out.

The most radical thing I did in the Fifties,” Levy said in the course of a long conversation one afternoon in the middle of the court martial, “was to go to folk music concerts, or read the Elektra Records catalogue.” He went to Downstate Medical Center in 1958; in 1962 he interned at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn. “I was interested in the money part of medicine,” he said. “But then a real change happened. I took part of my residency at Bellevue, and I was working with people who were destitute and downtrodden and completely cynical about the system. I began to identify with their problems in a real way.”

There were others in America who were turning off “the system” in those years, but the effect of the new “generational” mood was indirect at best. “There was absolutely nobody to talk to. I …

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Dissension in the ACLU September 14, 1967