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War and Peace: The American Way
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by Phil Damon (Ethiopia 1963-65)
 

THERE ALWAYS BEEN an eerie parallel for me between the Peace Corps and the Vietnam War. Conceived and born entangled together — asPrinter friendly version fraternal twins spawned by the Kennedy administration’s 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 don’t hear much about the relevance of the Peace Corps though, and that’s 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 Association’s biannual conference in Chicago. I’d 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. I’d 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 country’s values out in the world.
    A lot of this changed for me in Chicago. I was actually very inspired.
     And no, I didn’t 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 country’s cold war policy. It’s always been about winning the hearts, minds and labor of the developing world to our way of life. The cold war’s over, though, and we’ve got Volunteers in all the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe. But — the nation’s 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 we’ve got going in Iraq.
  
  
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