• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Doctor’s Plot

I. Captain Levy

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 tried to talk all the time. Everyone I knew disagreed. You know, if you hang around with old socialists all the time you begin to think that everyone’s a socialist; it just ain’t true. If you hang around with liberals, you think that everyone’s a liberal. That just ain’t true. But the people I hung around with were racists, and most people are racists. Period.”

Levy read Paul Goodman and C. Wright Mills and went to lectures by Negro radicals. He listened to WBAI, the audience-supported radio station, and when its license was in jeopardy, he wrote a letter to the FCC. The license was renewed, and Levy was encouraged to write to President Johnson and the New York senators—“all those irrelevant people”—on weightier matters. But now the letters did not do much good. The first “really activist thing” he did was join a welfare workers’ picket line in 1965 in New York. “I was uncomfortable as hell,” he remembered. “It was freezing and raining and a terrible day. But most of it was just the fear of having my friends see me.”

AT ABOUT THAT TIME, Levy’s marriage began to disintegrate. He had married right after medical school, before his ideas of himself and his world began to change. “I said screw all the materialism; I don’t want to be poor, but I’m not interested in the money part.” Like many of his contemporaries whom he had never met and who were also changing, Levy began to believe that he might spend a part of his life in jail. There was nothing romantic about it. “Individual martyrdom is irrelevant in this society,” he thought, “but sometimes you get yourself into situations. At Bellevue I saw people lined up in the morning defecating without even screens between them. That’s just degrading. The aim is degradation. I feel more strongly about that than about Vietnam.”

In medical school, Levy had signed up with the Army’s Berry Plan, which allows doctors to finish their training before accepting the inevitable draft call. There is no “selective” service for doctors; it is an across-the-board sweep, with no deferments for family status, few for physical impairments, and eligibility until the age of thirty-six. Levy was to report to the Army in July, 1965. Because of the crush of new commissions at the end of the academic year, there was no room for him in the orientation course given most Army doctors at Fort Sam Houston, Tex. He was expected at Fort Jackson, and for weeks before-hand he was anxious and depressed. He drank a lot and came home sick. His marriage was about over, and it was hard for him to separate the two traumas of change.

It wasn’t the regimentation of the Army that bothered me,” Levy said, “although I didn’t like it. It was Vietnam; it bothered me a lot then, and it bothers me a lot more now.” He was two days late for duty at Fort Jackson (car trouble). He checked into the B.O.Q. the first night, discovered there was no hot water in the shower, and moved to an off-post apartment the next day. The second rebellion came soon afterward when he found a twelve-dollar bill for officers’ club dues on his desk. He never paid it—or the bills which followed. He was not terribly popular with his superiors.

FORT JACKSON is a basic-training center with a large transient population and not much connection with the neighboring city of Columbia. “Fort Jackson is barren of intellect, barren of life: the people aren’t really alive in any sense of the term,” Levy said. He felt isolated. One Saturday morning in a Columbia coffee shop he noticed an item in the paper about a Negro voter registration drive in a town called Newberry, S.C. Levy had no idea where it was. But he quickly paid his check and started out to find the action. Somehow, he made his way to the county courthouse, where a demonstration was in progress. He found the local organizer, a young white Army veteran named Bill Treanor, and volunteered his services.

It was very simple then, very romantic. The next afternoon we registered an old man in his nineties,” Levy recalled. “He was all bent over, a sharecropper all his life, and he was so proud with his yellow registration slip. It made us feel so good. I don’t think I’d feel the same way today.”

Levy went to Newberry every weekend that summer, and in the fall joined in civil rights work in Columbia. Later, he staged a fund-raising rhythm-and-blues show (“it was monumentally unsuccessful financially but extremely successful artistically”), and last year began to publish an eight-page biweekly newspaper for the movement called Contrast. But civil rights organizing is not a usual pastime for a white Army officer in South Carolina, and Levy soon piqued the interest of the Counter-Intelligence Corps. Investigators got to him shortly after the summer project was over and questioned him closely about his politics, his reading matter, and his organizational affiliations. They were worried about the sponsorship of the Negro radicals’ lectures (Trotskyist), and were not calmed by Levy’s assurances that he only went to listen. They asked him to take a lie-detector test, and he refused. Finally, they asked whether he would follow an order of a superior officer under any circumstances, and Levy said, of course he would not.

All along, there had been minor run-ins with authority. Levy never could manage to wear his uniform correctly, nor keep his shoes shined, nor remember to have his hair cut. His manner is abrupt and defensive at times, but he can easily be warm and eager with those for whom he feels some companionship. More than anything, he is Brooklynesque, with none of the assimilated “shoe-ness” of the med-student style. That suits Levy and his friends, but it is not always successful with the types at Fort Jackson. One day he had an argument with an M.P. officer: something about a parking ticket. “I was short with him,” Levy admitted. In his report, the M.P. gave more details:

When told to come to attention and salute, subject smirked, came to attention on one leg and half heartedly put his hand near his head with his fingers in a crumpled position, then threw his hand in the direction of the wall. His left hand remained in his pocket. Throughout the conversation, CAPT. LEVY was insubordinate by facial expression, body movement and vocal inflection. Subject needed a haircut and his branch and US insignia were in reverse manner.

II. Colonel Fancy

On post, Levy spent his time running a small dermatology clinic for soldiers (V.D.), dependents (acne), and retired personnel (psoriasis). He was well thought of professionally. Col. Chester H. Davis, the hospital’s executive officer, had no complaints about the way Levy treated him for a dry spot on the buttocks (“Don’t wash so much”). Then Fort Jackson initiated a training program for Special Forces medical aidmen—the part-combat, part-medic complement of the Green Berets—and Levy was assigned to give each of them five days of instruction in dermatology.

He trained them for three or four months—“with some reservations”—and found them the most interesting people on the base. There was a striking similarity between the backgrounds of the Green Berets and white civil rights workers: the alienation from middle-class families, the feeling of being trapped by the society, the urge to have some effect of one’s own.

I talked to them about the war and about themselves, but after a while I realized that it wasn’t doing any good. For a time, I pulled the kind of crap that some of the other doctors did—they just let the aidmen hang around and never really trained them. Then, last June, I just kicked them out.

It wasn’t intellectualized in the beginning, but I had two reasons. First, I don’t think you can possibly train guys for five days in dermatology to a point where they’ll do more good than harm. And second, I don’t think medicine should be used for political purposes. You can’t separate it from the war. It’s part and parcel of the same thing.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print