Peace Corps Writers
While the Peace Corps Slept (page 2)
While the Peace Corps Slept
page 1
page 2

     By the early 1970s, the Corps had decided to become a technically competent, task oriented, mini-development agency. Gone was the drive to change America’s image, replaced by the more limited goal of playing a minor role in the effort to overcome the massive poverty, ignorance, and disease afflicting billions of people.
     Gone too was the image of the “Norman Rockwell American,” mainstream Americans out to help other people and through this assistance improve the image of Americans. Goodbye Joe College and Betty Coed, hello recent graduate in marine biology from Birkenstock U. Now I have nothing against having such obvious talent in the Peace Corps, but I do see problems when they become the sole image of the Corps. And I am not alone — this is now the image of Peace Corps Volunteers held by most Americans who say, “You would expect Harry to do strange things. After all, he was in the Peace Corps.”
     So what you say? Who cares what image Americans have of the Peace Corps? We are out to better the lives of the poor in other lands. Given this attitude it is no surprise that by the year 2000 most Americans did not even know that the Peace Corps was still in business. Sure it still had its cult of followers, most of whom had grown old and out of touch with the world. But it was of little relevance to what America did around the world and the image of Americans abroad. We members of the Peace Corps family adopted the aloof attitude of those who know better than their fellow Americans, compounding the problem by seeming to be always blaming America for the world’s woes.
     The Peace Corps had fallen, from the exciting invention to change America’s image abroad, to a minor effort among the hundreds of organizations working on various parts of the enormous project to improve the lot of the world’s poor. Not a bad idea, but not the original concept.
     But wait, we had a chance to change, to loom large once more in America’s presence around the world and once more work to improve its tarnished image in an important way. In 2001, President Bush stated his intention to double the size of the Corps. I said, “Great, why not increase it ten-fold?” But rather than seize the opportunity the Corps family — Volunteers in the field, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, former and present Peace Corps staff — in the main rejected the idea, saying such things as, “This will dilute the quality of our service” and “We do not want to sacrifice our professionalism in a useless numbers game.” In other words, most were happy to remain a “quaint” adjunct to America’s efforts to help poor countries.
     We have a problem. Sept 11 demonstrated that our image remains in many quarters of the world one of, dare I say it, the “Ugly American.” So much for the Peace Corps as the answer to this hated image. Forty years down the drain.
     If the Peace Corps is no longer prepared to improve America’s image, then who? Being the innovative and inventive people that we are, Americans have found a new way to build a better image. We now use our warriors themselves to erase the picture of Americans who are at best indifferent, and at worse hostile to the rest of the world. Enter the warrior-come-nation-builder. Now we see American troopers doing their best to help the less fortunate by building infrastructure, training leaders, teachers, healers, and others, and offering vital services to needy people. Good you say, they caused the problem so they should clean it up. Bad I say, since it means there is no need for the Peace Corps.
     But more important, the American military has the resources and status to do the job on a scale that the Peace Corps refuses to even consider. First of all it has 1.3 million volunteers. By sheer numbers it will reach more people in the world than the Peace Corps could ever hope to meet. It has a better status with the American public itself, everyone knows and respects our men and women in uniform. Through this widespread intimate contact, the military will be able to do more to familiarize Americans with other peoples than a miniscule organization like the Peace Corps. Our military has taken over the role of converting thousands of mainstream Americans into citizens, knowledgeable of other cultures and with intimate relationships with other people. The military has become the  “Norman Rockwell” image of Americans willing to help the less fortunate and in the process better the image others have of us, as well as America’s understanding of other people.
Who 40 years ago would have thought that this is how we would wind-up? Our once fearsome warriors are now the face of a caring American people. Maybe they are better suited to the job since they represent the resolve of the American people to defend what we hold dear AND our sincere desire to help others who do us no harm. Maybe through this latter role the military will achieve national security, not through strength of arms, but by showing America as a friend, ready to be generous with those who wish us no harm.
     Meanwhile a toast to the Peace Corps as it passes into history.
After his Peace Corps years in Ethiopia Leo Cecchini was a Foreign Service Officer for 25 years in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Americas, as well as in Washington, D.C. Entered private business in 1990 he has worked working in Europe, Africa and the USA. Still involved in Peace Corps activities, he is on the Board of the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) and the Vice President of Ethiopia & Eritrea RPCV group. He lives most of the year in Florida.
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