The POW Experience as Seen in the 1950s

Achilles whacks Trojan captives at the funeral of Patroclus. In ancient times, the life of a POW was short.

In Vietnam, the POWs came to be seen as heroic. That’s one of many things that this pre-Vietnam report by a special DOD Commission didn’t foresee. The commissioners wrote:

Fighting men declare it is neither dishonorable nor heroic to be taken prisoner.

But if being taken prisoner is just hard luck, it doesn’t mean your time as a soldier is at an end.

But the prisoner is always a soldier, adversity despite. Fortune can change. In the US Submarine Service there is a maxim: “Luck is where you find it.” The POW must keep on searching.

There is much more in the report, including things that would never get by the State Atheism of the current DOD:

Primitive man and his barbarian descendants annihilated or enslaved all foemen who were captured. In time it occurred to the conqueror to hold a captured headman or leader as hostage. Such a victim was Lot. According to Scripture he was freed by the forces of Abraham — perhaps the earliest prisoner rescue on record. But the vanquished of the ancient world usually faced extermination. One finds in Samuel: “Thus saith the Lord of Hosts … go and smite Amalek and utterly destroy all they have, and spare them not.” Saul was considered disobedient because he took a few Amalekite prisoners. Six centuries later Hemocritus of Syracuse was exiled for refusing to slaughter all Athenian captives. But it seemed mankind had a conscience. In respect to humane treatment of captives, it found voice in India in the ancient Code of Manu (about 200 B. C.). The Hindu warrior was enjoined to do no injury to the defenseless or to the subdued enemy.

No, seriously, this would never get by today’s lawyers:

Chivalry developed in the Western World with the rise of Christian civilization, the concept of “Do Unto Others.” In the Dark Ages, soldiering remained savage, but the codes of knighthood served to temper the warrior’s steel. The true knight refused to slay for slaughter’s sake. Conquering, he could be merciful to a gallant opponent. His prisoner was not a plaything for sadistic entertainment.

If the chivalric code was sometimes more honored in breach than in observance, the ideal-the Golden Rule-was there. It was threatened by intolerant ideologies and the fanaticism which fosters atrocities. Cruel pogroms and religious wars bloodied Medieval Europe. The Islamic conquests were savagery untrammeled. Woe to the Unbeliever captured by the stepsons of Abu Bakr! But even as it clashed with the sword, the scimitar acquired tempering. Possessed of his own code, the Moslem warrior could appreciate gallantry.

The knight was called upon to assume the obligations of noblesse oblige. Warrior or liegeman, facing battle, was pledged to remain true to his king or cause, even if captured. Under any circumstance treason would merit retributive punishment. Treachery, the disclosure of a trust or the deliverance of a friend to the enemy, was perfidious-the mark of Judas the Betrayer.

Thus rules for the fighting man in combat or in captivity were linked to knightly concepts of duty, honor, loyalty to friend, and gallantry to foe.

Some time during the Crusades a rule evolved in regard to prisoner interrogation. The captive knight was permitted to divulge his name and rank-admissions necessitated by the game of ransom. A necessity for prisoner identification, the rule holds today, as imposed by the modern Geneva Conventions.

By stripping the Code of Conduct from its historical and Christian context, nowadays, they’ve made it much more difficult to explain the why of the Law of Land Warfare, which was originally a European, Christian concept. Instead, the .mil now teaches a sort of utilitarian justification for the morality of warfare: “If we do it to them, they will do it to us.” This twisted version of the Golden Rule, unlike the explicitly Christian sentiment that underlies the idea of morality and restraint in war, inevitability fails when even a brain-stem-functional Private Joe Tentpeg notes that, “Nothing at all restrains them from doing it to us already,” and his lieutenant, as ignorant as Joe himself of the morality on which the whole edifice’s structure rests, has nothing but the same invalid utilitarian platitude to fall back on.

