The Peace Corps as a "model" for the military in Iraq

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Headlines: January 2004 Peace Corps Headlines: January 7, 2004 - Washington Post: Marines create armed version of the Peace Corps : The Peace Corps as a "model" for the military in Iraq

By Bill England ( - on Sunday, January 18, 2004 - 4:09 pm: Edit Post

A half century or so ago I served as a Marine in Korea. This past October I finished a 3½ year tour with the Peace Corps. Thus, it was with some real interest that I read the article which suggested that the Marine going into Iraq are going with a strategy of being something like groups of “armed Peace Corps” volunteers in Iraqi villages where they will be stationed.

I am very pro Marines and very pro Peace Corps, but I must confess to some difficulty in visioning a combination of either the mission of the Marines and of the Peace Corps. Being members of an organization committed to humane values and concern for the people with whom one works possibly would be common agendas for Marines and Peace Corps volunteers.

However, in my understanding (which is surely limited to living in an African village) the whole approach of the Peace Corps is fundamentally different than the approach of a military force, even the best (which the Marines clearly are). In the Peace Corps, a volunteer only goes where he/she is invited. By definition, a Peace Corps volunteer really lives in the village dependent upon the people of the village for any sort of protection which might be needed (in our tour my wife and I lived in the confluence of three villages in which we were the only white people in a population of approximately 35,000 people.) We lived in a country which has the international reputation as the murder capital of the world. Robberies, assaults, rape, and even murder were fairly commonplace in our villages. Yet we always felt safe, in large measure because the people of the villages considered us as “their volunteers” with our well being and protection as their responsibility. Peace Corps rules forbad us from having any sort of weapons, neither could we have our own transportation. When we wanted to go to another village to shop we rode in African taxis (ancient minivans packed with up to 15 people crammed inside). We always felt safe at either taxi or bus ranks because there were always people there who knew us, even though we were normally the only white people in the midst of Africans. While we had studied one of the African languages, it turned out not to be the language most commonly spoken in our village. Yet we really never had any difficulty because there was always someone eager to help (even grannies with whom we had no common language). We interacted with Moslems on a regular basis assured of our safety, even though they all disagreed with our government’s action in Iraq, because we were their “guests” and were treated accordingly.

If somehow the Marines going to Iraq can become “valued guests” in the Iraqi villages where they are being sent, then there may be some analogy between their mission and that of the Peace Corps. The time is past when we can argue about whether we should have gone to war with Iraq. Our nation as a whole must commit itself toward that time when the people of Iraq can safely adopt a government of their own choosing. Let us pray that our Marines may make a positive contribution to that end.

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