Muhammad Ali and the Military Draft

In 1964, at the age of 22, Cassius Clay [who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali] defeated Sonny Liston to win the heavyweight championship. The smooth-talking, clean-living Clay could have become a popular and marketable champion, but just days after the fight he announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam.

Much of white America, even in the early 1960s, found the Nation of Islam to be dangerous and anti-American. Clay [Ali] defended the organization to The Associated Press: “Yet people brand us a hate group. They say we want to take over the country. They say we’re Communists. That is not true. Followers of Allah are the sweetest people in the world. They don’t carry knives. They don’t tote weapons.”

My, how things have changed.

Ali was wrong about Islam, which has risen to become the # 1 force for violence and international terrorism today. But he was right about the military draft.

On June 20, 1967, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali was sentenced to five years in prison for refusing to serve in the military. He ultimately avoided prison time on appeal.

His appeal would reach the Supreme Court in 1971. In Clay v. United States, the Court ruled 8-0 that Ali met the three standards for conscientious objector status: that he opposed war in any form, that his beliefs were based on religious teaching and that his objection was sincere. His conviction was reversed.

In Ali’s day, and during the Vietnam War when the military draft was controversial, people rarely opposed it on moral or political principle. Most opposed it because it was “unfair,” meaning that too few well-off white men were drafted while too many poor black men were drafted. This may have been true, but it’s not the real reason the draft is wrong. The military draft is wrong because it’s involuntary servitude, the ultimate form of slavery to which men of all races were subjected.

The Supreme Court was right to reverse Ali’s conviction, but not for the reasons of religious conscience. It’s not the government’s job to evaluate the content of a person’s beliefs or convictions and then decide whether they should be subjected to involuntary servitude, or not. It’s the job of a reasonable, fair government — the Supreme Court, most of all — to protect the individual from that involuntary servitude in the first place.

Ayn Rand, author of Atlas Shrugged and many other works, is one of the few thinkers who ever made the principled, across-the-board case against the military draft. She wrote:

Of all the statist violations of individual rights in a mixed economy, the military draft is the worst. It is an abrogation of rights. It negates man’s fundamental right—the right to life—and establishes the fundamental principle of statism: that a man’s life belongs to the state, and the state may claim it by compelling him to sacrifice it in battle. Once that principle is accepted, the rest is only a matter of time.

If the state may force a man to risk death or hideous maiming and crippling, in a war declared at the state’s discretion, for a cause he may neither approve of nor even understand, if his consent is not required to send him into unspeakable martyrdom—then, in principle, all rights are negated in that state, and its government is not man’s protector any longer. What else is there left to protect?

Exactly right. The military draft is not wrong because it offends some people’s religious desire never to participate in a war. The military draft is wrong because it violates the sovereignty of an individual over his or her own life, in the most literal way imaginable, since war often means fighting to the death.

The military draft is no longer a live issue, thank goodness, and has not been one for many years. Young men are still compelled to register for the draft, so in theory and principle the government could revive the draft any time it wishes. People who oppose draft registration do not oppose it on the principle of individual rights, in most cases, but on side issues such as whether women should be subjected to involuntary military servitude, as well.

The broader issue of involuntary servitude is alive and well, particularly as American voters contemplate expansions of government power into socialism, which turns individual citizens into wards of the government whose lives, incomes, property and minds are the entire domain of the government. What’s the point of defeating the military draft only to be drafted into roles the government considers economically proper for the sake of the politically defined whole?

Ali’s passing serves as an ironic reminder that fighting one form of injustice for the wrong reasons sets the stage for greater injustice down the road — if we permit it.

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