Directed by Alana DeJoseph (Mali 1992-94)
Reviewed by Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 1965-67)
A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps took on a towering task: to tell the story of a 57-year-old government agency where virtually all the people involved were short-timers. Volunteers served two years, with a few, very few, extending to a third year, and staff were limited to 5 years of service. What RPCVs like me remember is our window of service in the country we served, but the story is much bigger than a single slice of time.
Director Alana DeJoseph obviously knows that the best way to portray history is through the stories of participants threaded together, and makes generous use of interviews and film clips beginning with those present at the creation and including volunteers, host country nationals, and staff of every era.
It opens with Sarge Shriver earnestly explaining the purpose of the Peace Corps, then moves to John F. Kennedy as a young senator being so moved by the 1958 novel The Ugly American that he sent a copy to each of the 99 other occupants of the Senate. Kennedy’s question was how can you lead a world you don’t understand? Let’s get about understanding the world we live in.
He first raised the idea of a corps for peace at a speech at the University of Michigan (at 2 am in the morning!) a month before the 1960 election, and two weeks later, at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, he called specifically for “a peace corps . . . of talented young men and women, willing and able to serve their country . . ..” Candidate Nixon condemned the idea, predicted that the so-called peace corps volunteers would be draft dodgers, but Kennedy won the election. The new president quickly pulled together a group who met at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. to take on what Kennedy called “A Towering Task” . . . creating a Peace Corps.
The film follows the evolution of the Peace Corps over its 57 years, through successes, setbacks, and scandals, interviewing returned volunteers and historians from every era of its existence, always against the back-drop of history: the View Nam war, the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the end of the cold war.
The film is informative, realistic, and often unexpectedly moving. There are clips from Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, both Bushes, and President Obama, each praising the Peace Corps. It began in a time of idealism, suffered missteps along the way, reinvented itself with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and, I believe, fulfilled its three missions: to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans. I think most RPCVs would agree with Volunteer who says there was “a whole lot more good done for yourself.”
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, speaks glowingly of the work of Peace Corps Volunteers, particularly during the ebola crisis in her country. “We are a global village,” she says in direct contrast to the clip of President Trump that follows: “There is no global answer; no global currency; no global citizenship . . ..”
The film concludes on a somber note: nationalism is on the rise, climate change is here, mass migration a present danger, and ends with the words of the young president who, 60 years ago, dreamed of a corps of peacemakers: “All this will not be finished, but let us begin.”
Yes. It hasn’t been perfect, but let us begin, again and again and again.
Kathleen Coskran (Ethiopia 1965-67) is primarily a fiction writer but is currently working on a book about the lack of justice in the multiple criminal justice systems in the United States, based on her 25-year friendship with James Colvin, who has been incarcerated for nearly 50 years.
Kathy adds: “I am deeply envious of John Coyne (Ethiopia 1962-64) who not only appears in The Towering Task, but was present at Kennedy’s speech at the University of Michigan in 1960 when the idea of a corps for peace was first mentioned. Coyne went on to be a member of the first group of volunteers to serve in Ethiopia, met the president at the White House, then, upon arriving in Addis Ababa, was in the group presented to His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie.”