What most of us remember of the weekend were Sargent Shriver’s comments under the big tent on the Mall and Bill Moyers’ speech in Arlington National Cemetery Ampitheatre. A ‘heads’ up’ to Sally Collier (Ethiopia 1962-64) for reminding me that Moyers’ talk should be published and shared with all the RPCVs and Staff who were not in Washington that bright September Sunday morning in 1986, or who joined the Peace Corps in the years since our 25th Anniversary Celebration.
Those men and women whose memory we honor today—volunteers and staff—would not wish us to be sentimental, to make heroic their living or to bestow martyrdom on their dying. I never met a volunteer who did not wince at the tales of idealism and sacrifice spun by Peace Corps/Washington in the cause of plump budgets and rave reviews. They would shun our praise and agree with that good friend of the Peace Corps, Murray Kempton, who said that “the true heroes are those who die for causes they cannot quite take seriously.” The most idealistic volunteers and staff kept their fingers a little bit crossed.
No, we are here for our sake, not for theirs. “In remembrance,” said a great teacher of the Jewish faith, “is the secret of redemption.” This summer in Fort Collins Lorette Ruppe talked of a forward vision for the Peace Corps. She said America needs to be challenged as John F. Kennedy challenged it in 1961. Well, if new ideas are to move us, if new purpose is to involve us, if new dreams are to lure us, they will be summoned not by piety toward the past but by remembrance of the values that connect the past to the present and us to the work yet to be done.
Welcome, then, to this celebration of remembrance for a gift of vision and values.
We have, in a sense, come full circle. The Peace Corps was born after a long season during which young Americans had been spiritually unemployed. Driven toward conformity by cold-war passions and the poisons of the McCarthy years, a generation found complacency and comfort in the good life of a booming economy. A cartoon late in the 1950s showed Uncle Sam with his arm around a young American. They were looking at students demonstrating in some foreign country, as Uncle Sam said: “We want our young people reading history, not writing it.” Then came the call, and the lethargy was shattered.
Now, once again a generation of Americans is tempted to live undisturbed, buying tranquility on credit while hearts atrophy, quarantined from any great enthusiasm but private ambition. Some years ago I talked on public television with the poet laureate of America, Archibald MacLeish. “Every now and then,” he said, “the deepest need of a generation appears to be a need not to make sense of our lives but to make nonsense of them.” He recalled how in the dark ages colonies of frightened folk withdrew from the world to pray for death in filthy cells with their backs turned to the green leaf and blue water. What MacLeish called “the snake-like sin of coldness-at-the-heart” bedevils us today, celebrated by the politics and commerce of images mass-produced in the media to do 0ur feeling for us.
I understand the mood of the times. Sometimes I want to admit that someone else is in charge and I just live here. I vacillate between the determination to change things and the desire to retreat into the snuggeries of self and family. The years have been hard on America’s gross national psychology—that measure of our hopes and fears.
And what a century this has been! We have had revealed to us beneath a thin veneer civilization the awful nature of a deep reality of death, violence, and evil. Listening this weekend to talk of a possible summit between the two superpowers, I remembered the suggestion made by the scholar Osker Morgenstern just before his death a few years ago. He said all meetings of the world’s statesmen should take place in one very specific setting –a bare, uncomfortable frame building in some unpleasant spot, not in summer, frigid in winter, furnished with a plain table and straight wooden chairs. The high walls of the conference room would be covered with large photo-murals depicting memorable scenes that would register our remarkable learning toward violent and inhumane behavior. The statesmen would negotiate surrounded by blowups of the smelly wretched battlefields of Verdun and the Somme, where one million one hundred thousand men died in a single battle. There would be pictures of the dead bodies piled up at Belleau Woods and Chateau Thierry; of the deep-eyed children kicked and battered in the Warsaw Ghetto before being shipped to the chambers of Auschwitz; of the SS using make-shift nooses of piano wire to hang boys and girls in rural Poland; of the dead at Iwo Jima and Dresden and Hiroshima; of the prisoners bayonetted before cheering crowds in the soccer stadium during the Indian-Pakistani war; of Stalin’s gulags and Pol Pot’s death squads; of John Kennedy’s limousine standing in Dallas empty except for blood and flowers; of Robert Kennedy lying still on a hotel kitchen floor; of a boy dying on the sidewalk at Kent State University as the black blood flowed from his head; of a little Vietnamese girl running naked down the road, seared by napalm; of Armenians simply vanished from the living; of the innocent slaughtered in Lebanon and the carnage of worshippers in a synagogue, of unmarked and unnumbered graves the world over.
