|By John Rude (adsl-207-105-44-86.dsl.lsan03.pacbell.net - 126.96.36.199) on Tuesday, May 11, 2004 - 3:12 am: Edit Post|
The idea is not as far-fetched as it sounds. There were several children of famous people (author James Michener’s son Charlie, for example) who were part of our training group of 380 newly-minted PCVs at Georgetown University during the summer of 1962. I recall that there were enough Yale graduates to make up a small Whiffenpoof Chorus, augmented by voices of more modest education, such as my own. There were even several future candidates for Congress, and a future Senator, Paul Tsongas, who became a credible Presidential candidate in 1992 before he died of cancer in 1997.
Only a handful of the 160,000 Americans who have served in the Peace Corps since its founding in 1961 have become rich or influential. But this shouldn't have convinced George W. Bush to choose the National Guard over the Peace Corps when he was still in his formative years. Some have suggested that the younger Bush may have been trying to avoid the risks of military service overseas. He might have avoided the Peace Corps for the same reason. Over 300 Peace Corps volunteers have died in service, many were drafted into the Vietnam conflict, and my own replacement in Ethiopia was eaten by a crocodile.
Assuming that the lad from Midland, Texas had survived such rigors, and that he possessed more than a few ounces of idealism, what might he have learned from his Peace Corps experience? How could these lessons have helped him deal with 9/11 and the current crisis in Iraq? I can only speculate, but here are my guesses, based on my two years of service in Ethiopia, including a year in a Muslim village near the Sudan border.
The first highly predictable transformation in the young George Bush would be softening of his cock-sure attitude that he is right 100% of the time. You simply cannot live in a village where people speak a language you barely understand, with visual evidence of problems in your face every day, in every direction, and not acquire some humility. What might have worked for an American in Midland or Hartford or Spokane simply no longer applied. When you serve in the Peace Corps, it either dawns on you slowly, or it smacks you in the face, that America doesn’t have all the answers to the world’s needs. It has damned few, in fact.
Another change in the young George Bush, if he had served as a Peace Corps volunteer, is that he might have acquired the gift of language. Yes, I mean the English language, because you can't afford to be inarticulate around people who understand only a fraction of what you're saying. If, as I was forced to do, George W. Bush had learned Arabic, a whole universe would have opened before him. He would have understood the debt that he owed to Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Libya, Lebanon, Iran and even remote Afghanistan. No alphabet, no algebra, no remnants or Greek and Roman civilization would have been passed down to us without Arabic and Arabs. These gifts might have seemed even more precious to the president-to-be than American technology fueled by oil.
The values of the future president would have been shaped, also, by his perception the United States, as viewed figuratively from the wrong end of the telescope. He might have witnessed local American diplomats propping up petty dictators, like Mobutu Sese Seko (Congo), Reza Pahlevi (Iran) and Haile Selassie (Ethiopia), whose regimes (among many supported by the U.S.) tortured, imprisoned and killed thousands of their opponents. He might have asked searching questions about U.S. foreign policy. How should America apply its military might in the world? How many weapons are needed by any nation to preserve international peace? What do we gain or lose by supporting radical liberation movements like the mujahideen? Would an expanded humanitarian role in the world serve America better than an increase in the number of Marine expeditionary forces?
Family stories suggest that George W. Bush was a party guy when he was young; he might not have been interested in such serious questions. We had several party guys in my Peace Corps group too, yet they returned to America as changed people. Even their ideas of fun changed, especially if they lived in Muslim cultures. They witnessed, as George would have witnessed, daily rituals performed with utmost piety. Then, after the sun went down, these volunteers would recline on rugs with the local sheikhs, sip hot tea, nibble on fresh fruit, barbecue a lamb and talk about world affairs. These village elders (along with their furtive wives and children) listened to the B.B.C. and read the Guardian Newspaper. They knew more about the world than we did, and certainly had more nuanced views than Karl Rove or Dick Cheney. They would have been fabulous teachers and mentors for George W. Bush.
Without doubt, service as volunteer in a Muslim country would have prevented President Bush from using the unfortunate image of “crusade,” as he did briefly (until corrected) after the Twin Towers collapsed to the ground. He would have understood that religious fanaticism is a pernicious thing, whether it is espoused by Muslims, Jews or Christians. He would have sought an international, inter-faith response to the crisis, marshalling world opinion to identify and marginalize the terrorists.
Coming from an ex-Peace Corps volunteer as President, such an appeal would be utterly credible, because millions of people around the world have seen Peace Corps volunteers in action. More to the point, most volunteers were transformed by their experience into world citizens, learning to appreciate more deeply the values of their native land. It probably never would have occurred to a president who perceived himself as accountable to world opinion to order pre-emptive, unilateral military action in Iraq.
I can state with confidence that Peace Corps volunteers, generally speaking, are not saints. Young Bush should not have hesitated to join the Peace Corps on that account. However, overseas service in the midst of a humanitarian crisis does bring out the efficient problem-solver in a person. On humanitarian fields of battle, there is little tolerance for ideological thinking, and even less for aggressive, "bring it on" assertiveness. The humanitarian's motto is: just get the job done. Next, turn it over to locals who are often a lot more resourceful, and own the problems in the first place. Their goal is to make the best contribution they can, then come home.
How I wish that George W. Bush had joined the Peace Corps when he was a young man. I believe that as an ex-Peace Corps president, he would have de-fanged the terrorists and possibly even discovered a proportional role for the U.S. in the community of nations. Seeing that there is no hope for my dream, I will settle for the next-best thing—an ex-Navy fighter who understands the full grit and futility of war. Maybe then, after November, I'll be able to re-kindle my dream of an RPCV president.
|By Virginia Achen (msn165-174.med.und.nodak.edu - 188.8.131.52) on Monday, May 17, 2004 - 1:34 pm: Edit Post|
Yes, it would have been very good if George W. Bush had joined the Peace Corps, but it would be good for any American to join the Peace Corps. I think it is a wonderful idea to begin to enlist students who hold an associate degree from a two year junior college, as is now proposed. Whatever we can do to get American youth to "volunteer" in another culture is good for America and good for the life of the person volunteering. We all need to "walk in another's shoes" to begin to understand the thoughts and actions of those others.
|By daniel (0-1pool136-14.nas12.somerville1.ma.us.da.qwest.net - 184.108.40.206) on Monday, May 17, 2004 - 10:29 pm: Edit Post|
He did not serve in Peace Corps.
Paul Tsongas did and he was able to demonstrate in the 1992 primary that going to war for oil is short sighted. Tsongas's wake up call helped Bill Clinton come to the top, and Clinton took his message and ran with it. It is just too bad that Clinton did not have the respect for Tsongas he should have. Clinton would have never won if Tsongas did not come out fighting back against Bush senior. That is my opinion.
Tsongas's voice is sorely missed. He was honest to a fault.
Bush did not serve in Peace Corps and probably wouldn't have.
John Rude, I appreciate you pointing out the narrow scope in which this administration works.