Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Peace Corps - Be All You Can Be

A little-known piece of legislation passed in 2002 allows military recruits to complete their eight-year commitment by serving in the Peace Corps or Americorps. I first heard the news on Public Radio International's Marketplace (about 4:57 into the program). The story was also covered in the San Francisco Chronicle today, and The Washington Post on Tuesday.

With military recruiters failing to reach their targets in recent months due to the ongoing quagmire in Iraq, both military recruiters and the Peace Corps Director, Gaddi Vasquez (a Bush appointee), are now promoting the alternative service program. Under the National Call to Service program, after soldiers complete fifteen months of active duty and two years in the Reserves or National Guard, they can now fulfill the remainder of their eight-year military obligation in the Individual Ready Reserves where they would otherwise be available for military service if called up for active duty.

For over 40 years, the Peace Corps has drawn a bright line between its volunteers and the military. There are plenty of good reasons for a clear separation.

Seeding the ranks of the Peace Corps with military recruits will dilute its primary mission. Without diminishing the good intentions and good works of thousands upon thousands of Peace Corps volunteers, no one should be deluded into believing that the Peace Corps was initially established only for lofty humanitarian goals. When President Kennedy proposed the Peace Corps, he was a hard-core Cold War warrior as much as he was a humanitarian. For the United States to compete effectively with China and the Soviet Union for people's hearts and minds, Kennedy knew that the United States had to be seen as helping poor citizens of developing nations aspire to improving their lives.

Through the present, the diplomatic mission of the Peace Corps is just as important as the mission to help improve people's lives in material ways. For that diplomatic mission to succeed, people in host countries need to see that Peace Corps volunteers are committed to peaceful resolution of conflicts. Of course, the military can teach recruits how to grunt, crawl on their bellies, clean a rifle, and skillfully kill an enemy, but humanitarian concern and peaceful conflict resolution are not a significant part of the curriculum. Many people indoctrinated in the military learn an approach to problems that can be combative and one-sided, rather than understanding and multi-cultural.

To be sure, soldiers can acquire lots of valuable skills in the military, but to be completely honest, some soldiers acquire a lot of troubling baggage as well. There's a good reason for that: troops are trained to stay alive in hostile conditions - in an entirely different set of circumstances from those that Peace Corps volunteers are exposed to.

The best reason to draw a clear line between the Peace Corps and the military is to protect the safety of Peace Corps volunteers. Some people in host countries might begin to view Peace Corps volunteers not as peaceful volunteers trying to help them, but as combatants with a mission to infiltrate and take over their country. In a certain sense, that's what Peace Corps volunteers are actually doing, but the introduction of former soldiers into the Peace Corps will make more apparent the image of the Peace Corps as a pseudo-army. The danger is that some people in host countries might rally to defend their territory against elements of that invading army.

Former Peace Corps leaders are criticizing the integration of military recruits with Peace Corps volunteers, hoping to scuttle the program.

Finally, in researching this issue, I came across the interesting Peace Corps Writers web site.


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