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The Trial of Captain Levy: II

On a bright day in early November, I returned to Fort Jackson, S. C., for a visit with Capt. Howard Levy, who was then still detained in the prison ward of the hospital in which he had served as an Army doctor for almost two years. He had been a prisoner since June 3, when a court-martial sentenced him to three years “at hard labor” for refusing to train Special Forces medical aidmen, and for inspiring “disaffection” among enlisted men. That day, he was led in handcuffs from the small Post courtroom and put in the stockade; he was transferred to the detention ward the next day when the Army realized that Levy in irons did more damage to its image than Levy in comfort would do to its security. Since then a series of somewhat frenetic legal maneuvers to free him on bail—or failing that, to keep him at Fort Jackson—had ended in failure, and Levy and his lawyers supposed that he would soon be removed to the US Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for the remaining thirty months of his sentence. So it was, probably, a last visit for the duration of his term; at Leavenworth, Levy would be allowed to see only his lawyers and a short list of relatives and intimate friends.

In May, I had arrived at the Columbia, S.C., airport on a midnight flight with a cadre of lawyers, legal PR men, and reporters. We swarmed into town in a fleet of rent-a-cars and camped out with the rest of the Levy entourage at a huge motel built in the Waikiki-Antebellum style. For two weeks the trial unfolded as a kind of morality pageant with a Brechtian mise-en-scène: circus clowning, flowing booze, running gags, shackings-up, and puttings-down. We moved through the town and the base like actors in street theater, using the surroundings as props, alienating the audience, and playing only to ourselves. Through it all, the moral—the commitment of a man, the confusion of a generation, the agony of the times—bounced and bumped against the surface action, until at the end it emerged almost too clearly by comparison.

In November, there was no theater in the streets of Columbia, no way of shutting out the depressing surroundings. Objectively, the town was in all ways unchanged, give or take a new A & W Root Beer stand or a McDonald’s Golden Arches. But for us (I was with another journalist and an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer) it was all different. Columbia was no longer a prop, but a completed universe; it shut us out, isolated us, made our visit a marginal event, while the first time it had seemed central. It was like walking through an Alabama county the day after a civil rights march passed by, or visiting a college campus in the summer after one’s own graduation.

THAT SENSE OF ISOLATION, or something close to it, was with Howard Levy at Fort Jackson in the years before the pageant arrived, and it reclaimed him—despite his efforts—when everyone left. Levy could have visitors without limit, and a few came or phoned (he had an incoming line) almost every day. But it was of course a life apart that he was forced to live, and the personal relations he built from his cell were necessarily partial. To the local radicals and political activists, he was the guru; for the scattered GI’s at the Post who dared make or continue friendships with him, Levy was a moral (emotional?) inspiration. He would hardly admit the existence of his former colleagues. Dr. Ivan Mauer, who admired but could not emulate Levy’s defiance, came often to the prison ward. At first, Levy filled each visit with brutal assaults on Mauer’s caution and failure to share his protest. Then anger cooled to contempt, and Levy simply ignored the other doctor. Mauer would come and read a newspaper and slip out without a word of conversation; his wife brought gifts of food, which failed to appeal to Levy’s appetite.

Col. Henry Fancy, the commander of the hospital, who brought the original charges against Levy, wandered in during the first few weeks of his confinement. “You should get something light to read to take your mind off your troubles,” he advised Levy. During the Arab-Israeli war, Colonel Fancy sought Levy’s political interpretation; the Colonel always made good use of his officers’ talents. Col. Chester Davis, the hospital executive officer, who manacled Levy that day in the courtroom and hustled him to the stockade, came later to make his courtesy call, but Levy would not see him. No doubt the Post officers were put off by Levy’s uncompromising attitude; but then they could never comprehend his refusal of complicity in the system which he loathed and they accepted. For that matter, neither could many of his friends. One sympathetic journalist reported Levy’s behavior each day of the trial as a case study in manic-depressive syndrome. Even Levy’s father, somewhat less clinically, whispered once in an aside, “Why couldn’t he have held out just a few more months?”

