Peace Corps Writers
War and Peace: The American Way
(page 2)
War and Peace
page 1
page 2

     I was always skeptical when friends from Peace Corps called it the defining experience of their lives. Wasn’t 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 country’s 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 MSNBC’s “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 I’d 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.
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