early-years-pc-afg-140The Early Years of Peace Corps in Afghanistan: A Promising Time
By Frances Hopkins Irwin (Afghanistan 1964–67) and Will A Irwin (Afghanistan 1965–67)
Peace Corps Writers Book
294 pages
$17.00 (paperback), $6.00 (Kindle)
February 2014

Reviewed by John Sumser (Afghanistan 1977-78)

What struck me as I read the Irwin’s account of the early days of the Peace Corps in Afghanistan is how little anything changed. The problems faced by the initial Volunteers and their director (then called a “representative”) were the same as those faced by my cohort fifteen years later: What is the proper role of a Volunteer? Is the Peace Corps a CIA front? Should Volunteers have servants? What should our social lives look like? I felt, after reading the book, that the Peace Corps is never established anywhere as much as it is continuously invented and negotiated on a daily, face-to-face basis.

The Irwins have created an oral history, smoothly integrating quotations with archival research. The photos provide a nice window into the lives of the Volunteers, who appear uniformly nicely dressed and cooperative. As a reader, I cannot tell if this impression of Volunteers illustrates an historical difference in the type of person who Volunteers or simply changes in fashion. The Irwins present an institutional history and, as with many histories, individuals become two dimensional.

I remember the day we landed in Kabul and met some of the Volunteers who had been trucked out to the airport to greet us. “If you think you’re ever going to get laid here,” one of them told me and my friend Chuck, “you can forget it.” Peace Corps Volunteers are quirky, young, smart, adventurous people and most of those qualities are sanded away in the Irwin’s narrative; all the characters are defined as subdued and responsible. By the time I joined, the Peace Corps was a well-known institution in America, but the first groups to go — and especially to go to a relatively obscure country — were really jumping blindly and I would like to know who they were and why they did it. And how it changed them.

The Irwins allude to the sorts of things that interest me, but do not develop them. They mention in passing, for example, that for some of the Volunteers Afghanistan was an alternative to Vietnam. The U.S. and much of the Western world was in turmoil in the time period covered in this book and I would have loved to see that larger context developed.

The Irwins write a short, clear history of the Peace Corps entry into Afghanistan. Its matter-of-fact chronology is both its strength and its weakness. For me, it raised more questions than it answered.

John Sumser has his B.A. and M.A. in philosophy and an M.A. and Ph.D. in sociology where he focused his studies on mass media and popular culture. He is an army veteran, an RPCV, and a recipient of a Fulbright Award to the Czech Republic. He has published three academic books and written — but not published — four novels. Today he is professor in the Department of Communication Studies at California State University, Stanislaus, and spends his spare time learning Spanish. He is also the owner of three motorcycles: a Triumph Street Triple, a 1967 Benelli 125, and a 1966 Honda CB 160 currently being converted into a race bike.