War and Peace Corps

Becoming a Man in the Sixties: The Peace Corps and the Army
by Tony Zurlo (Nigeria 1964–66)

    FOR THOSE OF US who emerged from our teens in the 1960s, passage into adulthood was especially tumultuous because of the profound social upheavals that rocked our nation during that decade. We began the decade with trim, prim hair styles and ended it with “hair down to . . . [our] knee”; we entered wearing properly pressed, three-button suits and calf-length skirts with flowered blouses and exited in tie-dyes, ripped jeans, and sandals.
         Sprinting into the adult world and grasping for our niche in life, we were overwhelmed by the moral authority of movements: Civil Rights, Feminism, Free Speech, Anti-War. We reacted with a new permissiveness of free sex and drugs. We experimented.
         We also volunteered. Working with groups to promote peace and education and civil rights became my generation’s informal “initiation” rite into adulthood. Millions of young men and women joined organizations, especially those with links to JFK and LBJ. We became the foot soldiers for the Great Society, carrying our weapons of pens and notebooks and idealism on our backs. When we finished our Peace Corps tour, we volunteered for VISTA, Head Start, or Upward Bound.


    Millions of young men served in the U.S. Army. Military service had always been one of the more common “initiation” rites that transformed teenage boys into men. We registered with Uncle Sam, and when our number was called, we went willingly because we trusted the fashionable mantra that “The Army will make you a man.”
         For most young men, serving in the peace-time military had many attractions, including free overseas travel, free housing, and free food. During our tour of duty, we would learn some self-discipline. The military also guaranteed the G.I. Bill, which would pay for a college education when we finished our tour of duty. Not a bad deal, except that at the time, ours was not a peace-time military. By the time Uncle Sam caught up with me, the U.S. had nearly a half million soldiers fighting in Vietnam. The same government that was sending out VISTA volunteers to serve poor Americans and Peace Corps Volunteers to teach the world’s illiterates and heal the sick was also sending the American war machine to Southeast Asia to destroy villages in order to save them.
         We returned from the Peace Corps thinking we had completed our “duty” to our nation. Many draft boards, however, saw us as scheming draft dodgers and pounced on our eligibility for the military. Some RPCVs felt betrayed, as if they were being subjected to a kind of double jeopardy. Others scrambled for draft exemptions through marriage or strategic jobs. In my own case, the pressure in my home state of Texas for young men to serve if called on was intense. In general, the Peace Corps was seen as a pleasant diversion, but the honorable path for someone who wanted to prove that he was a man and a patriot was accepting Uncle Sam’s call to military service.
         I will never know how I would have reacted in combat. I do know that by the time I was being drafted, I strongly supported the policy of “Vietnamization,” turning all the fighting over to the South Vietnamese army. My personal goal was to stay alive by avoiding combat. One way to accomplish this goal was an assignment to Germany or Korea. Then I learned that most of the Army’s tank units were stationed in these two countries, not in Vietnam; so I decided to enlist in Armor Officer Candidate School (OCS).
         After I arrived for OCS at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, the Army closed down the school. For my training, the army transferred me to Infantry OCS at Ft. Benning, Georgia. I entered the barracks expecting to find mostly militant, brain-washed war-mongers, but the 150 or so candidates I trained with turned out to be highly intelligent and honorable young men. We all expected to be leading an infantry platoon in Vietnam soon after being commissioned. What followed was nine months of psychological and physical stress. Every time we maneuvered in full gear, I packed so much equipment that the edge of my back pack left track marks on the trials. But I survived, miraculously, and the Army honored my armor commitment and sent me to Germany as a tank platoon leader soon after the Russians sent tanks into Czechoslovakia.
         I was a whiz at reading maps on maneuvers, but I never did understand much about tanks. They were colossal, ugly, greasy, loud dinosaurs. And when I entered the army, I understood nothing about guns, either. I had never even held a real gun. Real men didn’t need guns, I always argued. Everything about the culture of guns distressed me. So, when American troop strength in Vietnam was at its peak of a half million, I was figuring out how to avoid firing any guns in Germany.
         The battalion commander, a colonel I grew to respect deeply, was a “lifer” who shaved his head bald each morning and came to work in his card-board starched fatigues early just to harass me: “Repeat after me, Z [his nickname for me]. This is your weapon. That is your gun.” He nagged me daily about my sideburns that reached mid-ear level. But in his profound wisdom, the colonel would transfer me out of combat positions so I wouldn’t have to fire a tank in the European theater gunnery competition and screw up his chance to be battalion champion. I served short tours as company and battalion maintenance officer and battalion executive officer. However, whenever the battalion went to the field for combat maneuvers, he restored my combat status as platoon leader or company commander because I was one of the handful of men in the entire battalion who could read topographic maps. In the meantime, I bribed my weapons’ sergeants so I wouldn’t have to qualify on any of the required “weapons” in person. They would enter passing numbers on my record in exchange for an extra day or two of leave.
         As a tank battalion, my unit was assigned a defensive position about a hundred miles from our base. Just in case the Soviets decided to invade West Germany, our unit was supposed to race to the border and contain the Russians until reinforcements arrived from the U.S. We all knew we would be annihilated within hours by superior Soviet forces, but nobody I knew seriously expected the Russians to upset the Cold War balance of power in Europe. A couple of times a year we rambled out of our maintenance buildings onto the German autobahns, clipping a few private fences and gardens along the way — a five-mile trail of clumsy dinosaurs inching our way toward the border to scare off the Ruskie war machine. We had to pull twenty or thirty tanks to the border each trip because we could never get enough replacement parts to get them running.
         Those of us from OCS were an eclectic bunch of Cold War warriors. I met a handful of dime store philosophers like me, with liberal arts degrees. But most of these men were college graduates in engineering, science, and technical fields. My roommate in Germany, was a Clemson ROTC graduate and consummate wheeler-dealer with an encyclopedic memory for mechanics. He tried to pose as a free-thinker by hanging a Ho Chi Minh photo in our hallway. But he ended up going to Nam. His goal was to serve a tour in a non-combat slot. This would look good on his resume for the future. So as I was heading home, he reenlisted and got his wish. We never exchanged letters, so I’ll never know if he spent his months there behind the lines as a maintenance officer or was assigned to front line combat — or even came home alive.
         After my discharge, I completed some graduate courses, marched a little against the war, and wore armbands — especially after the 1970 Kent State shootings. But mostly I moved on with a full-time job teaching on Long Island and campaigned for George McGovern.

