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.
A LIGHT PLANE came for Levy one day just before Christmas, and took him to Leavenworth. On the day of his departure, several of his friends or supporters at Fort Jackson—no one knows how many, but some say hundreds—planned to “see him off.” But the Post commanders confined them all to their barracks or work stations, and Levy’s send-off party consisted only of officials. There was a good deal of banter all around, and Levy was characteristically sarcastic and funny. The last and best line was the Provost-Marshal’s, who admitted that he disagreed with everything Levy said, but would defend to the death his right to say it.
Unfortunately, the Provost-Marshal’s premise is not shared by the boards and courts of justice which have reviewed the case so far. Levy’s lawyers argue that he had a Constitutional right to speak against the war, inside the Army as well as out, and that his refusal to train aidmen for Vietnam service was protected by rights of conscience and medical ethics. The appeal process is complex and, at least on the lower levels, almost hopeless, Neither military boards nor federal civilian courts are likely to overturn decisions of military justice in time of war. An injunction to stop the court-martial before it began was denied in successive civilian courts. The appeal for bail was refused through the military and civilian process, and the Supreme Court has denied a hearing on the issue. On the substance of the charges themselves, appeals for dismissal or reduction of the sentence have been turned down by a variety of officials, and they are now under consideration by the Military Board of Review. After that, the case can go to the Court of Military Appeals, and then to the civilian courts, on the lowest level. Most, if not all, of Levy’s sentence will probably have been served by the time the final appeal is heard. Possibly, Levy can get six months off his term as “good time,” but that is a discretionary matter and it is difficult to predict the manner in which discretion in the Army will be exercised.
Levy shares quarters at Leavenworth with a half dozen other officers—a forger, a black marketeer, but no other frankly political criminals. Watching television coverage of the Têt offensive, Levy seemed rather pleased by the success of the guerrillas, and two of his cellmates threatened his life. Levy remains unconcerned, although he is a bit apprehensive at the prospect of his next cellmate—a Green Beret officer convicted of murdering a Vietnamese civilian. Levy never had many kind words for the Green Berets (although the accuracy of one of his indictable statements—that Special Forces men were “murderers”—is now proved). He has applied for work as a physician at the prison, but action has not yet been taken on his request. Other prisoners with special qualifications are usually allowed to use them. As an alternative, Levy volunteered to teach American history at the prison school; that seemed acceptable, the Director of Custody said, if Levy would teach “facts, not his opinions.” “Fine,” Levy agreed.
A VISITOR who saw Levy shortly after his arrival reported that he had found the first week severely dislocating; the “depersonalization” which he had expected was still shocking when it began. Levy’s hair was cut, he had his regular clothes exchanged for a prison uniform, and the privileges of reading, seeing outsiders, and writing letters were drastically cut. Prisoners at Leavenworth are allowed five correspondents, who are also the only five permitted visitors. Four of those on Levy’s list live on the East Coast, and are effectively out of visiting range. Letters to him seem to be passed or returned on an arbitrary basis; letters from close friends have been sent back, but a large quantity of hate-mail gets through. He was told at first that he could receive a certain number of publications, but when he specified his choices, the officials said that some were not on the “approved” list. Ramparts and the New Republic were banned; The New York Times and NYR were allowed.
One prison psychiatrist, a young doctor serving his two years in the Army, offered Levy work in his mental health department and, incidentally, a chance to read his own subscription copy to Ramparts. Levy was unmoved by the offer. The psychiatrist, he thought, put on liberal airs while functioning as a crucial part of the system of authority. Psychiatrists sit on disciplinary and review boards, and in the name of therapy act as part of the judicial and controlling process. For the psychiatrist as well as the commandant, the chief virtue of a prisoner is his capacity for “adjustment.” Both their jobs are to induce docility. When Levy objected to that use of medicine, another psychiatrist promptly diagnosed him as pathologically hostile, passive-aggressive, and paranoid. “He thinks I’m paranoid,” Levy wrote in a letter, “because I call him the enemy.” The inimical quality is Mauer-ism, and Levy has the radical perception—or ill-luck—to see it in all its incarnations.
Levy’s only major confrontation with the prison authorities occurred during the initial depersonalization period, when an MP guard entered his room at midnight and turned on the light. Levy wanted it off, and said that prison rules gave him the right to the luxury of darkness. The guard remained steadfast; Levy called him a “neo-fascist.” Levy was reprimanded, but when the guard repeated the light-torture, Levy repeated his accusation. This time, the commandant found him guilty of disobedience and sentenced him to two weeks in solitary confinement on “bread and water.” Then the sentence was suspended.
There is a certain amount of freedom within the prison, and Levy spends his days talking with enlisted men. The Fort Hood Three are at Leavenworth, and in all, Levy says, there are about forty “political prisoners,” although the Army classifies most of them as AWOL’s or puts them in other non-political categories. In a way, Levy now sees his role as an organizer, and he has told his few visitors that he thinks “inside” political organizing in the Army can be effective.