In fact, we have not had an enemy that honored the law of land warfare in the last century, except when we have fought nominal Christians (the Kaiser, most of the Nazis, and Noriega’s Panamanians in 1989). Not Shinto nor Marxism-Leninism nor Islam has produced a warrior caste that values the “knightly concepts of duty, honor, loyalty to friend, and gallantry to foe.”

At the same time, our creeping away from the Christian basis of our war morality means we no longer recognize that “treachery, the disclosure of a trust or the deliverance of a friend to the enemy, was perfidious,” and as far as identifying it, as no less a thorn in the Church’s side than Dante Alighieri did, as associated with “Judas the Betrayer,” well, in our modern, morally relativistic times, how long is it before he is portrayed as an innocent victim of Da Man in Judas: The Broadway Musical? 

Now, we’re not saying that one must be Christian to be a moral combatant. The Israeli Army is overwhelmingly Jewish (not entirely; Druze and Bedouin also serve in the IDF), but has internalized the humane war concept much more than any other army in the region, and as well as any army in the world. How they get around the Christian nature of source of moral war philosophy is their problem (if you recall those wars described in the Pentateuch, there’s a whole lot of smiting and not a lot of magnanimity in conquest, whether “by” or “to” the Ancient Hebrews), but they seem to have worked it out well.

Now, this 1950s document is far from perfect. There’s the occasional howler, like this:

During the Civil War there was some regression in the treatment afforded prisoners.

Gee… ya think? Andersonville ring any bells?

But overall, it’s a great read, and contains a lot of historical material that is now missing from code of conduct and military morality. It would be a good guide for a young, questioning troop. Thanks to James F., commenting on the Jack Webb Code of Conduct post, who tipped us to it.

43 thoughts on “The POW Experience as Seen in the 1950s

  1. Winston Smith

    I remember reading something in the old testament that basically said ‘if you capture an enemy female, keep her chaste for 30 days, then you can do her anywhichway you desire’.
    There’s a very dark side to christianity too that they don’t like to talk about.

      1. Gray

        The premise that the Old Testament is a construct that is separate and distinct from the New Testament is a relatively modern idea.

        Moses, Abraham and Jesus did not see it lacking continuity whatsoever.

        Moses declared that the essence is not wooden and legalistic: “…the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it…If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God.

        Abraham was no foreigner to Christ. While speaking to those who refused to understand (different than those who just do not), Jesus, the cornerstone of Christianity said: “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”

        Abraham again, as narrated by Jesus, said this regarding the Old Testament: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” (And by the way, He then did that very thing to prove His assertion.)

        Jesus, in speaking to His own, highlighted the real issue. It was not that the Old Testament was some diametrically opposed schema; it was a refusal to believe and understand. It was not an intellectual issue, it was a moral one: “Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God”, and to Nicodemus ““Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony.”

        Jesus never repudiated the OT, just the poor exposition thereof: ““You have heard that it was said to those of old…But I say to you…” He explicity endorsed the OT as part and parcel of His authority and mission: “Behold, I have come to do your will, O God, as it is written of Me in the volume of the book.”

        And, as He famously said, “Scripture cannot be broken”.

        1. James

          Well, ya but the New Testament (New Covenant) replaces the law of Moses. Read the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount and it’s pretty obvious Christ supplanted the law of Moses (Leviticus) with the law of the Gospel (Matthew ch 5-7). For example, doing away with animal sacrafice and replacing it with the sacrament. Forgiving the woman taken in adultery instead of stoning her, “go and sin no more”.

      2. John M.

        The topic of continuity and discontinuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament is one that could fill many, many PhD theses. But essentially none of the perspectives that are held by folks on this topic would describe the Old Testament as “vestigial.”

        As just one example, there is basically no way to make sense of Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice without the events of Genesis 3 in view. The fall is simply foundational to an understanding of what Christ accomplished at the cross.

        -John M.

  2. John M.

    There seem to be a few OCR errors in the sections you quote. To wit:

    “Six centuries later Hemocritus of Syracuse was exiled for refusing to slaughter all Athenian’ captives.”

    No apostrophe needed.


    “Woe to the Unbeliever captured by the stepsons of Abu Bekrl”

    That trailing “l”should be a “!”.

