Is the Abuse of POW's Under American Control Unprecedented?

Is the current controversy about the abuse of Iraqi POWs by American interrogators and guards and the prolonged imprisonment of "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo unprecedented in American history? What is the American record of treating its Prisoners of Wars (POWs) in previous wars? Good, in general, but at times gives to abuse too.

In the final weeks of World War II my father was captured by the U.S. Army in March 1945. As a Wehrmacht soldier he fought on the Western front in the "Colmar Bridgehead." He was shipped back to the U.S. on the last convoy for German POWs that went States-side. During World War II some 380,000 German POWs were brought to the U.S. I told my father that he was lucky to end up at Fort Carson, Colorado. In no theater of war were German and Italian POWs treated better during and after World War II than on the American mainland.

Had he been captured only a few days later, however, he most likely would have landed in one of the infamous "Rhine Meadow Camps." In the final weeks of World War II in Europe, the Anglo-American armies captured some 7 million German POWs. What to do with such a mass of miserable humanity? General Eisenhower and the U.S. Army were ill-prepared for millions of captured Germans and anticipated disaster. Months ahead of the German surrender they came up with a new legal designation for POWs as "Disarmed Enemy Forces" (DEFs), so the captors would not to be bound by the strict rules of the Geneva Convention protection rights for POWs.

The consequence of this intentional legal limbo was that more than half a million DEFs were caged up in rain-soaked open fields along the Rhine River, close to where they were captured in March/April 1945. There was no housing for them, not enough food and water. The Germans had to dig shelter in muddy open earth holes and stand in line for hours for a cup of water and totally inadequate rations. They went to the bathrooms in open pits and some fell in and drowned. Some guards terrorized the POWs psychologically by shooting over their heads without any reason. Medical care for many of these POWs utterly exhausted from the war was rare. The physical abuse came in the form of keeping them caged up for weeks during a cold and rainy spring for weeks.

Only in June did the U.S. Army begin with interrogations, dismissals, or transfer to other powers (the French got 750,000 German POWs to be used as labor). Given the dire circumstances, it is surprising that only about 1 percent of the POWs died (compare this with 90 percent of the German POWs taken at Stalingrad dying in Soviet captivity).

German soldiers were also shot rather than taken prisoner, particularly in the confusing opening battles during the Normandy invasion. A soldier from the Third Armored division told me that they did not take any prisoners among SS-troops in his unit, after the massacre of more than 100 American POWs at Malmedy by the SS during the Battle of the Bulge. Clearly, POW maltreatment is often sparked by a revenge motive.

While American POWs were terrorized and brainwashed by the North Koreans and Chinese during the Korean War (remember The Manchurian Candidate?), no major stories of abuse of North Korean POWs have surfaced. The Vietnam War, on the other hand, was characterized by numerous stories of maltreatment of POWs on both sides. The fate of American POWs ("air pirates") being tortured in the "Hanoi Hilton" is well known. The South Vietnamese allies of the U.S. regularly tortured suspected "Vietcong" prisoners in their infamous "Tiger Cages" on Con Son Island. They confined women Vietcong into tiny cages without a shower for months, "eating, urinating, and defecating" and tearing up their clothes for sanitary napkins during their period. Thousands of suspected Vietcong and their supporters were assassinated – often on suspicion – in the American "Phoenix" pacification program. American "search and destroy" missions and "free fire zones" were characterized by few or no prisoners being taken at all.

The "Winter Soldier Investigation" conducted by the "Vietnam Veterans Against the War" in Detroit in 1971 posited that the atrocities committed in My Lai were not unique but part of larger history of atrocities committed by American forces in Vietnam. Among the findings read into the Congressional Record were that "we were murdering prisoners, we were turning prisoners over to somebody else to be tortured." Moreover, "every law of Land Warfare has been violated." A recent Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Toledo Blade into the atrocities committed by the "Tiger Force" of the 101st Airborne division in 1967 has confirmed this general picture of some U.S. armed forces routinely breaking the rules of civilized warfare.

The abuse of POWs in Baghdad and the legal no man’s land constructed for the Guantanamo "enemy combatants" is nothing new, then, in the annals of American warfare. It is rare though that we get to see such explicit pictures of abused prisoners so soon after their maltreatment. It is also unique among the American public to have such a widespread suspicion that something is very fishy with the Guantanamo "enemy combatants" being denied any legal protections for over two years now – now under review by the Supreme Court. German "DEFs" during World War II were only left in such legal limbo for a few chaotic postwar weeks, before the vast majority of them were released and sent home.

May 15, 2004

Mr. Bischof is director of CenterAustria and a professor of American history at the University of New Orleans and co-editor (with Stephen E. Ambrose) of Eisenhower and the German POWS (1992) and Kriegsgefangenschaft im Zweiten Weltkrieg (1999).

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