By Wesley Fryer.
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The American "ethic" regarding the treatment of POWs was reflected in the North Vietnamese propaganda efforts during the war aimed at convincing the world that prisoners received "humane and lenient treatment" in North Vietnamese prisons (Risner 85). The American POW ethic extended beyond "humane treatment," however. The ethic was seen in the numerous search and rescue attempts which took place throughout the course of the war. Time after time, the American military demonstrated its willingness to risk the loss of additional men and aircraft for the chance to rescue one or two fellow pilots. When a plane would go down, a C-130 would usually be designated to provide command and control for the rescue effort, F-4s to provide protection from enemy MIG aircraft, A-1E Skyraiders to direct suppressive fire on enemy forces close to the downed pilots, and a "Jolly Green" helicopter to pick up the men (Broughton 161). This commitment to rescue fellow airmen and prevent them from becoming prisoners had a strong, positive effect on the morale of the men who fought the war for the United States in Southeast Asia. They knew their country was committed to bringing them home if they were shot down, and that the U.S. government, in essence, had made an implicit promise to bring them home if they fell into the hands of the enemy. The American ethic regarding POWs, therefore, included not only a recognition of POWs' right to humane treatment, but also included an obligation on the part of the U.S. government to secure the return of American POWs captured in wartime.
The strongest display of this American ethic regarding POWs during the Indochina conflict took place on November 21, 1970. The Son Tay raid attempted to rescue American POWs being held at a camp twenty miles from Hanoi, and although not successful in rescuing prisoners, the raid still sent a clear message to the North Vietnamese. The Son Tay raid told the Southeast Asian enemies of the United States that not only were American POWs not forgotten, but also that these men were extremely valuable to the U.S. government (Hubbell 536). After the raid on Son Tay, the American POW ethic was clear. American POWs were not the easily expandable instruments of policy, but rather, were regarded as valuable human beings who not only had the right to live but also the right to return home. The United States wanted to secure the return of its POWs for this idealistic reason, because of the effect this commitment had on the armed forces as a whole, and because pragmatically these men could return to "fight another day." Like the plot in Robert Heinlein's novel Starship Troopers, the American POW ethic evolved historically to state that "the war is not over till all the men are back."
Section 4: A Breach of Trust: POWs are left behind
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