    Otherwise, this is fascinating stuff.

    -John M.

  3. Kirk

    The problem with relying on a nominally Christian and scriptural set of justifications for the Law of War training is this: We are no longer dealing with a more-or-less Christian majority recruiting base, and those arguments tend to fall on deaf ears, ones that shut down the moment you try to bring that stuff in. Sad, but true; most of the men I served with were nominal Christians only.

    If you want to reach these guys, you have to take them back to root principles, and then derive everything in front of them–With historical examples. By working through this issue, you can arrive at a solid moral foundation for these sorts to work from, but it takes work and an engaged, thinking trainer to do it. You also have to integrate this stuff in routine training, on a regular, consistent basis. Let the troops work this stuff out in exercises, ones where the real-world repercussions for violating the law play out, and you will get much better results than a half-ass annual class taught by some bored JAG who is just marking time until his law degree is paid off.

      1. vorkosigan

        And Camp Douglas, the most deadly of the Northern prisons. Andersonville was bad, severely overcrowded because of the Unions refusal of prisoner exchanges and and general lack of resources for anyone in the Confederacy, but the privations and mistreatment of the Northern camps was a matter of policy–they had the resources for decent treatment,but would not provide them for “damned rebels”.

        1. GenEarly

          Lee’s troops in the trenches at Petersburg 1864-65 probably looked more like pow’s than soldiers. There was no comparison between the Christian conduct of the Confederates compared especially to Sherman’s depredations. The Union army went on to even greater depravity with the native Americans following the destruction of the South. Then on to the Philippines for more blood lust. A very dark history indeed.


            Wow, I’m worn out by this hyperbole. Do you guys, yeah all of you, or any of you, know what it’s like to hug the ground with the lips of your belly button? For God’s sake, shut the hell up and do the right thing. ” If I was half the man I used to be, I’d take a flame thrower ta this place.” Al Pacino, Sent of a Woman.

          2. Extraveritas

            Read War Crimes Against Southern Civilians by Walter Cisco. I grew up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia and have a great grandfather who wore the gray and returned home with a Yankee ball in his knee. I knew about Sherman’s, Sheridan’s and Beast Butler’s deplorable acts, but Cisco’s book really accentuated the criminal conduct of Lincoln and his war of aggression. Although my son is a Marine, it seems the last military this country produced that held values of true Christian honor and chivalry were found in General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia.

    1. jim h

      *ears that have been trained since childhood to shut down at the mention of Judeo-Christian morality. it’s almost pavlovian at this point.

      1. Steve M.

        Precisely, Jim. People’s eyes instantly glaze over and jaws go slack, if you’re lucky. Usually, a good humanist tries to explain how God and the Bible are wrong while cussing you out.

  4. Martin

    The quoted document is somewhat optimistic regarding christian knights. Usually they showed mercy and gallantry only to their peers, when fighting another christian army, and shown very little to the non-believers. But such were the times, and nobody was better.

    While some primal roots might have come from those times, I would put a lot of the influence on modern conduct of warfare to Enlightment era.

    1. DSM

      That was my take from my time stationed in the UK. Chivalric code extended only to their peers; other knights and possibly noblemen should they be present.

    2. morokko

      Captured noble was source of ransom and also could be exchanged, hence the incentive to keep him alive. Guarding and feeding a commoner without means to buy himself out was just a counterproductive nuisance. Despite all the glitz put contemporary showbiz medieval wars were more of hit, loot, burn and run nature, mostly carried by small mobile bands against villages and poorly guarded estates, pitched battles and sieges were generally avoided due to their risk and expense. Most dangerous part for the average Sir Two-Bit and his few poorly mounted henchmen was to get away with stolen sacks of grains and gilded liturgical vessels and avoid ambush by his landowning cousin or previously expropriated peasants, so only relatively large and organized forces could bother with prisoners. Plus armed commoners always posed a threat to social order, and common mercenaries or members of urban militias were especially despised, as they usurped the place owing to knights and were using dangerous weapons – polearms, bows, crossbows and later guns. Cutting them up would serve as clear dissuasion for next batch of social justice warriors. When infantry warfare and long sophisticated campaigns again become prevalent in early XVI, the chances of low born POW actually increased – rather than enslaved or slaughtered he would be impressed into victorious army, which was ever in need of manpower due to desertions, diseases and need to maintain extensive garrisons in conquered areas. Regardless of their religious denomination or nationality, common soldiers from 30 Years War for the most part had no problem joining opposing forces, as soon as their old troop was broken or dissolved – as they themselves were mercenaries and usually had wives and children following them during campaigns, that needed support.

