Muhammad Ali, Vietnam, Phil Jensen, and Why We Can Choose Not to Fight

Muhammad Ali died last night. The greatest 20th-century fighter, an athlete in a sport that most directly celebrates our lust for war, was a year and change younger than my dad, who volunteered to run heavy equipment in the Army in France before Vietnam got hot and before Ali refused to be drafted in 1967.

New York Times reporter Bob Lipsyte calls Ali “an amazing window on a historical period” of American history, the social awakening and upheaval surrounding the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.

In his new book (full review coming later this month), former Senator Larry Pressler calls Vietnam his generation’s big problem, an event that “created a fracture in the American psyche that has never healed.”

Rep. Jacqueline Sly reopens that window and exploits that fracture to take votes from her District 33 primary opponent, Senator Phil Jensen, who apparently filed for conscientious objector status in 1972. Senator Jensen says he “was hoping to serve in a hospital setting… because I was employed at a local hospital.”

Let’s compare Jensen’s reason for preferring not to go to war with Ali’s:

My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father… Shoot them for what? I gotta go shoot them, them poor little black people and little babies and children and women? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail [Muhammad Ali, interview].

So said Muhammad Ali, who threw his fists and knocked men down for—for what? money? fame? pride?—but who would not shoot and kill for empire. Ali argued less politically to the court that as a Muslim, he could not fight in an infidel warThe Supreme Court in 1971 said Ali’s religious reason for rejecting the draft was good enough for them. Is Jensen’s reason (Jensen, who fears and hates Ali’s chosen religion) good enough for us, forty years after the Ali era, as we lay Ali to rest?

26 Responses to Muhammad Ali, Vietnam, Phil Jensen, and Why We Can Choose Not to Fight

  1. mike from iowa

    Maybe Ali was fighting this-
    Project 100,000 – Also known as McNamara’s 100,000, Project 100,000 was a controversial plan to provide remedial training to recruits who could not pass the military’s physical or written aptitude tests. This program was created for two reasons: first to provide men from disadvantaged backgrounds with the training needed for them to succeed in the military and later in civilian life; second to provide more troops for the military to relieve the pressures of the draft quotas. The program was instituted in 1966 and 40,000 men were brought into the military with a goal set of 100,000 men per year after that. The project was accused of being racist because almost 40% of the new standards men, as they became known, were African American and about 75% of all new standards men ended up in the Marine Corps, guaranteeing that a higher percentage of them ended up in combat roles as compared to non new standard men. In 1971 the program ended when Congress stopped basing military quotas on aptitude test scores.

  2. NOOOO!!!!! Jensen’s reasons were no better than any other of his ilk and age of the time that were of like mind–putting themselves first i front of family and country. Notice, I didn’t reference God,b because when He is referenced in regard to man’s reasons for war it’s wrong. Ali stood on strong principles. Strong reasons, not selfish concern like the chicken-hawks that took us to war on credit cards in Iraq/Afghanistan. They deferred to further themselves or out of fear for their safety. Going across the border (Canada) took more guts than guys like Jensen ever dreamed of having.

  3. Roger Cornelius

    A clear distinction between Ali, Jensen, and others of draft age at the time, was that Ali showed courage in his moral and religious convictions in opposing the Vietnam War, he was very vocal and many started to follow his lead on the moral wrongs of Vietnam.
    Jensen didn’t go to war because he didn’t want to

  4. Curtis Price

    When I first heard about this attack on Jensen, I thought it was kind of icky.

    However, I have come around on this. Sen Phil’s response has been yet another example of his hypocrisy and double talk when his record is challenged. Hopefully this will get his constituents to realize who he is: a poser who is really in it to push his own narrow agenda. To be short he’s not about policy, he is about ideology and agenda. He’s a very dangerous lawmaker.

    Sly is wrapping herself in the flag and Adelstein’s PAC is getting the word out. I have come around to support this line of attack because it is shedding light on Jensen’s character in a way that may actually get the attention of those that have been voting for him. I’m actually hoping they find more dirt on Jensen back in Kansas because I’m pretty sure it is there. And again, the reason is not to air dirty laundry but to show the public how Jensen shows himself as yet another extremist that believe the extreme rules he advocates would not apply to him.

