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So Long, Champ! We’re Going to Miss You!

All of a sudden, it’s chic to have been a war resister during the decades of US aggression against the tiny (militarily) nation of Vietnam during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Forget all of the hateful speech against draft resisters and deserters and those who went AWOL and those who went to prison and gave up years of their lives and careers and all the so-called cowards in general. Forget the stinking, rotten so-called amnesty during the Ford administration and poorly promoted amnesty during the Carter administration and the tens of thousands who never received any amnesty at all, while the criminal Nixon got his free pass on the Monopoly board of life with a full and free and clear pardon with a great pension thrown in. With the death of Muhammad Ali, a boxing great, humanitarian, and antiwar legend, it seems to be all the rage to have been antiwar… indeed a principled stand if one were to do a casual perusal of the US media. How did this reversal of fortune take place?

From the New York Times (Muhammad Ali Evolved From a Blockbuster Fighter to a Country’s Conscience,” June 4, 2016):

Nonetheless, Ali’s embrace of the pro-black, anti-integration Nation of Islam alarmed the country. Almost overnight, a cocky young fighter became a scary black man. In 1967, he claimed conscientious-objector status and refused the Army induction to fight in Vietnam, saying to the press: “I ain’t got no trouble with them Vietcong. It ain’t right. They never called me ‘nigger.’ ” His defiance brought out competing paradoxes: Until America reconciled its war with itself, how could it ask a citizen to fight somewhere else?

He was fined $10,000, sentenced to five years in prison, stripped of his boxing title and forced to wait three and a half years for the Supreme Court to overturn his conviction. He lost prime fighting years and gained honor. The roaring monster in Leifer’s photo now appeared on the cover of Esquire, in his boxing trunks, his bare chest shot with arrows just like poor, martyred St. Sebastian. Another astonishing transformation: The scary black man had become a national folk hero.

So, then, if we who were resisters, both of the draft and the military kind are to believe the decades that followed of sanitizing this vicious aggression against the Vietnamese people, and the Cambodian people, and the Laotian people, we really never had anything to worry about in terms of how the history of that era would be written. And in any case, it now seems that we were right all along and it’s just that nobody told us. But then came the election of Ronald Reagan, “The Great Communicator,” and he told all of the world that “Theirs was a noble cause,” referring to those who took up the cause of  war in Southeast Asia that resulted in the deaths of millions of people there and over 58,000 Americans. How many thousands of veterans were left with inadequate care or became homeless?

And since we’re always right as a nation, it’s not a big issue that President Obama’s recent trip to Vietnam was all about the US getting a better trade deal with that nation, while the work of attempting to bring some sort of relief to Vietnam (there would never be a Marshall Plan there) would mainly come from the efforts by groups like Veterans for Peace, which has had an ongoing program to help with the effects of Agent Orange sprayed by the US on the people of Vietnam.

Prominent draft resisters turned super patriots are now coming out in support of the bonafide war resister, Ali. It appears that former President Bill Clinton, a draft resister if there ever was one, will eulogize Ali this coming Friday in Louisville, Kentucky, Ali’s hometown. Hopefully, the egregious Clinton sponsored bombing campaign of the 1990s in Kosovo won’t come up, or his administration’s sanctions against Iraq, or Clinton’s championing of laws that have incarcerated thousands and thousands of African- American men and women and removed massive numbers of people from welfare rolls in an economy with few jobs for those harmed by decades of poverty.

Hopefully, Clinton’s appearance is not a cynical attempt to push the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, a person whose actions are so diametrically opposed to Muhammad Ali’s principled stands against racism and war that the two individuals may just as well have occupied different planets because there is so little with which to compare them. What could be more removed from Ali’s heroic position and actions about war than Clinton’s bellicose actions regarding Iraq and Libya?

Rest in peace, champ! You were right all along, perhaps a hero (I think so), even when being right brought the wrath of a sizable part of this nation down on you. There are those in power and many, many others who don’t know that sometimes a boxer has to fight through all the rounds of a match just to show them who’s right by the simple fact that he’s still standing at the end of it all.

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Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).

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