I want to pay tribute to someone I consider a personal hero: Mohammed Ali. Ali passed away over the weekend at the age of 74, which makes him a few years older than I am. All of the TV network various print media are doing tributes to Ali mainly focusing on his accomplishments as an athlete and as a humanitarian efforts after he retired from boxing. Ali was my hero long before he became a real legend in boxing or a great humanitarian. The reason Ali is my hero is because he did something that I thought I might have to do way back in 1968: Ali refused induction into the military because he was opposed to the war in Vietnam.
I also was opposed to that war. In fact, I am opposed to all wars on principle. The only war that I feel was justified at all was World War II. Every war the United States has been involved in since World War II has been over last van honorable reasons. Every war this country has been involved in in the last 60 years or so has raised some serious ethical questions about US intentions around the world.
Early in 1968 I was suspended from Carnegie-Ballin University or academic reasons. That cost me my student deferment from the military draft. For those of you too young to remember, in the latter half of the 20th century the United States instituted a compulsory draft for men of a specific age, usually 18 to 35. The draft really became an issue during the Vietnam war. [I use the title war even though there never was a formal declaration of war by the United States against either the Vietcong or North Vietnam. However media consistently referred to it as the Vietnam war, so I will do the same.] My draft status in 1968 went from 2-S (student deferment) to 2-A (eligible for the draft). In the spring of 1968 I was required to go to downtown Philadelphia and take the pre-induction physical which, unfortunately, I passed. I was now prime target to become cannon fodder in Vietnam.
I realized I basically had two options: either lead to Canada like so many draft resisters did, or go to jail. Joining the military was not an option for me. I had already been refused conscientious objector status because I did not long to one of the few religious groups that the US government recognized as official conscientious objectors. The government does not make allowances for secular conscience. I left southeastern Pennsylvania in the summer of 68 and slowly drifted west and north, trying to make up my mind as to what I was going to do to avoid military service.
I basically went underground. Very few people that I met once I started drifting knew my real name or even why I was wandering around the country like a lost soul. By the time I got to Chicago, Congress had passed the draft lottery law. Every birthday was assigned a lottery number and those lottery numbers were drawn randomly or as long as they needed to fulfill the military quota. Both my brother and I got very high lottery numbers that year. By 1969 I was basically three of any obligation to provide military service and so could stop hiding, and I did not base the very difficult choice of either going to Canada or going to jail.
I know this probably sits unpleasantly for a lot of people. I know of at least one of my classmates from the class of 1966 who died as a result of their service in Vietnam. Contrary to some of the more radical anti-war protesters, I did not and to this day do not hold military service against any individual. I never resorted to calling people baby killers or anything like that. I believe in honoring those who did sacrifice life or limbs or eyes or whatever in service to this country, even when the service was a bit misguided by a foreign policy structure that is driven by greed and self-interest rather than any kind of moral foundation. I especially honor “the greatest generation”- those who served in World War II, like my father-in-law who was in the Army Air Force in the Pacific. His birthday was on Pearl Harbor day when he turned 18. He enlisted the day after his 18th birthday and served until the end of the war. Although my father-in-law and I did not agree on a lot of political issues, I did then and still do honor his military service because he really was part of the greatest generation this country has ever seen. We went to war in 1941 not for greed but to honestly save the world from evil. Unfortunately the politicians who run the world try to make it more about greed then morality. However, I believe those that enlisted did so out of a sense of moral responsibility to the world and to the human race. Something that seems to be lacking in this country be space.
So, to conclude, Ali is my hero because he was a man of conscience and a man of honor. He did what he felt was the right thing to do and the consequences be damned. It is an accepted fact that the time that Ali was suspended from boxing was the prime of his career and cost him millions and millions and millions of dollars. That did not matter to him. What mattered to him was that his conscience said this war was wrong and participating in it was wrong and he followed his conscience, something that, for better or worse, I have tried to do most of my adult life. Whether I’ve succeeded remains to be seen. Rest in peace Mohammed Ali.
Peace to you all!