    The bold truth is that the Army did not teach me to be a man.
         That lesson was imprinted on my soul while working with the Peace Corps, a year before I ever thought of joining the Army.
         For me, the year 1966 will forever mark my giant leap into adulthood. For the Igbos living in Northern Nigeria, 1966 marks the end of decades of dreams. The country was about to explode into a tempest of stunning slaughter. As many as fifty thousand Igbos were killed in the Northern region during that year. Tens of thousands of Igbo families abandoned their possessions and fled from dozens of cities and villages. Throughout the year, mobs of Northerners attacked systemically, going from house to house killing the Igbos who had remained. Many of my friends, who sent their wives and children to the Eastern Region so they would be safe, stayed on in Yola to run their businesses. Whenever I asked them why they refused to leave, these men replied, “Everything is in God’s hands. I will leave when the time comes.” Most of these men were killed.
         On a dry, sunny day in October 1966, I stepped out of Barclay’s Bank and ran abruptly into a rag-tag mob of young men and teenage boys screaming with hate and chasing a middle-aged Igbo man. The man stumbled onto the ground between the bank and a small shop. The sun reflected off of the Benue River in the background. I learned later that an Igbo man at that same time had been hiding in the river grass for almost a week waiting for a “friendly” boat to come by and take him down river to safety.
         I ran over to the Igbo man and found him unconscious; I could see only the whites of his eyes. When I tried to lift him, I noticed fresh blood oozing from the crown of his head. The leader of the mob shouted out to me, “Batuuree [White man], what you want? This man be your brother?”
         I shouted something I’ve long forgotten, and the mob’s leader answered, “Go away, Batuuree. This is our business.”
         While I was trying to get help from onlookers to get the man to the hospital, the mob edged closer. Some held rocks and clubs; others swung machetes. I realized that they were not as disorganized as they looked. I also matured a hundred years in those five or ten minutes. I knew I could not save the man. What I could do, I realized, was to look for some Igbo friends in other parts of the town and drive them to safety.
         For about three hours, I raced around on my Honda 50 looking for friends. I only managed to transport three people to the airport so they could escape by plane to the northern capital of Kano. One of those I took to the airport was Israel, the young Igbo who worked for me at my house. Unfortunately, the newspaper headlines the following day read that Northern army troops had mounted planes at the Kano airport and killed all Igbo passengers.


    My own three years in the Army, after my experience in Nigeria, seemed almost a mockery of the suffering and agony I saw in Nigeria while teaching with the Peace Corps. Although I know that my experience does not rival the heroism and tragedy of Vietnam, the life lessons are similar. The Nigerian tragedy taught me that I couldn’t change the world. For the first time in my life I began to understand that I am only accountable to my own conscience. And becoming an adult means living with the anguish of our personal limitations and failures.

    This article appeared in the Winter, 2005 issue of Writers Against War at WritersAgainstWar.com

    Tony Zurlo is a writer/educator living in Arlington, Texas. His poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction have appeared in dozens of journals, magazines, newspapers, and anthologies. He has published books on Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Japan, Japanese Americans, West Africa, and Algeria.