Service as Diplomacy: The Faces of the US Abroad

09/20/2013 05:45 pm ET | Updated Nov 20, 2013

The contents of this article are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

The iconic image of the modern U.S. soldier and that of the stereotypical Peace Corps volunteer could hardly be more different.

The former we've all seen, decked-out in the latest battle-field technology, seemingly more machine than human, traipsing the desert landscape on the latest front-line in our Global War on Terror. The latter is hardly ever seen, but instead surely imagined: some long-haired hippie wearing a combination of tie-dye and local hand-made fabrics, sitting around a fire strumming a guitar and singing kum-ba-yah while little dark-skinned children dance about.

After having spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer (PCV), I can personally attest to the fact that, in regards to the latter, such idyllic scenes are incredibly few and far between. Even when they might occur, they are almost always interrupted by bouts of diarrhea and embarrassing cultural missteps. As for the validity of the popular conception of the soldier, I will leave that to any veterans or military personnel to evaluate. I think we can all agree, however, that they seem to occupy polar opposite ends of the spectrum that is service to our country.

The roles of these two organizations, one a monolithic global enforcement agency, the other a grassroots development program, have always been related, if at the same time also at odds and estranged. Certainly, they are not directly affiliated -- it has been a point since its inception that the Peace Corps remain an independent entity from both the U.S. State Department and, of course, the military -- but whether they realize it or not, the actions of each affect the other greatly.

When it was first founded in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps was criticized by many as being a possible haven for draft dodgers, potentially giving rise to a "cult of escapism." Service in the Peace Corps was almost immediately cast in a contrasting light to that of military service.

This was not helped by the fact that one significant driving forces behind the formation of the Peace Corps in the first place was a rising trend of unfriendly revolutionary movements in the developing world. Such popular sentiments across Africa, Asia and Latin America were responses to years of colonialism and imperialism, often enforced directly by military intervention and/or occupation; Peace Corps was seen as a way to counter this tide and improve the American image abroad. From the start, it appeared as a sort of PR lackey to the military strong-arm of American capitalism.

Whether we like it or not, today's American soldier in the streets of Fallujah (and the unseen drone flying overhead) is one of the most powerful and lasting images that the United States projects to the world. It has been that way for almost a century now. At the same time, in small corners of the globe, the PCV working in a rural village is also the most immediate impression made on many local peoples. Despite all of the differences between us, both soldiers and volunteers are together in the fact that we are the face of the United States to the world. And as the image of the U.S. soldier has become widespread to the point of banality, PCVs are more often the ones forced into the position of explaining the apparent disparity between themselves and those machine-gun wielding men on TV.

It is left to the peacenik volunteers to explain the rationale behind the constant military aggression and warmongering on the part of our country. Needless to say, some of us find this quite a difficult task.

It's hard not to feel sometimes as if my role as a Peace Corps volunteer is really just that of a cheap propaganda organ for the United States. Volunteers are inexpensive and effective -- if not necessarily in fulfilling development goals, then in promoting a positive image of America to whatever village they live in for their two-year service. Where it costs somewhere around $1 million to keep a U.S. soldier on active duty for one year (as of 2012), it costs just about $50,000 for a single PCV.

With few exceptions, the return on investment for a volunteer is quite high. At best, PCVs can both tangibly effect the lives of impoverished people in developing nations and provide a positive, alternate image of our country abroad. At worst, they are very limited in the harm they can do to the American image through Peace Corps' patent combination of geographic and cultural isolation.

Personally, I joined the Peace Corps to do development work in other countries. But upon reflection, it shouldn't have been such a surprise when I realized that our true function as volunteers is first and foremost that of cultural ambassadors. The three mandates of a Peace Corps volunteer are as follows: 1) Help meet the needs of developing nations for trained personnel 2) Provide a better understanding of Americans on the behalf of other peoples, and 3) Provide a better understanding of other peoples on the behalf of Americans.

