When noteworthy people die, it is understandable that their passing will be greeted by a certain amount of accolades, while perhaps overlooking the less-flattering traits. That definitely has been true with “The Greatest.”
Since the death on June 3 of Muhammad Ali — for whom a public funeral service was held Friday — airwaves and newspaper pages worldwide have been filled with praise of his “accomplishments.”
But at the risk of offending the memory of the departed, I’ve come to the conclusion after weighing all the various remarks that it is difficult to separate the hype from the reality concerning Ali’s life.
When you boil everything that’s been said down to its lowest form of DNA, it seems that what Ali was most known for was taking on the U.S. government and for making a lot of wisecracks during his peak in the public eye as a prizefighter.
Ali’s accomplishments needn’t be downplayed, rising from a life of poverty in Louisville, Kentucky, to excel in the Olympics and then become heavyweight champion.
Yet it bothers me that the under-belly of this existence has not been highlighted enough in all the coverage surrounding his death.
For one thing, when the praisers proclaim how Ali “took on the U.S. government,” the part they are leaving out, plain and simple, is the fact that his fight with the government stemmed from him being a draft-dodger during the Vietnam War.
Ali’s refusal to serve coincided with his conversion to the Islamic faith in the mid-1960s — and a curious shift to pacifism by a person choosing to make his living by trying to beat out other people’s brains.
For the sake of argument, I will assume that Ali was adhering to the convictions of his Islamic religious philosophy (notwithstanding the actions of its radical elements in recent years), and simply wasn’t just afraid to fight.
The problem is, millions of other young men DID answer their country’s call to serve — and 58,000 didn’t make it back and get the chance to pursue their own careers, have families and maybe become famous.
Granted, the travesty and vast human waste of the Vietnam War have become increasingly apparent in the years since that conflict, thanks to 20-20 hindsight. There is no question it was a by-product of the military-industrial complex former President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about as he was leaving the White House.
However, no one knew all this at the time, and those serving in Muhammad Ali’s place did so in good faith. I would bet that had they been polled, most who went to Vietnam didn’t really want to kill anyone, either, or might have questioned the reason for going as highlighted by anti-war protests.
The point is, more than two million Americans DID serve.
Some notables were among them, including filmmaker Oliver Stone, who was wounded twice, and Colin Powell, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam and was injured by a booby trap during the second.
America’s presence in Vietnam was highly questionable, but no one debates the U.S. involvement in World War II. Had Muhammad Ali been of age during that era, would he have said he also didn’t want to go kill our enemies then as he claimed regarding the Viet Cong?
If everyone in our country had embraced that same philosophy during World War II, it’s safe to say we’d all be speaking German or Japanese today.
And look at the list of people who put lucrative careers on hold to fight in the second world war. It includes actors Clark Gable, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Mel Brooks, Charles Bronson (who was wounded and received a Purple Heart) and a legion of others.
The ranks of pro athletes did their part, also, including baseball players Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and many more. One of the most noteworthy was boxer Joe Louis, the legendary “Brown Bomber” who is considered by some to be the greatest heavyweight champion of all time.
Even Elvis Presley joined the military, and although he saw no combat action, Presley didn’t know but what he would when signing on the dotted line at the height of the Cold War.
In the week since Muhammad Ali died, politicians, actors, athletes and others around the globe have jumped on the bandwagon to honor his existence.
They mentioned many of the things Ali was known for saying — which at the time were devoured by the media much like Donald Trump’s remarks are today.
However, I wonder what those 58,000 Americans lost in Vietnam would say — if only they could.
Tom Joyce is a staff writer for The Mount Airy News. He may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.