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Mistreatment of POW's an Old Story

Roundup: Media's Take




Richard Pyle, Associated Press (May 6, 2004):

... From the Confederacy's notorious Andersonville prison of the Civil War to the Hanoi Hilton, where American POWs were held in Vietnam, military history is rife with grim stories of brutality, starvation and humiliation in captivity.

Few such tales stir such immediate and profound public revulsion and anguish as the recently disclosed mistreatment of Iraqi detainees by U.S. troops at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

A key reason, say experts, is a built-in resistance among Americans to the idea that U.S. troops or other military pesonnel would so such things.

"We're always the white hats in military affairs, the ones who hand out the Hershey bars and pat the kids on the head, not the ones who sexually abuse POWs, so we don't believe it," says military historian Douglas Brinkley. "We love our armed forces so much - in a country that has no sustainable political heroes, we honor the military as the men and women of democracy."

In addition, said Brinkley, cameras were not present to record abuses of the past as they were at Abu Ghriab. "Only someone who's a real wingnut could not be aghast at those images," he said in a phone interview.

The mistreatment has brought to mind other grievous episodes involving prisoners of war.

Among them: the slaying of war chief Crazy Horse, who was bayoneted while in Army custody in 1877, the year after he helped lead the Indian victory over Lt. Col. George Custer's 7th Cavalry at Little Big Horn.

The last time Pentagon officials were at such a loss to explain unsoldierly conduct involving prisoners was in 1969, when eight U.S. Special Forces members, including their commander in Vietnam, were accused of murdering a Vietnamese double agent by shooting him and dumping his chained corpse from a boat. The sensational "Green Beret Murder Case" ended before trial when then-Defense Secretary Melvin Laird dropped the charges.

Another major uproar in Vietnam concerned the "tiger cages" at Con Son island prison, where political prisoners incarcerated by the U.S.-backed Saigon regime were confined and allegedly tortured. While there was no direct U.S. involvement in the reported abuse, the cages themselves had been built by RMK-BRJ, a Texas military contractor and antecedent to the Halliburton Co. subsidiary KBR.

But Americans also were subjected to "tiger cage"-type abuse; 29 captured by the Viet Cong in South Vietnam were held in primitive jungle camps that included cages. About half were killed or died in captivity, according to "Honor Bound," the most comprehensive book on the Vietnam POW experience.

Former Army intelligence specialist John Giannini, who spent a year interrogating prisoners in Vietnam, said Americans there did not mistreat captives, because "it was counter-productive; If you abused them, they would tell you anything, just to get you to stop."

All prisoners taken by U.S. forces in Vietnam were under Saigon's control, which proved helpful in interrogations, Giannini said in an interview.

"We knew the South Vietnamese abused them," Giannini said, "and the best way to get someone to talk was to say, 'Look, if you don't cooperate with me I will have no choice but to turn you over to the South Vietnamese. Don't force me to do that.'"

Along with the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians at the village of My Lai by American troops in 1968, the Green Beret and "tiger cage" scandals helped turn U.S. public opinion against the war.

The Vietnam incidents pale next to many prisoner-related atrocities of World War II, which including the 1942 Bataan Death March, in which 7,000 to 10,000 POWs died or were killed by their Japanese captors during the 55-mile trek to prison camps, and the Malmedy Massacre of dozens of captured GIs by Nazi troops at Malmedy, Belgium, in 1944.

Japan's particularly abhorrent record of mistreating POWs stemmed in part from its samurai-based warrior code, called "bushido," in which surrender was deemed dishonorable.

That code led to such incidents as the execution of eight American fliers captured at the South Pacific island of Chichi Jima in 1944, a story told in James Bradley's 2003 best seller, "Flyboys."

Years after the war, details also surfaced about the Japanese Imperial Army's Unit 731, which conducted grisly physical and germ warfare experiments on captured Chinese soldiers and civilians, Russians and some Western POWs in Manchuria from 1936 to 1945.

Some 9,000 were believed to have died before the laboratory's chief ordered it destroyed in the last days of the war.


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