To preserve and to learn

While the Peace Corps Slept

by Leo Cecchini (Ethiopia 1962–64)

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 their 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.
     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.”
     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.