    3. Hognose Post author

      That’s quite possibly a factor. And also, perhaps, the sort of gentle religiosity that led to Wilberforce and the movement to abolish slavery.

      1. John M.

        That sort of religiosity can hardly be called “gentle.” It’s the same sort of religiosity that led to radical abolitionism and the bloodbath that was our Civil War.

        Nothing racks up bodies quite like immanentizing the eschaton.

        -John M.

    1. Pathfinder

      Nobody wants to hear that. Goes against the whole myth that has been built up around the War of Northern Aggression. Sherman(may he rot in hell) was a hero.

      That just want to talk about about how evil white Southerners are.

      1. Larry

        As opposed to the Lost Cause true-believers who only want to talk about how evil Yankees were/are? Yeah. A pox on both houses.

        1. Cannoneer No. 4

          Stoneman’s cavalry could have liberated Andersonville. Sherman did not want to impede his March to the Sea with thousands of sick Yankees, so they stayed in prison.

  5. medic09

    Regarding the quaint comments such as “vestigial holdover from Judaism” and some others – I’ll bite my tongue, except to note that traditional Judaism is alive, well, and the Jewish nation has restored its independence and sovereignty in the its land (albeit a work in progress).

    But to the point of how the modern IDF and moral war philosophy – I can speak to that a bit. I think Hognose’s question is a very good one. It helps to know that Judaism is much more a religious culture of tradition than it is of Biblical text. From our traditional perspective, the Biblical text is only part of a package given at Sinai; and it in fact cannot be properly explained, interpreted, understood – let alone applied – without the complementary detail of the oral tradition. That oral tradition, as later recorded over time in multiple text of which the Talmud is most famous, is as much the foundation of Jewish religious culture as the Biblical text referred to as the Old Testament by Christians.

    In modern Israel, even before the actual declaration of independence in 1948 CE, there was a vigorous academic and legal movement known as Hebrew Law or משפט עברי. The Hebrew Law movement toiled (and toils still) to see and implement ways that the law of the Torah and Talmud can inform and contribute to a modern, non-theocratic society of law. Non-Jews rarely know that Judaism has to this day a comprehensive system of law that treats not only ‘religious’ issues, but nearly all the topics that concern a civil society. One can find courses in Jewish law offered in many of the best American law schools because of this.

    So when the topic of establishing a code of ethics, what we often refer to as טוהר נשק or ‘purity of arms’, came up in the modern IDF we weren’t starting from zero. And we weren’t starting only from a Christian moral philosophy of war. We were starting from the principles of Jewish law and ethics that go back to ancient times. To be sure, later non-Jewish voices have been heard in the conversation; but like the Hebrew Law movement, the topic of military ethics has much to draw on from our own historical culture.

    True, Tzvi Hauser (in his article in Azure in the 90s) wrote a criticism of the process arguing that the influence of Jewish sources was minimal in the original publication of an IDF code; but I think he underplayed another factor. The IDF Chief Rabbinate is not simply a chaplaincy. The potential influence of the IDF Chief Rabbinate in the culture of the IDF is written into IDF general orders and protocol. Many of the IDF Chief Rabbis, starting with the first – Rabbi Shlomo Goren – initially served as combat soldiers. They have had a role not only in providing “religious” services; but also in soldier’s educational programs and in top-level discussions of sensitive subjects regarding the legality, morality, and advisability of many operations and policies.

