When John F. Kennedy came to the University on October 14, 1960, he came only to sleep. His visit was supposed to be a routine stay as he made his way across Michigan for the last push of his presidential campaign. But what was supposed to be a short goodnight turned into a candid speech famously known for introducing the idea of the Peace Corps.

Jessica Boullion
Gary Graca

But Kennedy’s address that October morning was also important for a different reason. By asking students to go to places like Ghana and become directly involved in working for peace, Kennedy challenged the previous foundations of student activism.

But, since then, the student and civilian role in promoting the all-hallowed “world peace” has continued to rely on either the direct development assistance that the Peace Corps promotes or long-distance economic support of groups like the University’s Will Work for Food.

Don’t get me wrong, these approaches have done a lot of good and should be continued. But how does economic relief do anything to stop the widespread slaughter that has characterized genocides like those in Rwanda and Sudan?

Before you’re able to build houses and plant crops, shouldn’t it be a priority to make sure that Hutu militias aren’t going to raid your town? And what good does it do to have baby formula sent to Darfur if Janjaweed fighters are simply murdering the children?

If you genuinely believe in improving the quality of life for everyone, part of that effort has to go into peace enforcement. As much as it may seem like an oxymoron, peace enforcement means having a “human rights army.”

There is nothing new about creating a human rights army. Although veiled behind names like “rapid reaction force” or “U.N. standing army,” the concept has been around since the United Nations was formed in 1948. Like many of the issues stalled in the United Nations, concerns over sovereignty, necessity, command and cost have perennially hindered a U.N. standing army.

But since when has the inability of our leaders to address an issue ever been an excuse to remain inactive?

This is where students can play a pivotal role. With their lofty idealism still intact and their moral conscience not weighed down by a bloated bureaucracy, a volunteer army of activists to fight against genocide worldwide could be organized at the college level. Students have already demonstrated in programs like the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps that the ability to train for military service is not beyond their capacity. That’s not to mention that most of the people fighting for the U.S. military are college-aged men and women anyway.

Likewise, University students continually demonstrate their fund-raising capabilities in events like Dance Marathon, which raised more than $350,000 this year. If you add scholarship incentives similar to those of ROTC to this independent fund-raising ability, there is a real possibility that most major colleges in America could contribute between 50 and 100 fully-funded and trained volunteers a year. Expand that system to the rest of the world and you are only a few hundred Dance Marathons away from creating an army.

Sure, there is more to creating a human rights army than just manpower and money. There are still issues of legality, command and the overwhelming logistical problem of running a small-scale army. However, at the very least, grass-roots organization at the college level would light a fire under the world leaders who let bureaucracy and self interest prevent them from acting in Rwanda and are letting those same things be a barrier to effective action in Darfur.

And, yes, the idea of a volunteer army of college students to prevent genocide might be crazy. But is it any more crazy than the idea that a bunch of college graduates could be the key to ending the crippling cycle of poverty in Ghana? That idea turned into one of the most successful programs in the history of international activism.

As Kennedy said on that early morning in 1960, “I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past.”

Gary Graca is the summer editorial page editor. He can be reached at gmgraca@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *