Tuesday, August 23, 2005

In re: "Welcome Soldiers to the Peace Corps," by Colman McCarthy, The Washington Post (8/21/2005)

In an article in the August 2, 2005, edition of The Washington
, journalist Alan Cooperman wrote that "the U.S.
military, struggling to fill its voluntary ranks, is offering
to allow recruits to meet part of their military obligations
by serving in the Peace Corps, which has resisted any ties to
the Defense Department or U.S. intelligence agencies since
its founding in 1961 ... Congress authorized the recruitment
program three years ago in legislation that drew little
attention at the time but is stirring controversy now, for
two reasons: The military has begun to promote it, and the day
is drawing closer when the first batch of about 4,300 recruits
will be eligible to apply to the Peace Corps, after having spent
3 1/2 years in the armed forces ... When it stalled as a separate
bill, aides to the senators [McCain and Bayh] said, they folded
it into a 306-page defense budget bill, where it did not attract
opposition ... Peace Corps Director Gaddi H. Vasquez, who was
appointed in 2002 by President Bush, said in a recent
interview that the Peace Corps was unaware of the provision
until after it became law ..." He said, "There might have been a
discussion, there could have been some dialogue on this, but
obviously that didn't happen,"

Columnist Colman McCarthy responded to the news, and to the
negative response of current and former Peace Corps people, in an
irate op-ed piece in The Washington Post on Sunday, August
21, 2005. He stated that "the Peace Corps should be open to all
comers, regardless of the route they take to apply. Is someone
with a liberal arts degree from an Ivy League school somehow
superior in character and skills to a Marine lance corporal
educated by surviving combat in Iraq? Elitism is at work here:
The purity of the Peace Corps will be sullied by opening the doors
to militarists." He decried the "... bias against people in the
military [that] has long infected the American peace movement ..."
and posits that "an alliance with the Pentagon could be an
opportunity for supporters of the Peace Corps ... to shake the
Pentagon's money tree and increase the Peace Corps budget."

In an unpublished "Letter to the Editor" of The Washington Post,
I responded as follows:

During the period from 1968 to 2001, I served for 19 years with
the Peace Corps as a Volunteer and staff, in Africa and in
Washington. Based upon my knowldge and expeience, I believe that
Colman McCarthy is entirely wrong.

The negative response of current and former Peace Corps Volunteers
and staff to the provisions of the "National Call to Service" law
that allows members of the US armed forces to complete their service
in the Peace Corps is not an elitist anti-military reaction. There
have always been veterans of the armed forces who have served as
Volunteers and staff of the Peace Corps. Former Peace Corps
Volunteers have also served in the military after their Peace Corps
service. Among the thousands of Volunteers and staff that I have
known since 1968, there were more military veterans than Ivy League
liberal arts grads. Volunteers are more likely to be graduates of
state universities and of small Catholic and Protestant liberal arts
colleges where their vocation for public service has been nurtured.

I know that no one values peace more than America's combat
veterans. Among them are my late father, a proud World War II
submariner whose example inspired me to serve in the Peace Corps.
Until now, however, there has never been any confusion about Peace
Corps Volunteers' status in regard to the military when they were
assigned to any of the dozens of countries where they serve, often
at very remote sites.

Peace Corps has never been able to guarantee absolutely the security
of each and every one of the thousands of Volunteers serving at any
given time. The agency staff tries to select assignments and sites
carefully and trains Volunteers in the cultural and linguistic
skills that will help them to be both effective and safe. Ultimately,
however, Volunteers' safety and well-being are in the hands of the
people and the local authorities of the communities where they live
and work. Typically, Volunteers are offered tremendous hospitality
and are enveloped by their host communities. Any confusion in the
eyes of a Volunteer's neighbors and co-workers as to what is the
real mission of that Volunteer, and as to what is his or her
relationship to the US military, is potentially very troublesome.
It may not only diminish a Volunteer's effectiveness but also can
diminish the community's willingness to take responsibility for the
Volunteer's safety. As a result, the new law may make Peace Corps
Volunteers more vulnerable and less safe.

And by the way, if this new provision of law is such a great idea,
why was it not debated in the light of day? Why was it sneaked into
legislation without the knowledge of current and former Peace Corps
people and of most of the Members of Congress and Senators who
voted on it? This is hardly a shining example of democracy at work.
The Peace Corps-related provisions of this law are ill-advised and
dangerous. Congress should repeal them at the earliest possible
Copyright © 2005 Kelly J. Morris


Kimberly said...

During my last year in college (2006) I strongly considered joinging the PC, but was throughly disturbed by the allowing of a military relationship and for the same reason you expressed in your op-ed. I yet again have this overwhelming desire to apply, but this still concerns me. I have not been able to find follow-up articles to this debate. Might you have any leads or personal insight? I do plan on talking to PC recruiters, but was hoping to get an outside view. Thanks!

Kelly J. Morris said...

Kimberly - I believe that this issue was resolved within a few months after the program came to public attention and that this practice no longer exists. You should check with a recruiter to confirm this, however. I do encourage you to pursue Peace Corps Volunteer service and wish you the best of luck.