Welcome Soldiers to the Peace Corps

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By Colman McCarthy
Sunday, August 21, 2005

Orthopedists are busy these days fitting braces to all the jerking knees of Peace Corps supporters opposed to ties with the U.S. military. A Pentagon program, legislated by Congress three years ago and increasingly promoted by the military now that its recruitment numbers are flagging, allows soldiers to join the Peace Corps to meet part of their military obligation.

Under the National Call to Service legislation, which was guided through Congress by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), soldiers could spend 3 1/2 years in one of the four branches and then fulfill the rest of their commitment with two years as Peace Corps volunteers.

Peace Corps allies -- many of them past and current volunteers and officials -- are throwing major and minor fits. What's this? Soldiers trained to kill would now become idealists trained to heal? Except in Tolstoy, war and peace don't mix, no more than hawks and doves are nesting mates.

As a pacifist opposed to all wars past, current and future, I'm also wary of increasing the military's reach. But not this time. 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.

If contamination is the fear, why not exclude all former soldiers who might want to join the Peace Corps? If that idea has never been advanced, and it never has, what's the difference between accepting those recently out of the military and those still in? If they are qualified and can pass all the entrance requirements, let them in.

A bias against people in the military has long infected the American peace movement, as if denouncing war must include denouncing warriors. It was a World War II combat veteran, Sargent Shriver, who became the first director of the Peace Corps as the appointee of another combat veteran, President John F. Kennedy. The list is long of soldiers who went from believing in peace through strength to strength through peace: Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola, Howard Zinn, Andy Jacobs, Philip Berrigan, Garry Davis, George McGovern, among others.

Mahatma Gandhi, a noncombatant in the Boer War, strongly admired soldiers. When asked about that -- how could the great practitioner of nonviolence hold the military in high regard? -- he replied that soldiers were paragons of discipline and resolve, virtues often lacking in peacemakers, who sometimes think that it is enough to stage antiwar marches and hold con-

ferences to damn the military.

An alliance with the Pentagon could be an opportunity for supporters of the Peace Corps -- and I have been one going back to the early 1960s -- to shake the Pentagon's money tree and increase the Peace Corps budget. Congress lavishes more than $1 billion a day on the military, which is almost five times more than what it gives the Peace Corps in a year. That's the real scandal. With more money, fewer qualified Peace Corps applicants would be turned away. And perhaps, with more slots, fewer people would be choosing the military in the first place.

The writer, a former columnist for The Post, directs the Center for Teaching Peace. He teaches courses on nonviolence at four universities and three high schools in the Washington area.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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