American POWs in Southeast Asia and the Violation of a National Ethic

By Wesley Fryer.

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2. Development of America's "National POW ethic"

This "national ethic" regarding POWs developed throughout the history of the United States, in various wars as well as international agreements. During the Revolutionary War and later in the Civil War, Americans were stubborn in their belief that a person who becomes a POW is still entitled to humane treatment. The treatment of American POWs from the San Patricio companies during the Mexican War demonstrated this ethic vividly. Although many of the San Patricio soldiers accused of desertion and "serving in the Mexican ranks" were given the death penalty by a military court, some of these Irish Americans were saved from the gallows by General Scott. Scott reduced the sentences of several soldiers and pardoned others based on "humanitarian grounds as well as on the Articles of War" (Miller 93, 101). Although an "example" had to be made of some soldiers to deter future desertions, Scott was extremely reluctant to send all of the San Patricio deserters to the gallows. In this extreme case, where American soldiers actually took up arms against their own country, many POWs were afforded suprisingly lenient treatment. The American ethic regarding POWs, as shown in the case of the San Patricio deserters, has historically recognized the right of POWs to humane treatment.

Standards for the "humane treatment" of POWs were established in 1907 at an International Conference at The Hague, Netherlands. While these guidelines were sincerely intended to prevent brutal treatment of prisoners, they were not entirely realistic. The guidelines provided that a "prisoner's personal belongings, except arms and ammunition, would remain their private property." In addition, if enlisted personnel were put to work by their captors, the guidelines stipulated that "work could not be excessive and should be paid for at the same rate as that of soldiers of the nation holding the prisoners" (Kerr 25). Despite the fact that these international standards were idealistic and not adhered to by many nations in the wars which followed, the participation of the United States at the conference in The Hague demonstrated America's official recognition of the right of POWs to "humane treatment."

For many Americans, one of the most disturbing aspects of the war in the Pacific against the Japanese in World War II was the treatment which U.S. POWs were subjected to throughout the conflict. Although the Japanese had signed the agreement which was the result of the International Conference on the treatment of POWs in 1907 as well as a later Geneva Convention agreement in 1929, the Japanese had difficulties with these standards. For soldiers fighting for Japan, "Surrender under Japanese military law was a punishable offense," since their military doctrine did not allow soldiers or sailors to even become POWs (Kerr 26). Despite these facts, Americans still officially regarded the rights of their POWs in the Pacific as inviolate, and expected the Japanese to share this opinion.

One of the most horrific examples of Japanese mistreatment of American POWs occurred in the Philippines after the Japanese took control of the islands from the United States in 1942. Japanese intelligence sources had expected 20,000 prisoners to be captured as a result of the Philippines campaign, but 80,000 POWs were taken along with approximately 26,000 Filipino civilians who had fled from the cities (Keith 59). The fact that the Japanese were unprepared for the large number of prisoners which were captured was not, however, an excuse for the brutal treatment which they gave to American and Filipino POWs alike.

The infamous "Bataan Death march" to Camp O'Donnell in April 1942 was a repulsive example of human brutality that depicted the extremely harsh treatment POWs received at the hands of the Japanese. Thousands of men, women and children were forced to march on a seemingly endless trail, suffering from heat exhaustion and a lack of food or water. "Any man who could not stand on his feet was promptly bayonetted," and anyone who stopped to help a fellow POW was shot (Keith 61). Survivors of the march lived to tell numerous stories of Japanese brutality.

"To amuse himself, a guard pushed two prisoners, kneeling with hands raised in supplication, over the side of a cliff. Their screams ended only when they hit the jagged rocks below" (Keith 64).

The Japanese soldiers who committed these acts against military personnel and Filipino civilians alike did not regard their captives as "prisoners of war," but rather as criminals. The Japanese had no intention of following the Hague or the Geneva Conventions governing treatment of POWs, since they merely carried out the "Emperor's will and believed no guilt would be attached to attacks on American prisoners" (Keith 61).

The brutal treatment American servicemen endured during World War II in the Pacific angered the U.S. population that learned about it after the war, and further affirmed the American commitment to "humane" treatment of POWs. The same underlying principles which led Americans to this belief regarding POWs formed the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations. The Declaration recognizes the "inherent dignity of each member of the human family" as the foundation of human rights, making the individual rather than the state the "foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world" (UNESCO 14). Article three of the Declaration states "Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and security of person," and the use of torture is specifically prohibited in the document. In sum, although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was not directed specifically at POWs, through this document the United States affirmed with the other nations of the world a commitment to the humane treatment of individuals and repudiated the sort of brutality which was inflicted upon civilians as well as military personnel during World War II.

This commitment to the humane treatment of POWs might be regarded by historians as another unrealistic attempt to direct the actions of nations like the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, but the American ethic toward its POWs does not fit into this same category. While the Kellogg-Briand Pact failed to "renounce war as an instrument of foreign policy" in practice, the American commitment to POWs has been translated from a simple ideal into reality, and was dramatized repeatedly by the American military during the war in Indochina.

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Section 3: The American POW ethic in Southeast Asia"

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