Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Other Academy Boy

Brother Jeff Sharlet went to a small country-day school called The Albany Academy. A very old institution with some historically distinguished grads – Melville the novelist, Henry the scientist, Learned Hand the jurist – the Academy was a very conservative place, conservative in the older sense that favored tradition and regarded askance any but minimally incremental change. I preceded Jeff in the Class of ’53, he was the Class of ’60, both of us under the reign of the long serving headmaster, Harry E.P. Meislahn, a man of a certain age and considerable size, a crusty Princetonian with much gravitas who at weekly chapel read the Old Testament from a massive podium resembling the prow of a great whaling ship.

I’ve always marveled how Jeff found his way to a radical view of society from such infertile soil. The Academy after all was a military school. We wore uniforms, drilled daily, and marched as a battalion in the annual national day parades through downtown Albany, the capital of New York. Though we were seven years apart in age, neither Jeff nor I grew up in a home where the subject of politics was the order of the day. I was standard issue from the ‘50s, the Eisenhower era, serving in the Cold War amidst the prevailing consensus of the times – we were the good guys up against the wicked Soviets and their minions.

Jeff came out of the same environment, but just a few years after the long gray line of the Academy he found himself in Vietnam, a very different war from whence he developed a critical stance on the world around him. His name is recorded on a plaque at the Academy listing cadets who served, and in some cases, died in Vietnam. While Jeff finished his tour as an NCO, many though not all the boys on the wall with him, served as officers, having gone through college ROTC programs. A few of them made a career of it, a pilot here and an infantry officer there, but most returned intact, unmarked by war in mind or body, and took their places at the bar, in the medical ranks, in the professional world of their fathers.

Jeff of course eschewed that route and went on to become a leader of the GI antiwar movement. For a long time I thought of him as singular among the Academy ex-Vietnam GIs, the only one who broke ranks with the US mission in Southeast Asia and came back irreversibly changed. That was until I learned about a fellow cadet, Gordon Livingston of the Class of ’56. Neither Jeff nor I knew him personally, although Gordon may have known of me since I cut a figure on the football field. In his senior year when he served as second in command to the battalion major, Gordon was unlikely to have been aware of Jeff, just another III Former or 9th grader in public school parlance.

Gordon Livingston, AA ’56 and (see arrow) Cadet Captain Livingston on parade, spring ‘56
However, Gordon went on more than a decade later to make one of the most unique statements against the Vietnam War. At the Academy he’d been a model cadet, cum laude honors, Varsity soccer, captain of hockey, editor of the school paper, and of course Executive Captain. He would have been a logical candidate for the Ivies where Headmaster Meislahn sent many of his boys year after year, but Gordon’s father had other plans for him. His father, a WWII veteran and well-connected politically, arranged an appointment for his son to West Point when he was still a youngster. Although Gordon would have preferred a life of the mind, he followed the course set for him by his father and went to the Point. He took to the military life, deciding to make a career of it until the day in Vietnam when he took a dramatic stance against the war.

Gordon Livingston’s protest against the Vietnam War was rare, highly unusual, and, as an act of conscience, took uncommon moral courage. His was an extraordinary moment of protest, a selfless action little known in the history of the Vietnam antiwar movement. As Gordon later recounted in an article in a national magazine, long since forgotten, he dramatically proclaimed his opposition to the war on Easter Sunday ‘69 at a remote US combat base in South Vietnam.

I say Gordon’s was a rare action because I know of no other instance of a senior officer serving in the combat zone taking such a step. I refer to his protest as highly unusual since it occurred in the presence of the commanding general of all US forces in Vietnam, to whom Major Livingston personally handed a copy of his incredibly irreverent antiwar statement. Finally, I add that Gordon Livingston’s act of conscience called for uncommon moral courage because he was well aware he faced the likelihood of a court-martial and the end of his military career.

Gordon Livingston was no ordinary soldier. He was a West Point officer, an airborne ranger who had commanded a company of the 82nd Airborne, a qualified pilot, and a Regimental Surgeon decorated for valor in battle who, before deploying in November ’68, had taken the trouble to study the Vietnamese language, culture, and history. Nor did he join just any line unit. He became Regimental Surgeon to the 11th Armored Cavalry Brigade, nicknamed the ‘Blackhorse’, a crack, aggressive 5,000-man outfit commanded by Colonel George Patton, Jr., scion of WWII Patton.
Shoulder patch, 11th Armored Cavalry (the 'Blackhorse')

Livingston went to Vietnam believing in the war and was a good soldier in every respect, but his doubts and disillusionment with the US mission gradually grew, fed by seemingly isolated incidents – Patton’s cynical remark at a briefing that 90% killing with 10% hearts & minds was about right; a hot-dogging chopper pilot showing no remorse after recklessly killing a Vietnamese girl who just wanted Doc Livingston to clear him to fly again; as well as the harsh treatment of Vietnamese civilians and wanton destruction of their property Major Livingston witnessed as he flew around the country visiting various bases.

Before writing his ‘Blackhorse Prayer’, a perfect parody with provocative lines like “Give us this day … napalm that will burn for a week. Help us to bring death and destruction wherever we go …,” Major Livingston was well aware of the case of Dr. Howard Levy, an Army doctor who, refusing to train Green Berets, was convicted by court-martial and served three years in federal prison. Undeterred, Major Livingston sprang his surprise at Colonel Patton’s change of command ceremony attended by General Creighton Abrams and a bevy of flag officers. The military’s reaction was predictable – the dissident Regimental Surgeon was arrested and bound over for court-martial.

Fortunately, the Army thought better about making a martyr of a West Pointer, a physician and an officer who had witnessed his unit’s atrocities, and permitted Livingston to resign. Returning to Johns Hopkins, his medical school, the erstwhile military doctor trained as a psychiatrist and, while the war still raged, appeared as an expert witness to war time atrocities at civilian antiwar events. However, in spite of his spectacular act of protest at the heart of the military machine, to this day Gordon Livingston, the other Academy boy alongside Jeff, remains a relatively unsung alumnus of the GI antiwar movement.

4 comments:

  1. I was there that day in April and saw everything that happened. I sent the letter home to my mother and they went around the camp(Bien Hoa)and collecting the Blackhorse Prayer.It was not to get out to the Media.My Mother threw the letter away.

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