Peace Corps Writers
   To preserve and to learn
While the Peace Corps Slept

by Leo Cecchini (Ethiopia 1962–64)

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A RECENT ISSUE OF Afghan Connections, the bulletin of Friends of Afghanistan, carried an article by a Peace Corps couple who recently returned to Kabul for a visit. I was struck by theirPrinter friendly version comment, “[There is] little memory of Peace Corps here.” Soon after seeing the article I watched a TV program about US military programs to rebuild Afghanistan. The soldiers are building schools, clinics, roads, water systems, and other infrastructure facilities while also providing community services such as health care and instruction. A headline formulated in my mind — PEACE CORPS FORGOTTEN AS US MILITARY BECOMES THE FACE OF A CARING AND COMMITTED AMERICA.

The Ugly American

     What happened to that noble effort to replace the “Ugly American” with a caring American seeking to learn about other peoples by helping them overcome basic hardships? I was one of those who in the late 1950’s read the seminal book with that name and saw the Peace Corps as the answer. We would correct this false or incomplete image of Americans by placing thousands of well-meaning, energetic Americans in countries where they would help the people while learning about them and letting them see that we really cared. What a brilliant idea!
     No small undertaking this. We were charting new territory for America. Gone was the aloof diplomat, the fearsome warrior, the indifferent dispenser of American largess. In their place were fresh-faced young Americans ready to solve all the problems of the world and in the process build better understanding between our hosts and ourselves.
     We succeeded beyond anyone’s best hopes. The Peace Corps hit the world stage with a bang and became the thing to do. Volunteering for the Corps was akin to volunteering to fight fascism in 1942. It was the news of the day, featured in hundreds of articles, on the cover of major periodicals, the subject of books and even a few movies. It even achieved instant status as a folklore icon through the paintings of the great Norman Rockwell.
     And who were we? Indeed, we were “Norman Rockwell Americans,” the solid core of the nation’s population. Not the elite, but representatives of mainstream America. In the main, Joe College and Betty Coed. We genuinely presented to foreign hosts the honest face of America.
     Take my own case. Fresh out of college in 1962, I joined the first contingent of Peace Corps Volunteers to Ethiopia. We were at best marginally prepared for the job. I was picked to teach geography by virtue of having had a minor in that subject while in college. Offering a so-so academic record from a so-so large state university, the Peace Corps probably rated me among its “iffy" candidates. But I was determined to play a part in this great adventure.
     By the end of my first year teaching at the top high school in Asmara, Ethiopia (now the capital of Eritrea) I was known by all of the over 200,000 residents of the town. I did not become a household name through teaching geography, but as the coach of the school’s soccer team. What audacity, an American teaching Ethiopians how to play their national sport! Right away I was controversial and the topic of news reports. All controversy evaporated when I led the team to two successive league championships and along the way whipped the army and air force’s teams (lost to the navy’s team). I became the face of America to thousands of Eritreans.
     The point here is that I was not trained nor prepared to coach a team, much less a soccer team. Sure I had played soccer as a kid and American football in high school and college. But I was not a trained coach. I came to be the image of America simply by being ready to help my hosts achieve their goals (no pun intended). This is instructive for the balance of this article.
     Nor did my image fade. More than 30 years later I was urged to contact the Eritrean Ambassador to the UN since I was then living in New York City. I was mildly surprised when on calling his mission I was immediately connected to the ambassador himself. I started to state my name and purpose when the ambassador cut me short by saying, “Leo Cecchini needs no introduction to the Eritrean Liberation Army.” The ambassador had been a leader in the country’s 30 year struggle to gain independence from Ethiopia. He remembered me from when he was a schoolboy aspiring to be on the team I coached, the goal of every able bodied Eritrean youth. I joked that my contribution to the struggle was to teach the Liberation Army how to read maps and basic strategy and tactics on the soccer field.
     So what happened? How did the US military come to replace the Peace Corps as the good guy image of Americans? I have a fair idea of what happened. After the Peace Corps, I became an American diplomat, so had the chance to see the world through that aloof, cool perspective. I was detailed to our main development agency, USAID, in Vietnam where I saw the world through the eyes of a development specialist. During that assignment I also led a military advisory team where I gained the military’s view of the people of other lands. For the last dozen years I have been in international business thus gaining still another slant on other countries and their people. My work has been in the poorest and the richest countries. I have met foreigners in all walks of life. In all cases I have always been seen by others as a quintessential American only differentiated by my extensive knowledge of the world. In sum I never stopped doing what the Peace Corps was created to do, be the face of America to the world.
     But such was not the case for the Peace Corps itself. It became preoccupied by, and subsequently dispensed with, the “numbers game,” the plan to put thousands of Volunteers into the field with no specific task other than to improve America’s image. The Corps decided that a better image was not the goal; rather it was to change the world itself. Definitely a poor choice given that it was poorly equipped to do the job. Given my extensive experience with the reality of the world’s economic situation, I am constantly astounded by the naiveté of the Peace Corps in its conviction that it is making major changes in the lives of people in other countries. I ask you, how can a few thousand well-trained people do more than make a symbolic contribution to bettering the lives of literally billions of people? No more eloquent testimony to this reality can be found than that comment I read in Afghan Connections, “. . . little memory of the Peace Corps here.”
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