I HAD HEARD the stories of Levy’s first months in prison, and I approached the hospital that morning with some apprenhension, and a feeling—as we walked the long wooden corridors toward the ward—almost of regret that I had come. Some of that ambivalence, which the three of us felt, was a version of the familiar personal dread and self-consciousness which people have when they visit a dying relative or a hopeless cripple. But now there was a threat of a different quality: an impending judgment, even if it were never articulated, of the existential failure: Mauer-ism. The corridors were impossibly long, or so they seemed to be, and branches led off in all directions without sign or explanation. We kept losing our way in the maze and had to ask for help several times. The last person we found—a serious and respectful young GI—set us pointing right, and, as we began walking, he added, not really as an afterthought, “Good luck!”

The day with Levy was not nearly so awkward as I had feared. He was the only prisoner in the ward, which was filled with unused, stacked-up hospital beds, and guarded—not very convincingly—by two MP’s. (One evening, Levy told us, he had found the outside guard asleep, and saw that he could easily unlatch the screen door to the ward and leave the grounds. “I toyed with the idea of going into Columbia for the night, and then reappearing the next morning, just to embarrass them,” he laughed. “But I went back to bed instead.”) Levy had not yet been stripped of his rank, and the guards were dutifully deferential to a member of the officer class. They all watched television together. Levy’s own “cell” was a narrow screened-off room; there were political posters on the wall and an array of books and magazines in a large shelf: “Skin,” Styron, the Monthly Review.

The weather was fine and warm, and we sat all afternoon in a screened porch. For a long time, we talked about the war, the strategy of protest, and the condition of the Peace Movement. Two shy black girls came to visit, and then, at the end of the day, four white students from the University of South Carolina. The students had been to the Pentagon on October 21—some had been arrested—and they were planning further political action at home. Levy suggested that they begin with moderate programs to attract middle-class support, but he told them sternly that if they were going to pass out leaflets or hold peace vigils in the adult community they would have to modify their hippy appearance. They seemed unconvinced by the tactical advice, but obviously awed by Levy himself. “I know I’m hard on them,” Levy said later. “They’re good kids. But I don’t have much time, and I’ve got to use the position I’ve got with them.”

From the prison ward, Levy was conducting an impressive organizing effort in Columbia. He had used the authenticity of his condition to set up anti-war groups at the University and in the community—a large delegation had gone to the Pentagon—and he was “working” on a slum organizing project in a section of town called Black Bottom. There was already an embryonic resistance movement on the Post which drew both inspiration and leadership from Levy. He hoped, most of all, to reactivate a civil rights newspaper called Contrast, which he had put out himself in 1966 (it was his civil rights work which had aroused the suspicions of Army Intelligence, and had convinced Colonel Fancy that Levy was a “Communist”).

As we were going, Levy began to talk about his expectations of Leavenworth. He had thought about “non-cooperation,” but he was not sure what that meant for him, or how he would react to actual conditions. But he knew he could not play the Army’s game. “The whole point, of course, is castration—to rob soldiers and prisoners of their manhood and their identity, their pride,” he said. “Sex deprivation in prison is the most blatant tactic for that,” he added, “and if they can take away your manhood, they can do anything with you they want.”

I left the hospital quite unsure of what I felt about Levy and the meaning of his trials—the one in May and the others since and to come—and about myself, as a journalist who wrote about it, a friend (although distant), and a minor political actor. Levy of course was a star; supporting players must always be blinded by the glare.

We flew North by way of Atlanta. On the short leg of the trip from Columbia, we sat with a Navy pilot who had been stationed on the carrier Kearsarge in Asian waters, and was on his way back to Vietnam after a brief time at home. He kept kneading his flat-top hat as if it were a soft cap, and it was wet in his hands. From time to time, he would jump up from his seat and roam the aisle of the plane. Soon he began talking with the other writer in our group, who was sitting next to him. He had no idea of who she was, or who we were, or where we had been that day. He talked about the war, and there must have been a slight suggestion in the conversation that we were politically interested. “I suppose you and your friends are against the war,” he said to the other writer. “We are,” she answered. “How would you feel if you were out there risking your life, and your buddies were getting killed, and the people back home didn’t support you?” he asked. “That’s why we’re against the war” she said. They talked a little while longer, and he said that he had been to William and Mary, he was a Catholic, his father was a Foreign Service officer, and he was in the States to visit his wife. And then he said what was obvious from the very beginning, although none of us wanted to hear it. “You know,” he said, “I’m terribly afraid.” He got off before us, but we caught sight of him again briefly in the Atlanta terminal, boarding another plane, and we waved goodbye with a slight gesture that I do not think he saw.

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