“Outside,” the effect of Levy and his trial on particular political developments is difficult to assess. At Fort Jackson, a nucleus of Levy’s friends began open anti-war activity in January, and in a month’s time they were strong enough to move from town onto the base for a protest “meditation” service at the chapel. About thirty soldiers appeared, but before it began, Col. Chester Davis called in one of the leaders and ordered him to cancel the meeting, or “you will end up in prison like Dr. Levy.” The soldier reluctantly obeyed (for his troubles, he has been denied a minor promotion), but two others who came refused to leave the chapel grounds and fell to their knees in “prayer.” MP’s dragged them off, and Colonel Fancy brought charges. Charles Morgan, Levy’s flamboyant ACLU lawyer, took their case, and the sky at Fort Jackson grew dark with chickens coming home to roost. Signs went up on bulletin boards: “Morgan’s Back.” Finally, Colonel Fancy dropped the charges. Attempts at more “pray-ins” have been made, but the authorities have managed to break them up. They have also been able to frighten away some original supporters, but the protest effort seems to be growing. “Levy is spiritually responsible for it all,” a political activist in Columbia reported recently. “He singlehandedly turned on the half-dozen people who started it all down there. It’s the best example of direct personal organizing I’ve ever seen.”
Away from the Post, the activities which Levy generated or encouraged continue in a less dramatic way. A nucleus of activists was created during and after the trial, and separately if not together they will go on working. Around the country, the pray-in “movement” spawned at Fort Jackson is spreading to other military camps; there was a similar demonstration last month in Fort Ord, Calif. There are also a few more cases of individual resistance like Levy’s. Air Force Capt. Dale Noyd has just been sentenced to a year in prison at Clovis Air Force Base, N. M., for refusing to train airmen for Vietnam. A private at Fort Dix, N. J., applied for conscientious objector status and, when it was denied, refused to wear his uniform. He has been sentenced to a year at Leavenworth. A lieutenant at Shaw Air Force Base, S. C., refused to assist in training for the war and has also been convicted and sentenced. Perhaps a dozen other cases of overt resistance have been tried in the past eight months.
I THOUGHT at the time of the trial, and see more clearly now, that Levy was as much a metaphor for a generation as a political leader. He “turns people on” not by the force of his arguments (which have grown more sophisticated with his prison reading and reflecting) but by the power of his example. Everyone who was at the trial was touched in some way; many came to see that their perceptions of their lives were profoundly changed. Of course that happened in the context of the war and a society in crisis, but Levy supplied the live model. An Army doctor who testified in the trial found himself increasingly bound up with Levy and has become a working political activist. A lawyer who helped with the defense realized in the months after the trial that his own association with liberal causes and action never extended to the roots of his existence, and he is undergoing a painful, and probably unresolvable, reevaluation of his life. Capt. Richard Shusterman, the cool young prosecutor who did more than his duty in arguing against Levy (he added two charges to the case), has recently ended his Army Service; together with his assistant at the trial, he is reported to be “pretty much against the war.” Shusterman has joined a Philadelphia law firm. His former assistant is now an anti-poverty lawyer in Florida. Neither has yet had public second thoughts about Levy. Col. Earl V. Brown, the law officer (“judge”) at the trial, suffered a mild change of heart. He has left the Army to become assistant dean of the Columbia University law school; in February, he signed an advertisement published in the Times calling for an end to the war. “We believe that the terrible violence the war is inflicting on the people of Vietnam is destroying the society we seek to protect…. We believe that the US cannot by acceptable means succeed in its attempt to secure and maintain control of the Saigon government.” the ad said. In May, Colonel Brown had denied the existence of any “pattern or practice” in the US conduct of the war which was unacceptable to generally held moral standards.
Levy’s example extends to medical students (who are being organized in one of the most energetic radical movements in the country) and doctors (several—led by Dr. Spock—visited him in Fort Jackson in November) and others across the spectrum of political action. But most of all, it has an impact on those who are most like him in age and class and social role—the “generation of the Fifties” that exists in confused transition between the security of liberal careerism and the support of the radical movements. Burt Austen, a biomedical engineering researcher at Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn (where Levy was trained), lived on that margin, and what has happened to him in the last half-year seems to represent the experience of others.
“Last summer, an ACLU man spoke at Downstate about the Levy case, and I became quite interested,” Austen told me not long ago. “I talked with him for two hours or so after the meeting, and before long I was volunteering for work on the ‘Committee for Howard Levy, M.D.’ * We had a demonstration in Times Square on Hiroshima Day, and in November we went to Fort Jackson. I more or less organized it. It was really the first time I had done anything like that—for years my wife and I looked at TV and she said we shouldn’t pay our taxes, but I just scoffed at her. What happens can be very strange. When we went down to visit Howard, he told us not to waste our time on him, but to do more. Do more. He even told Spock he wasn’t doing enough. I think it made me do more, sort of reflect on what I had done up to that point.
“Most people take the attitude, ‘it can’t happen to me.’ When I met Howard I realized I knew so many people like that in Brooklyn where I grew up. I realized that it didn’t take much to be there; I mean circumstances could have placed any one of us in that stockade. The more each person does, the more he can’t stop, the more he has to see it through to the end. I ran a press conference for the doctors at Fort Jackson; I never thought I could do it, but then when I did it, I said, well, I can do it again. I felt in thirty-six years I had not really matured, and then in six months I came of age. I can’t really look at things the way I used to. Sometimes a person comes in via the back door and before he knows it he finds himself organizing without really knowing what happened to him. You see, the more you do the more you have to do.”
April 11, 1968