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.