To preserve and to learn

Peace Corps and the War on Iraq


by Dick Lipez (Ethiopia 1962–64)

DOES THE PEACE CORPS HAVE a future in the age of the American imperium? Can an organization whose job has always been in an almost literal sense “preemptive peace” function at all in a time of “preemptive war?” There’s no evidence that the Bush administration is asking these questions. Optimistically, it just hiked the Peace Corps budget another 20 percent. But it’s only a matter of time before circumstances force Peace Corps leaders to think hard about sending Americans out to work and intermingle in a world where increasingly the United States is not so much respected as feared.
     The current Peace Corps administration has determined, not unreasonably, that Volunteer security should be a major concern. Director Vasquez, a former police officer, talked about volunteer safety from the day he was sworn in. And after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, security became a preoccupation. Volunteers in the Islamic
world were shuffled around and some programs near Afghanistan were suspended. Recently the Morocco project was shut down, with Volunteers yanked from their sites with little chance to say goodbye to friends and colleagues. The age of world-wide terrorism is a long way from the days when the biggest threats to PCV wellbeing were food poisoning and Jeep accidents.
     But beyond questions of staying alive and uninjured, can Volunteers even begin to carry out Peace Corps goals (particularly the second, “to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of people served”) effectively if they are seen more and more as agents of an imperial regime? You can agree or disagree with Bush policy on Iraq, but the ugly reality is, most of the world thinks our aggressive, unilateralist foreign policy stinks. And worldwide opinion of the United States may be at its lowest ebb in U.S.
history.
     Or at least since the Vietnam era. When I arrived in Ethiopia with that country’s first PCV group in pre-Vietnam 1962, many Ethiopians were suspicious of us at first. But that was mainly because Ethiopians had been badly treated by outsiders over the centuries, from Ahmed Gran to Mussolini. The United States of John F. Kennedy was generally well thought of, and most Ethiopians got used to us or even liked us and we could do the jobs we came to do.
     When I visited Ethiopia in 1971, however, at the height of the Vietnam War, opinions of America and Americans had crashed. In an atmosphere of anti-war and anti-U.S. strikes and demonstrations, the effectiveness of PCVs ranged from the compromised to nil. It was the beginning of the end for the Peace Corps in Ethiopia.
     Imagine a world with Bush administration hawks careening from one preemptive conquest to another — unlikely maybe, but not out of the question. What the Peace Corps could find itself in is a world where the caustic and frequently destructive anti-Americanism of the late 1960s and 70s looks puny in comparison, almost a topic for nostalgia.
     And yet there’s a paradox in all this. Recent polls show that most Americans not only support the invasion of Iraq; they do so for reasons that aren’t all bad except for their naiveté. Apart from questions of Middle Eastern geo-strategic maneuvering and the elimination of real or imagined weapons of mass destruction, most Americans like it that our country overthrew a despotic regime and is trying to institute representative government. The Iraqi people are now “free.” The terrible costs and the perilous future consequences are secondary or don’t count at all in the minds of many Americans. Still, there is, as always, something admirable in the impulse to free a people from a tyrant’s yoke. It’s the same part of the American grain that helps animate the Peace Corps.
     If there’s one thing that PCVs know, it’s that good social change is complicated and hard. And it rarely works when it is imposed. That’s likely to be the post-war lesson of Iraq. It’s a shame Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al have never been PCVs (it’s a hair-raising image, I know). The experience might have left them with the knowledge of the world and the humility in the face of complexity they clearly lack.
     The Peace Corps will and should push on as best it can. But it is likely to suffer and shrink in the new world created partly by a demented Osama bin Laden and partly by an unknowing and arrogant George W. Bush. The best hope for the Peace Corps and its mission, more splendid than ever, is to outlast the both of them.

This article appeared in the May 2003 Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual RPCVs Newsletter (www.lgbrpcv.org).
     After his Peace Corps tour, Dick Lipez worked in the Evaluation Division of the PC/W and went on to become a successful novelist and free lance writer. He is now an editorial writer for the
Berkshire Eagle and author of a series of gay detective novels.