View Electronic Edition

Force Without Firepower - Peace, Civic Action

"Military attacks on villages and civic action treatment of their wounded inhabitants are getting in each other's way. "    

-Edward Bernard Click, Peaceful Conflict (The Nonmilitary Use of the Military);

Definition: The use of military forces, especially in less-developed areas, for social service projects such as local construction, farming, public health, transportation, education, communication, conservation, community development, and the like.

Precisely because various concepts of military civic action, the Peace Corps, and so-called "national service" are widely known, I am giving this subject short shrift. Ever since William James' 1910 essay "The Moral Equivalent of War," and even long before, the logical substitute f6r warring armies has been thought to be "peace armies" for any number of civilian-oriented public works. To an extent that is well and good. But I would rather emphasize the idea of unarmed military forces in their primary mission of safeguarding human life: call it defense.

However, so much (yet so little) has been done in the manner of civic action and civilian voluntary service that it can hardly be overlooked in a discussion of unarmed services. I intend only to put these ideas and precedents in perspective, because all of them are but a slight deviation from the twentieth-century norm of war, destruction, and killing. After all, the Peace Corps is about 400 times smaller than the War Corps. Misuse of civic action has been endemic, what with its shotgun wedding to military suppression. Civic action in Vietnam was a red herring. Civic action by the Polish army was a warm-up for martial law.

The civic action ideal is worth noting, but no war or odious regime can be sanitized by it. Likewise, schemes for national service tend to be decoys for a military draft. I'd have no quarrel with making VISTA — Volunteers in Service to America — a  " thousand times larger. I have only contempt for so-called national service where prison is the alternative. Shall we lock up our daughters for two years if they don't join the Girl Scouts?
Precedents: We need only mention the Seabees, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Peace Corps, the admittedly destructive Army Corps of Engineers, and a host of similar endeavors everywhere: military, quasi-military, and civilian. Several books have adequately covered military civic action including titles by Edward GUck (quoted earlier) and Hugh Hanning (see bibliography).

The CCC (1933-1942) was one of the most widely hailed New Deal measures, but Congress ended it by a narrow vote with the onset of World War II. Somehow, "rehef' had been the keynote — not conservation. At its height in 1935 the Corps had 500,000 enrollees, and averaged 300,000 in units of 200 at 1500 camps run by the Army in cooperation with the Departments of Agriculture, Interior, and Labor. In 1940 alone, the CCC planted over 2.8 million trees, put up over 3600 buildings in parks, etc., and built over 900 reservoirs, among many other accomplishments.

On a much smaller scale there was a California Youth Conservation Corps, 2000 strong, which lost its funding this year. Its volunteers of both sexes served with much esprit despite their motto "Hard Work, Low Pay, Miserable Conditions."

Ideas: These too could be considered at length, but here only in passing. For instance, an "industrial army" was a nineteenth-century socialist artifice that has never been built, for better or worse. Strictly speaking, the concept is so altogether rational that it is bedazzling. As Charles Fourier asked in 1822, "How is it that our constructors of Utopias have not dared to dream of this one: an assemblage of 300,000 men employed in construction instead of destruction?'" Or as Edward Bellamy asked in 1888, why is "the killing of men ... a task so much more important than feeding and clothing them, that a trained army should be deemed alone adequate to the former, while the latter was left to a mob?"

Fourier, Bellamy, and others set forth elaborate designs in which an industrial army is the central social mechanism. In 1954, Heinz Rollman's book World Construction proposed that Congress "establish a Peace Army of at least three million men and women," draftees, for technical instruction abroad.6   While not a Peace Corps ancestor, Rollman's idea is sometimes cited among the earlier indications for such a body. The Peace Corps itself has never exceeded 16,000, and is now down to 5000. Should we not aim for 1,000,000 at the very least?

Instead of simply a footnote to the main work of the military, let civic action be a major mission, unencumbered by ambush and defoliation. Let a vast new CCC enroll every young or unemployed person in the land who so desires. And that's just for openers. Let civic action be the merest rehearsal for: