Anti-war activists have always pondered the irony of boxing champion Muhammad Ali having claimed conscientious objector status when he was drafted for the Vietnam War.
As one of the world's best and most highly paid-fighters, it was boldly hypocritical for Ali to simultaneously declare qualms of conscience about the government's brand of sanctioned, bloody violence but not about his personally favourite sort. The irony was not lost on Ali's draft board, which rejected his CO claim and confronted him with up to five years in prison.
But in an action even more counter-intuitive than Ali's refusal, George W Bush last November awarded him the highest civilian honour the government has to offer. Capitalising on the public's selective memory, Bush's presentation speech mentioned only Ali's boxing record. “All who receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom can know that they have a special place in the life of our country and have earned the respect and affection of the American people,” Bush said.
On the contrary, in 1967 Ali was denounced and ridiculed by war enthusiasts and sports writers everywhere. Red Smith, rudely using the name Ali changed, wrote, “Cassius makes himself as sorry a spectacle as those unwashed punks who picket and demonstrate against the war.” The senate of his home state proclaimed that he had brought “discredit to all loyal Kentuckians and to the names of the thousands who gave their lives for this country during his lifetime”.
Nothing to lose
That year, as the war was raging, Ali became the first US superstar to speak out against it. He refused induction on the grounds that his religion did not permit him to participate. He was, in fact, a practising Muslim minister. At the time, Ali uttered famous quips like, “I ain't got a quarrel with them Vietcong.”
In the face of relentless condemnation, Ali deepened his study of the war, and his refusal became sophisticated and comprehensive. Unlike Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz and other administration Chicken Hawks who hid behind deferments or cosy stateside guard units, Ali rejected safe alternatives like the Reserves, the National Guard or an offer to perform exhibition boxing matches for the troops.
”I have nothing to lose by standing up and following my beliefs. We've been in jail for 400 years,” he said.
Ali was stripped of his championship title, his passport was taken, and all his state boxing licences were cancelled. But after a three-year legal battle, he won a Supreme Court reversal of his conviction, sparing him a prison term.
Racism at home and abroad
Bush would like us all to forget the relevance of Ali's politics to the US president's unprovoked military aggression against Afghanistan and Iraq. Ali's rhetorical question about war, posed to Sports Illustrated, could be asked of today's GIs: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs?”