Little did Marshall McLuhan know when he said the world is a global village that it’s name is Beirut. In contempt for life and its appetite for wholesale violence, this may be the most barbarous of centuries. And we find it hard to hear—even if we listen as attentively as Camus urged us to listen –the faint fluttering wings, the gentle stirring of life and hope. Looking back on this century, we seem to have passed so quickly from youthful, spontaneous, and wonderful expectations to uncertainty and anxiety and the beginning of the end. The image of Chernoble dwells in the mind: just as we were finally about to admit no man or woman is an island, we all woke up one morning to realize we live on Three-mile Island. No wonder so many think themselves impotent and seek refuge in the modern anchorites’ cell, counting their money and getting high while television experiences the world for them.
Sometimes I envy the soldier the clarity of his value. Look at the thousands of crosses surrounding this amphitheatre. They witness to the difference a life can make. When Tolstoy compared battle to a vast triangle, with Napoleon at the apex and the soldier at the base, he was saying that the closer a man is to the fighting, the nearer to the danger, the more important he is to the outcome of the battle, and if not to the battle then to his buddy. When veterans relive their exploits and swap their stories at reunions, they are celebrating the gift of a transcendent call—the share remembrance of emotions and commitments. In war, ordinary people make history.
But why should war be the only trumpet? Is there no other way for common patriots to make history? Soldiers are patriots and honored by us for it. But no matter how brave and devoted, the warrior’s patriotism must serve the nationalist spirit. The Prussian officers who fought for Hitler were patriots. As a patriot General Curtis LeMay urged that Vietnam be bombed into the stone age. General Westmoreland was a patriot. So his adversary, General Giap. In uniform patriotism can salute one flag only, embrace but the first circle of life—one’s own land and tribe. In war that is necessary, in peace it is not enough. When the young George Washington spoke of his country, he meant Virginia. Events enlarged his embrace to a whole new idea of nation—the United States of America. But less than a century later his descendent by marriage could not slip that more limited bonding. In the halls of the family home standing on the hill above us, General Robert E. Lee paced back and forth as he weighed the offer of Abraham Lincoln to take command of the Union Army on the eve of the civil war. Lee turned the offer down and that evening took the train to Richmond. His country, you see was still Virginia. His sentiment was noble but it served a limited vision.
We are struggling today with the imperative of a new understanding of patriotism and citizenship. The Peace Corps has been showing us the way, and the volunteers are staff whom we honor this morning are the vanguard of that journey. The writer William Least Heat Moon reminded us recently of those old radio broadcasts that spoke of escaped criminals being “at large.” It’s a fine phrase, he said, with its implications of an immensity to escape into as well as the awareness of life that can result. America—he said—put that criminality of self-absorption behind you and go outward and be at large!
To be a patriot in this sense means to live out of a recognition that one is a member of a particular culture and society, but so are all other human beings, and their kinship and bonds—their sacred places—are as important to them as ours are to us. Love of country, yes. Loyalty to country, yes; but we carry two passports—one stamped American, the other human being. We are members of the same great race, but our tents are pitched on different ground, and so we look out on the world from different angles. This has very practical results for the way one works. You go abroad cautious about the help you can be to others; the only change that really matters must come from within. But you go because the world is your home.
We knew from the beginning that the Peace Corps was not an agency, program, or mission. Now we know—from those who lived and died for it—that it is a way of being in the world. It is a very conservative notion, because it holds dear the ground of one’s own being—the culture and customs that give meaning to a particular life—but it is revolutionary for respecting the ground revered by others. This is the new politics and the new patriotism that may yet save this fragmented and dispirited age, and it is the gift they gave us.
Sargent Shriver once gave me a copy of Chaim Potok’s book, The Promise. I was deeply moved by what I read, and one passage in particular I underlined and over the years have come back to drink from its wisdom. This is it.
“Human beings don’t live forever, Reuven. We
Live less than the time it takes to blink an
Eye, if we measure our lives against eternity.
So it may be asked what value there is to human
life. There is so much pain in the world. What
does it mean to have to suffer so much if our
lives are nothing more than a blink of an
eye…I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that
a blink of the eye itself is nothing. But the
eye that blinks, that is something. A span of
life is nothing. But the man (or woman) who
lives that span, (they) are something. They can
fill that tiny span with memory, so that its
quality is immeasurably.”
And so they have.