    So while Christian moral war philosophy did certainly play a role in the IDF discussion (and it apparently didn’t bother many), in my opinion it wasn’t necessarily as dominant as sometimes supposed. And the conversation/debate continues on in Israeli circles.

    1. Hognose Post author

      “The conversation/debate continues in Israeli circles.” Amen, my friend. If the debate ever stops, it will be because the Jews are gone! May their debates continue eternally.

  6. James

    As always, fascinating read. I’ve always been confused by prisoners who don’t “flight to the death” if the know they’re going to die in captivity anyway. Wouldn’t you want to go down swinging? For example the 40k or so of Hitler’s troops that surrendered at Stalingrad, nearly zero survived captivity. Surely they knew the odds, why not keep fighting to the bitter end? Maybe take just a couple of more “bad guys” with you? The end result is the same, minus the loss of dignity of dying in captivity.

    Also long these lines it appears airmen are no longer guaranteed relatively humanitarian treatment when shot down. Vietnam was bad, but the Jordanian pilot captured by IS and the Russian pilot captured by Syrian freedom fighters show what can now be expected. Seems like the ejection seat should be redesigned to accommodate some horizontal translation back to friendly lines. A paramotor perhaps?

    1. Pathfinder

      About 90,000 surrendered. They were completely exhausted, out of ammo, no resupply and zero medical help.

      Roughly 5,000 Stalingrad survivors made it home. The last were released in 1955.

      1. RostislavDDD

        At Stalingrad, because of the disruption of logistics Soviet soldiers died of starvation, what can I say about the Germans.
        The Germans surrendered 91 000. According to Soviet estimates 90-100 000 Germans were in the boiler at the time of the ring closure. Really – 230 000. The result is obvious.

    2. W. Fleetwood

      “Why not keep fighting to the bitter end?” Good question. Three thoughts come to mind, for what they may be worth.

      First of all, some do. But If you shoot it out to the end you are, by definition, not going to be available to give interviews, get your picture taken, write books, etc, etc, etc. Not that you won’t be remembered, but it will be by your enemies, and they won’t know your name. You will be “this guy”, as in “Let me tell you about this guy we fought it out with on the Botswana border. Jeez he took some killing!” Personally I tend to think that it’s mostly the nature of the individual himself. Second would be the type of unit and culture he comes from. And only thirdly, if at all, the nature of the enemy.

      A second thought would be that it is really just human nature for most folks, given a choice of 1) Probably getting killed (But not right now!) or, 2) Getting killed (Right here, right now!) most people will pick door number one and hope for the best.

      The above applies to individuals. My third thought is that individual surrender is not the norm. War is fought with teams, and surrenders are usually done by teams. It may be what’s left of a rifle squad, or an entire army, but most soldiers who surrender do so as a group. And in a military group the key is the commander. If the commander is a Leonidas, or a Travis, or a Danjou, you get Thermopylae, the Alamo, or Camerone. If the commander is a Percival, you get the fall of Singapore. Keep in mind, the vast majority of even the Imperial Japanese military personnel survived the war. Because they surrendered. When the boss says “Screw it, it’s over guys.” even the Samurai stacked arms.

      Again, for what it’s worth.

      Wafa Wafa, Wasara Wasara.

      1. OBob

        “the vast majority of even the Imperial Japanese military personnel survived the war”

        My thoughts too. I’ve read that the reason some US units were, uhh, less than enthusiastic about accepting surrender from German troops in France was the knowledge that for the POW the war was over and they were almost certain to live, while for the front line infantryman still a long way from Berlin the odds were precisely reversed. Makes for a bitter victory and quick trigger finger.

        On another note from I believe “War on the Run” (Rogers in the French-Indian War), at one point the British received a note from their native enemy detailing the gruesome death by torture (skinning alive, etc) that awaits any whom they capture. And then they close their threat by kindly requesting that the British do the same to any of their men who is so dishonorable as to be taken alive! As an aside the Brits did brain (with a shovel or ae) prisoners on a few occasions when they were trying to make time.

