In the late 1960s I chose to go to Thailand as a Peace Corps Volunteer, primarily because Thailand was as close to the Vietnam War venue as I could get while remaining outside the battle arena. I hoped to serve there as an alternate presence to the many United States soldiers and businessmen embroiled in agendas I didn’t support in Southeast Asia. While most of the volunteers in my Peace Corps group had not specifically requested Thailand, they also wanted Thai people to get to know Americans other than the military, missionary and corporate types typically encountered there.
Of course, in the 1960s the US was deeply entrenched in what Americans call the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese, conversely, refer to as the American War. The men in my Peace Corps group were of draft age, and all of them were concerned about their draft status and how that might be affected, or not, by their stint in the Peace Corps. There were many discussions about this issue during Peace Corps training and in Thailand after we got our assignments. Perhaps our Peace Corps group bonded more than most because of real life dramas like the draft and the surrealism of serving in the Peace Corps in the political hotbed of Southeast Asia in the late 1960s.
From the perspective of those strongly active in the anti-war movement, however, joining the Peace Corps was a rather conservative thing to do, even a little suspect. (The rightwing thought we were dangerous Commies and the leftwing blew us off as puppets of the CIA.) In fact, there was a wide range of personal and political ideology in my Peace Corps group—definitely more left than right, but certainly not extreme. No one supported the war in Vietnam, but the extent to which one was willing to commit outrageous acts or even outspoken opposition varied. A few of us were enjoined to drop the trappings of any counter-culture identity to survive the screening process in training, and I actually came close to being deselected just over my very long straight hair. Informed that in Thailand only female prostitutes had long hair, I argued that I was certain that the Thai people could discern me from a Thai prostitute, and Peace Corps was, after all, partially conceived as a cultural exchange program. To the credit of the Peace Corps Thailand training staff, my petitioning prevailed.
Nonetheless, as a college dropout from the streets of Berkeley serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, I sometimes never felt further from the war. All that changed in 1969 when, along with a couple of other Volunteers, I took one of those perilous overnight busses (laden with live chickens and an incredibly foul-smelling fruit called durian) northeast to the border of Laos. In a bar catering to farangs (the Thai word for westerners), we met up with some young American soldiers on R&R leave. We Peace Corps types generally kept our distance from military types; however, caught up in the booze and driving homeland music of the bar, we “deigned” to talk to the guys. They turned out to be a passel of miserable, heartsick, terrified young boys, who begged us to hang out with them and simply converse in English about life “back in the world”, a phrase they used to refer to the United States. They admitted that they did not at all understand what they were doing in Southeast Asia or what the war was about. The next day they invited us to join them on their airbase to raid the PX for items and food difficult for civilians to come by in Thailand. The young soldiers also sneaked us into a restricted area on the base and pointed out vast acres of dark, ominous B52 bombers neatly lined up for take-off to both Vietnam and Laos (despite official denials that we were bombing Laos). Unlike commercial passenger jets, military planes lift off without a gradual incline, so, cowering below the trajectory field, we could hear the menacing roar of the revved up jet engines, see the malevolent tail flames stain the sky, and feel the surrounding rice fields and jungle yield to the ferocious sonic thrust. Suddenly the war was very present for me in Thailand.
We watched in tears as two of the young men we had befriended dispiritedly boarded a plane and headed off for whatever destiny they never wanted to claim. No war hoopla, no heroes, no hurrahs--just a bunch of terrified and lonely kids, our newfound brothers, catapulted into the sky to kill or be killed. We were horrified, but grateful to have made a separate peace with them.
Reared in Appalachia near the Licking River, Karen Beatty served as a Peace
Corps Thailand Volunteer along the Mekong River. She now lives and writes between the
Hudson and East Rivers on the Isle of Manhattan. Her short stories and essays have
appeared in various publications, including Mud Season Review. Karen’s first novel will
be published in Summer, 2023.