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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 27, 2003

Peace Corps good for America

By John Griffin

The Peace Corps is even more important in times of war, as I was reminded on a recent evening here in Hawai'i. But it should not get mixed up in our shooting wars.

The Peace Corps was launched by President John F. Kennedy in early 1961 near the peak of the Cold War. During the Vietnam War, from the mid-1960s to 1975, it continued to send volunteers to other countries around the world.

Now we are in several real and potential wars — the shadowy one against terrorism at home and abroad, the guerrilla conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tensions with North Korea. All that plus the struggle for public opinion in a world that often sees and fears a growing American neo-empire combining military might, global capitalism and culture, and missionary zeal for our brand of democracy.

Yes, I know some will charge that the Peace Corps and its volunteers are window dressing for a militant megapower. And, in any event, the usually quiet work of the volunteers stands in contrast to the trials and dangers faced by those other patriotic volunteers in our military.

But, as one who has served in both the military and Peace Corps, I see both as essential and valuable if not misused or confused.

In that regard, one of the worst ideas I have seen was an article in the New York Times last week by a former volunteer suggesting that Peace Corps volunteers take their humanitarian roles into military hot spots such as Iraq, Afghanistan or Liberia to supplement or replace our troops. Some suggested that during the Vietnam War, but thankfully wiser heads prevailed.

In its quieter way, the Peace Corps, with 6,678 volunteers (teachers, health workers, environmentalists, business consultants, etc.) in dozens of poorer countries, shows a real and important side of America — our better nature, some might say.

Yet there are other aspects to consider. For the Peace Corps was founded and continues with three purposes — to help other countries develop, to promote better understanding of the United States, and to help Americans understand the rest of the world.

While the Peace Corps has helped in the first two ways, I am in a majority who feels its greatest contribution has been to our own society. The point was well made recently by author-columnist Richard Reeves who observed that when Kennedy asked former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru what the latter thought of the Peace Corps, Nehru suggested it was a means through which privileged young Americans could learn a lot from the poor villagers of South Asia.

"Kennedy was not amused," Reeves wrote. "But Nehru, a prickly sort, turned out to be right. The greatest impact of the Peace Corps over the past 40 years has not been to bring sanitation or other modern wonders to the 'primitive' of the Earth, but rather to create a core group of tens of thousands of Americans who came home with some sympathetic knowledge or knowledgeable empathy for the way much of the world actually lives. Peace Corps alumni have enriched the United States beyond all hopes in politics and government, education and business."

So far the Peace Corps has brought home some 170,000 volunteers after two-year tours in 136 countries that have ranged from tiny island states to giants such as India, China and Russia.

Since 1961, Hawai'i has sent off some 1,200 volunteers, with perhaps 30 serving at any one time.

These alumni include members of Congress, ambassadors, and leaders in just about every profession and many businesses.

The Peace Corps volunteer "market" is currently up because of the 9-11 surge of patriotism, support from President Bush for doubling the number of volunteers, and the lack of jobs in our slow economy. Now it's up to a Congress struggling with budget pressures and some members who are against increases and want to cut Americorps, the Peace Corps' domestic counterpart.

I was thinking of this as I prepared to talk to a group of former volunteers here called Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Hawai'i, one of 140 such organizations around the country and part of a national network. Appropriately, in the modest Peace Corps manner, we met in a decorated Kapahulu carport near the more elaborate one of entertainer Sam Kapu.

I was not a Peace Corps volunteer, the group I most admire. Rather, back in 1963-64, I was in the more ominous (for volunteers) position of paid Washington staff member. My job was to fly off and evaluate Peace Corps programs in Asia and Africa, and training sites around the United States, including ones we had in Hawai'i, which was a conflict of interest I declared.

The Hawai'i group, with some 147 listed members, is just gearing up again after a lull. Among its activities is a TV program on 'Olelo Channel 52 at 9:30 Monday nights, "Bringing the World Back Home." It features interviews with returned volunteers. The group's Web site is www.rpcvhi.org.

This is a lively and interesting collection of younger returned volunteers and some staffers who have served in many countries, including, of course, those in Africa and Latin America. Without saying it, I got the feeling that most share my basic feeling — that our years in the Peace Corps were some of the better ones in our lives to date and for many there is something to that slogan, "The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love."

Moreover, this is a group with potential for greater numbers and East-West activities. Some estimate there may be over 1,000 former volunteers living in Hawai'i, as well as many returned volunteers from Hawai'i now living on the Mainland or abroad.

It is, then, already a quietly impressive asset for Hawai'i, and one that should continue to grow. Let's hope Washington doesn't screw it up.