There is a reason why the efficacy of Peace Corps as a development organization is severely limited by its lack of financial and material resources. Development work is not our priority; representing America to the world is. To put this in perspective, the entire yearly Peace Corps budget for 2012 was roughly $375 million to support around 8,000 volunteers in 76 countries. This budget would not even be enough to arm and equip a single military battalion of 400 soldiers for the same year.

Despite the fact that Peace Corps operates separately from any other U.S. government organization (including USAID), it is a constant battle for almost all volunteers to distance themselves from the assumptions that are superimposed upon us by the much more common impressions of America.

In each of the three countries I have visited as a PCV I have been called a spy and an informant for the U.S. government. Such accusations are so frequent with volunteers that they have become the thing of jokes among the Peace Corps community. Still, it speaks to something much more profound than simple cultural misconceptions -- it speaks to a general distrust developed over a century of military adventurism and imperialistic tendencies on our part. Sometimes it really does feel as if part of our job is just to undo some of the damage already done by U.S. foreign and military policy.

What is worrisome to me is that, as the nature of warfare has changed, so too has the role of the military. In cases such as Iraq and Afghanistan, we are not involved in full-fledged combat but instead in this new concept of "nation-building." Soldiers on the ground find themselves fighting insurgents with close ties to local communities and the persistent bonds of religious fundamentalism. All of a sudden, it no longer matters who has the biggest bomb or the best gadgets; what matters is the ability to communicate in the local language, to understand the intricate nuances of cultures and community dynamics, to develop long-term relationships with local leaders that are based on mutual trust and respect.

This is hardly the task that our military-industrial machine is best suited for and hardly the role that a hardened soldier is best trained to fulfill. It is, however, almost the exact job description of each and every Peace Corps volunteer. While in the end, the aims of both the military and Peace Corps still remain quite different, this strange convergence between their means is sufficient grounds for contemplation.

Don't get me wrong; I think that a grassroots approach to military operations is preferable to carpet-bombing entire villages. But what is most concerning to me is that, with the increasing reliance on methodology that so closely resembles that used in Peace Corps (minus the guns, of course), we are sowing poisonous seeds of misgiving. We are sending a mixed message at least, one that may compromise the ability for PCVs to gain that same community trust as they carry out their own mission. In the process of "winning the hearts and minds of the people" in an ultimate effort to further American self-interest, the military is in fact working towards invalidating and unraveling lots of the honest, genuine work that PCVs have accomplished over the past 50 years and might accomplish in the future.

Both Peace Corps volunteers and soldiers serve our country. While volunteers might not be facing enemy fire, we do give over two years of our life and suffer a great deal of physical hardship to accomplish what I believe are very noble goals. And although I will not say that the experience as a PCV is comparable to that of a soldier, I will say that I believe there are some aspects to being a PCV that are more difficult. The immense geographical and cultural isolation as well as physical and psychological discomfort of living below the poverty line are all much longer and more intensely endured by volunteers. At the same time, however, PCV's are certainly not coming home with such horrific physical and psychological injuries, those terrible sacrifices that soldiers are too often asked to make for our country.

There is no way to reconcile these two immediate faces of America to millions of people across the world; the military and the Peace Corps will always serve their own distinctly different purposes and for many reasons it is better that it remain this way. At least, through understanding their strange relationship, we might shed some light on what we are actually accomplishing in the world and what we are not. Maybe a simple change in our underlying mentality might allow both to progress beyond this constant cycle of doing and undoing of each others' work.

In the end, I believe, it will be in our own self-interest, the interests of PCVs, soldiers and developing nations alike, to distance ourselves from this over-reliance on military might and the insistence on our own exceptionalism; we need to be able to meet other countries as equals and turn to force only as a last resort, not a first. Admittedly, I am far from unbiased in this conclusion, but perhaps others will agree: the more our foreign policy embraces the philosophy and attitudes of Peace Corps, the better for us all.