Keeping the Peace Corps peaceful
By Moon Yun Choi
It seemed a long time ago when Sierra Leone rebel soldiers were shooting rifles into the air outside the house of Craig Clouet, who was a Peace Corps volunteer during the African country's military coup in 1991.
Clouet once shared meals with his Muslim neighbors he described as "very nice people," but it's a different world since the Sept. 11 attacks and the fear of repeated terrorism that followed.
The continuing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and growing tension with North Korea have fueled suggestions that Peace Corps volunteers should be sent to military hot spots to act as humanitarian aid workers alongside U.S. soldiers. In Hawai'i, former Peace Corps volunteers like Clouet say there is still a vital role for the Peace Corps in this terrorism-ridden world, but they don't agree that volunteers should work side by side with the U.S. military.
"Definitely not," says Clouet, who was an agro-forestry volunteer and now works with maps as a geographic information system manager at Kamehameha Schools.
"Volunteers (are) not trained for that," he said. "Most of the volunteers at least the ones I've met are not in that caliber to be in military hot spots. It makes the Peace Corps look, as people often accuse us of being, (like) a CIA- or military-type operation that's at the front line to gather information to take back to the U.S. embassies or the CIA."
The proper role of the Peace Corps is to bring Americans to other parts of the world, Clouet says. "They can see that we're not all CIA agents, military or bad people," he said. "We can bring our knowledge of other countries back to the U.S. For example, I now know a lot about Islam. ... "
From his experience serving in both the Peace Corps and the U.S. Army, former Hawai'i politician Anson Chong opposes stationing volunteers in areas "deemed dangerous by American embassy professionals." If, for example, volunteers were placed into the Gaza Strip, Chong says, they "could be killed or kidnapped because of the strong anti-American sentiment."
Photo courtesy Lance Holter
With their well working again, Tunisian villagers no longer need to walk five miles for water.
Photo courtesy Lance Holter
Chong, who was also a foreign service officer in the Middle East, says: "Sending idealistic, competent Americans to the Third World or any other area that requests volunteers (such as) Eastern Europe is a great way for folks in those areas to experience, at firsthand, normal Americans, as opposed to much of the crap they get over there by their government media which is decidedly anti-American. This can only have a positive effect on American foreign relations, albeit in a small way."
Adam Liss taught business classes in what was then Western Samoa, now renamed Samoa, from 1986 to 1989. Today, he works as managing director at SGV Hawaii, a school that teaches English as a second language, and is president of the Association of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Hawaii.
Liss believes that volunteers would be killed in combat zones. "Volunteers aren't equipped to deal with military issues," he said. "We have to be sent to a safe place and be requested by (that country's) government. It's not in our mission to solve military problems."
By helping people fill a need in their country, Liss says, "You're putting a good face on America ... and also bringing it back home and teaching Americans about other places. In the long run, it's the best weapon because you're helping educate people."
Edward J. Shultz was among the first group of volunteers sent to South Korea in 1966. He taught English at a boys high school in Pusan and today is professor of history and director of the Center for Korean Studies at the University of Hawai'i.
Shultz says sending volunteers to military hot spots goes contrary to what Peace Corps is about. "The Peace Corps has to work in a peaceful environment. When you have hot zones, that means peace has failed."
He adds, "The secret of Peace Corps is to use them before you need to send in the troops, before you have an actual conflict. If you have volunteers in well in advance, then chances are you won't need to resort to warfare."
Shultz says that in terms of the current dispute with North Korea, both America and North Korea are too willing to mistrust one another because of a history of misunderstandings. "If everybody could just back off and back down and listen to sane, logical solutions to current issues, they could be resolved much more quickly than by blustering and basically pursuing a policy of brinkmanship. ... "
David Ringuette served in Morocco in 1980-82. Now associate professor of agriculture at Windward Community College, he helped farmers breed fish to sell.
Ringuette thinks that putting volunteers in Afghanistan or Iraq would "destroy Peace Corps." That's because the organization is about peace and exchanging good will between countries, rather than military intervention. "Once that comes in," Ringuette said, "the whole idea (of the Peace Corps) and the way (it) can work is gone because it's based on trust."
Ringuette gave a personal example of what can happen when the Peace Corps' role has been appropriately put into place, recalling a Muslim family he became close with when he was a volunteer and visited on a return trip 20 years later. "It was like a son who went away to college," he said. "The embraces and the kisses and the hugs ... it was tremendous. It was an outpouring of hospitality, love and caring. I think that the more that can happen, the less friction there'll be within peoples."
Lance Holter built wells in Tunisia in 1972-73 and is now a real-estate broker and a building and plumbing contractor on Maui. The Peace Corps, he says, should "wage peace," not war.
But unlike most of the Hawai'i volunteers, Holter is in favor of supporting volunteers who want to serve alongside the U.S. troops in Iraq because he believes that volunteers can make a better life there for future generations. The important issue for him is that "volunteers must know they are putting their life on the line for the ideal they believe in." But he cautions that every Westerner is a target in war, so "the volunteer is going to have to be a brave individual with an understanding of what he is getting himself into."
For Holter, the Peace Corps' role in today's strife-torn world is to reduce fear and anxiety in Third World countries and to educate the local populace.
Years after the Peace Corps, he traveled through Afghanistan in the winter of 1978 before the assassination of the last pro-Western leaders and the beginning of the Soviet occupation. "I witnessed the last days of a wonderful thriving culture where women taught at schools, practiced medicine, went to college and even wore skirts without veils. The fruit stands and marketplaces were fantastic and bustling, the farms productive (and) the people had hope. It was a safe and an amazing place," Holter said.
Peace Corps Director Gaddi Vasquez says the Peace Corps is as vital as ever, noting President Bush's State of the Union promise, made after the 2001 terrorist attacks, to double the number of Peace Corps volunteers over the next five years.
But as for the Peace Corps having any role in the war against terrorism, Vasquez stresses that the organization "does not play an active role in foreign policy." Rather, he said, the Peace Corps works at the grass-roots and community levels to build positive relationships that serve as a crucial foundation for international peace and understanding.
"Asking the Peace Corps to become negotiators in war or humanitarian workers would be asking the Peace Corps to forget and abandon its 42-year mission of helping people at the grassroots level," Vasquez said.
Moon Yun Choi was a volunteer in Mali, West Africa, as a small-business adviser from 1995 to 1998.