Robert L. Strauss is a Mythical Person

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Special Reports: April 1, 2008: Robert L. Strauss writes: The Peace Corps has never lived up to its purpose or principles : Robert L. Strauss is a Mythical Person

By Colin G. Gallagher, RPCV ( on Friday, June 20, 2008 - 7:43 am: Edit Post

One has to wonder: Who is this Robert L. Strauss, who seems to be spending a lot of time issuing non-constructive critiques (and a variety of rants) about the Peace Corps? He makes a lot of references to "myths" and "mythology" when describing the U.S. Peace Corps. It wouldn't hurt to ask: Is Robert L. Strauss a mythical person?

Whoever "Robert L. Strauss" really is, it is obvious what he says. Robert appears to make certain assumptions about "myths" of the Peace Corps going into his April 1 article in Foreign Affairs, but a close reading reveals that he is leaning on the "myth" concept as a marketing tool to highlight 'myth-ideas' he wishes to attack, without providing any evidence or indication of any kind as to whether or not the "myths" he describes are even assumed to be true by a majority of Peace Corps Volunteers or Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. To be sure, some of his "myths" he wishes to have us inspect could conceivably be ideas which he would like us to believe are held by senior Peace Corps staff, political appointees, etc., but he doesn't explain how this might be corroborated generally or specifically. There does seem to be quite an implicit assumption (and logical leap) that Robert L. Strauss would have us make in order to respect his argument.

To be fair, assumptions are always in order. I'm assuming for the sake of consistency of reference to "Robert" in this article that Robert R. Strauss is a "he." For all I know, that could be a pen name of a person who is in reality a female author living in the Ukraine, as opposed to THE "Robert L. Strauss" of Peace Corps Director fame.

Let's examine the "myths" that Robert claims exist (and which he wishes to undermine, or somehow show that they are false).

"Myth" #1: “The Peace Corps Is a Potent Diplomatic Weapon”
Since when have Peace Corps Volunteers, as a body, thought of the Peace Corps as a 'weapon,' diplomatic or otherwise? Personally, I've never heard a Peace Corps Volunteer or RPCV refer to Peace Corps as a weapon. Perhaps Robert was referring to one of those "weapons of mass diplomacy?" Last I saw one of those as a Peace Corps Volunteer, it came in the form of Bill Clinton, who landed on an airfield in San Salvador, El Salvador and greeted Peace Corps Volunteers before heading off on a tour of the countryside.

"Myth" #2: “The Peace Corps Recruits Only the Best and the Brightest”
When I was in the Peace Corps (in training, in country, before being formally accepted and matched with a site that had requested a Volunteer) I recall the trainers commenting that only 50% of those who enter generally make it through the three-month training. Many of those who went through the training had spent 3 to 5 years in their attempt to get in the Peace Corps. I got in in a year. Interestingly, all of us in the training group (about 15 people) made it through the training, and graduated. One was winnowed out by health issues right at the end of the training. I would argue persistence is a key trait that Peace Corps looks for, and there's nothing wrong with that. There's absolutely nothing wrong with assuming the 'best and the brightest' are not only the most persistent, but the more idealistic, as well as the more skilled persons in the candidate pool. But as the numbers of PCVs abroad climb, Peace Corps will need to look at ways to recruit more selectively.

"Myth" #3: “The Peace Corps Sends Volunteers Where They Are Needed Most”
You know, it would help here if he acknowledged in his article that Peace Corps Volunteers are placed in countries and villages where they are requested, before he goes on to say, "one wonders why the Peace Corps hasn’t concentrated what little it has on the world’s poorest countries, where the need is likely greatest." Peace Corps goes where it is requested to go, and in many cases, decides that sites or even countries might not work for a variety of reasons (safety being only one of them). Robert should talk to the Peace Corps Director and get the skinny on the latest criteria being used for placement (and he should reference and publish information about Peace Corps criteria for placement) before making such broad and sweeping statements about country selection and volunteer placement.

One of his key assumptions is that there are certain "myths" to begin with, something that we should question right off the bat. This article in Foreign affairs isn't the only place where mythiness was featured as a descriptive of the Peace Corps' activities, though.

In another of Robert's writings, a New York Times article, he states that since Kennedy, Peace Corps' "leaders and many of the more than 190,000 volunteers who have served have mythologized the agency into something that can never be questioned or improved." Quite a hasty generalization.... Did you get to know those 190,000 people, Robert? Do you really believe that most of the PCVs and / or RPCVs (there are a lot!) themselves believe that Peace Corps cannot be improved? If you had taken part if the debate (and draft legislation) that has evolved over the past several years you would realize how untrue your statement actually was, Robert.

I am getting too tired to address all of Robert's "Myths." But I'll cover one more before retiring. It's what he describes as "Myth" #6: “The Peace Corps Has a Strategy." In explaining away this "myth" he states that "The Peace Corps has plans, not a strategy. A strategy implies a conclusion, a final goal." This statement shows that Robert never really paid attention in class -- and lends credence to his assertion that Peace Corps might not have hired the best and the brightest (which is to say, when the Peace Corps hired him). The Peace Corps Act states, and I quote: "TITLE 22 UNITED STATES CODE
Sec. 2501. Congressional declaration of purpose
(a) The Congress of the United States declares that it is the policy of the
United States and the purpose of this Act to promote world peace and friendship
through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas
men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to
serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such
countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower, particularly in
meeting the basic needs of those living in the poorest areas of such countries, and
to help promote a better understanding of the American people on the part of the
peoples served and a better understanding of other peoples on the part of the
American people."

That's the purpose, Robert. That's also the goal. How do I know? Well, read further into the Peace Corps Act, where it says:
"In order to further the goal of the Peace Corps, as set forth in section 2 of
this Act [22 U.S.C. 2501], relating to the promotion of a better understanding of
other peoples on the part of the American people, the Director, utilizing the
authorities under section 10(a) [22 U.S.C. 2509(a)(1)] of this Act and other provisions
of law, shall, as appropriate, encourage, facilitate, and assist activities carried out by
former volunteers in furtherance of such goal and the efforts of agencies,
organizations, and other individuals to support or assist in former volunteers'
carrying out such activities."

Yes, this is your Third Goal expressing itself. Do your own homework if you don't know what I mean when I say the Third Goal.

Of course, there's no conclusion or finality to it. Promoting a better understanding of the American people on the part of the peoples served, and vice versa, is an ongoing endeavor -- arguably, one which does not lend itself well to some sort of program which would logically follow a course to a definite conclusion and end.

One could say the same about war, I suppose. You can win a war. But there is no such thing as a "war to end all wars," nor will there ever be, until the end of all time here on Earth.

Nor is there a conclusion to the process of pursuit of understanding, or pursuit of a sense of peace, although we can decide what peace will mean for us personally ~ the world will always need people who are willing to cultivate it.

What kind of peace do you seek, Robert?

My guess is you haven't found it in Madagascar, nor in your "myths" which you ask us to topple with your "reason." Perhaps you may find it in a quiet place ~ a place where "reason" and "myth" are at peace with "passion" and "truth."


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