    The real problem of course is the extreme gerrymandering that creates an “in” for people like Sen Jensen and Rep Louie Gohmert of Texas. I’m really hoping the federal courts are presented more geospatial analysis (like Karl Rove’s team did in the 2000s) that can undo the lines. Ultra safe legislative seats cause bad government. It’s just true.

  5. The greatest lesson Ali teaches us is to have the courage to stand for your convictions. He did and he paid the price. There were many who crossed the border into Canada and received nothing more than a symbolic slap on the wrist. What South Dakota needs are leaders who will stand for what is right and good. Let’s move on.

  6. mike from iowa

    The Vietnam rift hasn’t healed and some people apparently will never be satisfied that we got out of that mistake with only 58000 dead.

  7. W R Old Guy

    There was a huge turn of public opinion on Vietnam at that time. The large build up of American troops really got going in 1965 but the beginnings go all the way back to the Truman presidency when we supported the French.

    The Gulf of Tonkin was the tipping point for sending troops. The American public was told that we had to “save” Vietnam from the Communists because the “Domino Theory” stated that the fall of one nation to communists would lead to the fall of adjoining nations. This was also part of the “Cold War”.

    The leaking of the Pentagon Papers was proof that the public had been lied to and a catalyst to turn America against the war. The Kent State shootings by the Ohio National Guard that killed several students in 1970 was a sign of protests to come.

    The project 100,000 was another McNamra Folly as was the F-111 fighter bomber that was supposed to serve the Air Force and the Navy. A fair amount were assigned to support positions such as cooks, supply duties, etc. The problem was that most were poorly educated (4th grade reading level or lower) and more than a few had learning disabilities. It never lived up to its billing.

    I don’t hold the CO rating against Jensen. It was also a time when only “approved religions” stood a chance of getting CO status. I do think Jensen’ evasiveness when questioned says a lot about his character and makes me wonder what he is trying to hide about it.

  8. Lanny V Stricherz

    Although the draft ended in 1973, it is still on the books as a contingency should it ever be needed. Why bring that up? Well, without the draft a lot of people have been supporting the current wars and those going all the way back to Mogadishu, that would not offer that support if there was a danger of a loved one having to serve and put their life on the line.

    As was pointed out at the Memorial Day service at the VA in Sioux Falls, less than one percent of the American population have been involved in recent wars. So along with not having to pay the financial cost of our current wars, (you know with the income tax cuts at the same time fighting at least two and possibly 5 wars) the American people have no skin in the game, (even though their grandchildren do.)Thus we have constant war.

  9. Douglas Wiken

    Nothing quite like a woman who could not be drafted bitching about a male who was subject to the draft not jumping in line to get killed.

    The draft was a form of involuntary servitude just as the bull—- ideas of mandatory public service. It is old men and old ladies revenge against youth that drives this kind of discrimination.

  10. I dunno about the rest of the warriors on this site but I can tell you this about this one, there were plenty of times that I would have rather been like Jensen and Clinton, Trump and Cheney, and the list goes on, than be taking a dump on top of a cat hole I had dug in the ground. Those fellers did not miss a thing there. Ali was the greatest fighter ever and he had the cajones to call it like the huge mistake it was. Too bad that Bill Clinton’s wife did not understand that about war and why you should just say no. After all, she had her husband that set the example.

  11. Ali and Jensen? That must be the pinnacle of Jensen’s despicable life to be included in Ali’s company.
    Just remember this. If Jensen wins the Primary he will have a highly qualified Dem opponent in Haven Stuck.

  12. Paul Seamans

    A good article on Native News Online tells of Ali obtaining the release of Chief Arvol Looking Horse of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe and six elders from Saddam in the lead up to the Iraq war. They were on a peace mission just before the war and were detained and threatened with execution. Ali stepping in shows the kind of man that he was.

  13. mike from iowa

    Thanks, Paul. I had forgotten about that bit of history.

