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…

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