THERE ALWAYS BEEN an eerie parallel for me between the Peace Corps and the Vietnam War. Conceived and born entangled together as fraternal twins spawned by the Kennedy administrations ambitious but morally ambiguous foreign policy they emerged from their mutual infancy under the watchful eye of the international family of nations, the good and bad seeds of our modern American bloodline. This was the sixties, several generations removed from the present day. Yet, in the context of our current war, hardly a day goes by without a reminder of the relevance of that earlier disaster. You dont hear much about the relevance of the Peace Corps though, and thats still going on.
It was the other way around forty years ago when I was a PCV in Ethiopia. Volunteers were a common sight just about everywhere in Africa, not to mention Latin America, Asia, Micronesia, India and Pakistan, Turkey and Iran, topping out at fifteen thousand Volunteers by 1966. And we were pretty much universally loved. Sure, the little war was smoldering in Southeast Asia, but who knew anything about that? The face of America was largely the face of peace. And it was the PCVs who personified it.
Then I came home, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was holding its earliest hearings on the war, and the countenance of America would be altered forever.
All of this came poignantly back to me recently as I attended the National Peace Corps Associations biannual conference in Chicago. Id been ambivalent at first about going. It would be the first event of its kind for me since my return in 1965, and when I decided to go it was as much to see old friends as to be inspired by memories of the hopes and ideals we carried overseas during that more optimistic time. Id pretty much given up on the Peace Corps ideal within a few years of my return largely, but not only, because of the war. And I found it increasingly difficult in the decades that followed to encourage young people to represent our countrys values out in the world.
A lot of this changed for me in Chicago. I was actually very inspired.
And no, I didnt get gung ho about globalization or the Americanization of every last nook and cranny of human habitation. I still hate the idea of that. Even in 63 I knew I was a tool of our countrys cold war policy. Its always been about winning the hearts, minds and labor of the developing world to our way of life. The cold wars over, though, and weve got Volunteers in all the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe. But the nations ulterior motives aside how can this be such a bad thing? How can it be a bad thing when around the world people get to know Americans without uniforms, weapons or body armor; when Americans get to know people without intending to subdue, sell, or shamelessly exploit them? It has to be better than what weve got going in Iraq.
I was always skeptical when friends from Peace Corps called it the defining experience of their lives. Wasnt it time to move on? Most of us were in our twenties, after all. But without mincing words or minimizing the importance of later achievements, maybe the Peace Corps was that kind of seminal event for all of us. And maybe despite our countrys tattered image in the current global environment it continues to be so for our most recently returned Volunteers. How can there be a more transformative experience than to reach across so much distance to make personal contact with fellow humans of a foreign culture in some kind of common endeavor? You can never look at the world quite the same after that.
We heard lots of testimonials in Chicago, ranging from the governors of Ohio (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer/Tanzania) and Wisconsin (RPCV/Tunisia) to MSNBCs Hardball host Chris Mathews (RPCV/Swaziland) and a member of the Thai parliament who was inspired to a Harvard education by a PCV teacher. But the most meaningful testimonial for me was from the Indian-born, Fiji-raised, Australian woman I met at the hostel where I was staying, who pronounced herself a student of the Peace Corps and was delighted to accompany me one morning to the conference, where I hooked her up with some Fiji RPCVs from the seventies. How many millions of others like her, I wondered, are there all over this pathetically polarized planet? We could certainly stand to hear from a few of them now.
Quietly the number of Volunteers in this boutique agency has rebounded from less than five thousand during the late eighties to eight thousand in 71 countries, and with talk of doubling that number, its current allotment of $359 million represents l.5% of the budget for International Affairs. Among the many conference seminars which largely focused on fostering global understanding and harmony while sustaining natural resources and local economies several concentrated on career opportunities for our most recent RPCVs. I had the chance to talk to a number of these youngsters and was taken aback by their energy and enthusiasm in our otherwise troublesome times. All of them claimed to have connected profoundly with people in their host countries, despite what they recognized to be a growing distrust of our national policies.
In 1966, I joined a thousand of my fellow RPCVs in forming the Committee of Concerned Volunteers, as a way of expressing our opposition to the war in Vietnam. Certainly, we felt, our voices would be heard and heeded. We of all people had our fingers on the pulse of the developing world. On the contrary, we caused nary a ripple. Yet while we may not have affected the escalation of the war, it occurred to me last week that we may have made a greater impression in the world than Id given us credit for. It was a bittersweet feeling at best.
Phil Damon taught English at the famous Commercial School in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, earned his masters in creative writing at the (equally famous) Iowa Writing Program, then went onto teach writing and spiritual literature at the University of Hawaii for 34 years. His fiction and non-fiction have been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Ploughshares Reader, Going Up Country, and elsewhere. Now living in Bellingham, Washington, he conducts seminars in spiritual autobiography and writes the column Dancing on The Brink for The Bellingham Weekly, where this piece recently appeared.