  14. happy camper

    Ali was a lot like Trump. Brash, conceited, and completely full of themselves. Americans eat it the showmanship. Poor Hillary and the rest of them have tried to play by the rules when Trump just doesn’t care. He bogarts, he struts and plows right through. Like Hillary really cares about you? That’s laughable. Just like she loves her man Bill after all his cheating. She cares about her ambitions that’s all and the only reason she stuck with Bill. She’s still the best choice but don’t kid yourself she’s anything other than self serving. Just like Trump!

  15. Pressler wrote in 2010 that Vietnam draft-dodging got his generation into a habit of intellectual dishonesty:

    In his new book (repeating a call he made on the 2014 campaign trail), Pressler calls for reinstating a much broader draft which would require every young American to perform national service, either a stint in the military or time in a domestic program like AmeriCorps or a modern CCC. He says mandatory no-exemption national service would re-instill civic virtue, restore respect for public service, and increase voter turnout.

    I’m intrigued by Doug’s point: Jacqueline Sly is attacking Jensen over a choice she never had to face. How do we sort the morals of that one out?

    Curt reminds us that we can avoid that moral struggle by simply making Haven Stuck the next Senator for District 33.

  16. Oh, and Curt, I agree that discussing Jensen and Ali in the same breath is very strange. The word from all the Ali articles that rings in my head is titan—Muhammad Ali was a titan. Rarely can I think of that word being used more appropriately. Never can I imagine it being used seriously to describe Phil Jensen or most South Dakota lawmakers. “Janklow was a titan”? Yeah, maybe.

    Ali was a titan, figuring in sport, entertainment, politics, and history. He is an interesting character, a man around whom I could build a rich history unit for a high school classroom. He is no tame, feel-good textbook cutout. He is a contradictory figure, a man who originally scored too low to serve on the Army mental aptitude test yet who spun poetry/doggerel that captivated millions; who made a living fighting but made history by refusing to fight; who adopted Islam and proclaimed its virtues but failed to model those virtues in his own marriages; who bragged about his skill and his victories but was ultimately pounded into a long, painful silence by all the men he fought.

  17. Good grief, Hap, are we all like Trump? Deep down, is that the problem?

  18. mike from iowa

    I think many young people would rather face jail time than proffer allegiance to a diseased government like we have now.

    Didn’t it used to be an honor to serve your country? Now it seems it is every pol for themselves-get what you can while it is there to be gotten.

  19. Roger Cornelius

    Just curious as to how Hap knows why Hillary has stuck with Bill, when did she say that?

  20. owen reitzel

    Trump is nothing like Ali. Ali was a good person. Trump not so much

  21. happy camper

    Everything the Clinton’s ever did was about climbing. They decided to have a child to give the appearance of family. They’re a power couple driven by extreme motives we can’t quite relate. All four (Ali, Trump, Clintons) are megalomaniacs out to overcome something from their background, prove something to themselves and need adoration from the masses. Get real Roger, if Bill was a used car salesman (well, he kind of is), would Hillary have given him a second look? She tried to blame his philandering on a right wing conspiracy. We might all have a little bit of Trump in us if our egos are not kept in check. Even with our local successful businessmen considerable wealth is not enough. They need another store, more, more, more. Something empty cannot be filled. Our power structures reward the most unbalanced people who will give it all and sell their souls to be CEO, upper echelon politicians, or whatever.

  22. mike from iowa

    HC-which so called assault or rape was Clinton ever charged with? Which of the many love children Clinton supposedly fathered have ever been proven to be Clinton’s?

    In the interest of fairness, how many of Clinton’s enemies in the wingnut party were proven to have had affairs and/or fathered children out of wedlock?

  23. happy camper

    At least Trump showed Jeb to be a mama’s boy not ready for the big leagues. Hillary is the only one smart enough and tough enough to take trump on. She needs to show no mercy and leave him cryin on the floor like the pitiful creature he is.

  24. The beauty within the bizarre comparison of Ali to Sen. Jensen is the difference between the two, not in the one single similarity.

    Jensen needs to be attacked on the family values front – or the sauce will always be too weak.

    District 33 is perhaps the very most conservative district in the whole state of South Dakota. It’s a suicide mission for any Democrat to run in that district.

    To hell with Pressler.

  25. Not even Jesus Christ Himself could get elected in that district with a D anywhere near his name.

  26. Adam, a challenge like that almost makes me want to move to District 33. Almost. :-)