This article originally appeared at the NYTimes.com
WHEN Muhammad Ali said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong. No Vietcong ever called me nigger,” he spoke for many of the black soldiers and Marines who were in Vietnam fighting for an America that continued to oppress and marginalize them. One night in Chu Lai, I heard a black Marine say to a white one, “Look, I don’t want to hear ‘gook’ or ‘dink’ ’cause I don’t know what you’ll call me tomorrow.”
I was in Vietnam — a reporter for the military newspaper Southern Cross — two years after Ali had been convicted of dodging the draft in the summer of ’67. Thousands of black soldiers were fighting in Cu Chi, Phu Bai, Long Binh, Da Nang and hundreds of landing zones and firebases pockmarking South Vietnam, some wearing black unity wrist bands braided out of boot laces. Most received news of the civil rights movement — sit-ins, bombings, struggles with the police and dogs in the streets of cities and towns across America — in letters from home and in magazine headlines in those rare moments of stand-down at division headquarters.
Racial tension would often flare up in the rear. We knew the uniform or code of conduct couldn’t erase what was in the hearts or on the lips of troops at the enlisted men’s clubs where they guzzled 3.2 beer. Then the next day, the soldiers and Marines would plunge back into the leafy quagmire of the jungle or climb the bald hills of firebases for another deadly encounter with the Vietcong or North Vietnamese Army.
Ali was more than life-size in the psyche of the black soldier. Other conscientious objectors were in Canada or Sweden, but here stood a black man, the heavyweight champion of the world, saying, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” Of course, some black soldiers knew this fueled North Vietnam’s propaganda, and Hanoi Hannah’s radio rants across the rice paddies, but they also knew the hard reality of race and politics transported overseas.
It wasn’t uncommon to see two black G.I.s from different units walk up to each other and tap their clenched fists together — without exchanging a single word. Behind the “dap” between young black soldiers in Vietnam was a scream. It was a greeting of kindred souls, but it was also, if not an outright affront, at least a bold statement within the military machine. The dap was a counteraction to a fraternity of ritual that prided itself on ironclad tradition, whose first mission was to challenge the idea of the individual and personal style. At times, the dap seemed choreographed to Ali’s words, a dance of defiance on the edge of battle.
For most of the black officers and career noncoms in ’Nam, however, this ritual by young black G.I.s broke rank with the history of blacks serving in combat, and some saw it as a direct affront to that fought-for social terrain. Many of these career soldiers also did not agree with Ali. They were determined to prove that change happened from within an institution. Hadn’t they put their lives on the line — in many instances heroically — to prove this by acquiring status through rank?
The enlisted men — whether black or white — had less hope. In that climate of blood and dust where buddies were maimed or killed, the survivors often made desperate claims. And some black G.I.s told themselves that if change didn’t happen, there would be blood in the streets when they returned home.
But what many black vets felt after they returned was self-betrayal. War had changed us. We were alone. Flower power was everywhere. Big Brother and the Holding Company. Nina Simone. Jimi Hendrix. Some vets were hiding out in the woods, on the edge. Others were lost in suburbia.
And every now and then one of us would meet a ghost of himself talking in anonymous streets across America. Some of us had taken blood oaths and participated in scrimmages we are ashamed of — the tragedy of My Lai being one of many. Others returned with nightmares riding shotgun in our heads. Ali was not exactly a slayer of the “masters of war,” but it meant something to us that, as a young man, a beleaguered citizen, he had stood up to the most powerful country on earth.