      2. James

        The door example and mention of surrender by the commander certainly helps my understanding, thank you. Possibly the surrendering commander got assurances of better treatment for doing the “right” thing in the eyes of his enemies? When Eric Hartman surrendered his squadron they went west at the last moment to give up to the allies, but they was promptly handed back to the Soviets because of some Yalta accord that stated if the prisoner fought on the eastern front they would be handed over to the Soviets (although somehow the ace Rudel was spared that fate). Hartman witnessed chilling, barbaric treatment of the prisoners not only in the immediate aftermath of surrender but for some 15 years in Soviet work camps. Somehow with a combination of chutzpah, fame and his wife working tirelessly behind the scenes to free him he survived unscathed, even after leading a camp rebellion, and was returned to West Germany and became a wing commander in the Luftwaffe. A rare ending for a Soviet POW.

  7. Larry

    The Ft. Pillow massacre was one of those Civil War excursions from the Christian ideal. A pure atrocity. A couple of vendors selling commemorative Nathan Bedford Forrest t-shirts and other Confederate-styled memorabilia across the road to festive tourists back in 1981 made me throw up in my mouth a little bit.

  8. Steve M.

    Now that the workday is over, a few thoughts. First to Hognose, another fantastic post! Masterful acknowledgement of the continuity of God’s influence from the treatment of POW’s to the abolishment of slavery in England by William Wilberforce. Man has never raised himself to a higher plane without the love of God both preceding him and being the very force which lifts him there.

    To Gray, Spot on! Perhaps one of the most accurate and succinct explanations of the unique equality of the Old and New Testaments that I have ever read. Thank you. A failure to understand their equal values and necessary coexistence has lead to many misunderstandings and confusion. Luke 24:25-27 “Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.

    To John M., A fine summary indeed! When the Old Testament is excluded, man’s fallen state is missed, and the final sacrifice of the Lamb of God is entirely lost.

    Excellent posts, gentlemen. I thoroughly enjoyed the read. Thank you.

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  10. Chris Mallory

    Elmira Prison and Camp Douglas do ring some bells. Is there any Yankee who is not a hypocrite?

  11. Sean

    I prefer the Sun Tzu treatment of prisoners. Treat them kindly, and well. Your conscience will remain clear, and one should keep an eye on what might transpire, once the war is over. Not only will the prisoners themselves be grateful, their FAMILIES will regard you as being honorable. Some prisoners may even switch to your side. Your own soldiers, if taken prisoners by the other side, may at least even have some hope, pointing out to their captors that treatment on the other side is benevolent. This in turn, does give the enemy the incentive to treat your people with at least restraint. Savagery only begets savagery, and once that gets started, it is almost impossible to restrain. Once the enemy shows this savagery, all bets are usually off. Remember, peace will come, and you don’t want to be the ugly one, winner,or loser.


    QUALIFICATION: ZERO/NIL/NONE SF/SO training or experience, but 51 months jump-status in the James E (“Jimmy”) Carter-era “Hollow Army” 82d Airborne Division (“America’s Guard of Honor”)
    RECOMMENDED READING RE: Korean PW: Eugene Kinkaid, “In Every War but One”, published about 1957/58. Also, T R Fehrenbach, “This Kind of War: Korea–A Study in Unpreparedness”.
    There was also a UK “Royal Commission” (i.e., “Blue Ribbon”, Joint-Service, Inter-Agency, etc.) type study on conduct of British PWs. Communist propaganda made much of the fact that the Communist Government, under Mao, was recognized by the UK as the legitimate government of China; the UK had an Embassy in Peking and continued to trade with Communist China across the border at Hong Kong.

  13. Boone T

    This is an attempt at a non political post.
    Others have said it already but Andersonville was caused by a lack of resources on the side of the Confederates. The North had comparable prisons and turned away British supply ships.

    1. Hognose Post author

      I did not mean to suggest that the mistreatment of prisoners was Johnny Reb’s problem alone. I’m willing to stipulate that Billy Yank treated his captives every bit as cruelly.

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