Monday, July 21, 2014

War Challenge #14

I read this for the 2014 War Challenge with a Twist at the reading challenge blog War Through the Generations

Broken Soldiers – Raymond B. Lech, 2000

It’s painful to read about the crimes and atrocities committed against US prisoners of war during the Korean War. Of 7,140 captured and interned, 2,701 died in captivity of starvation and murder. Almost 40%  is the highest percentage POWs lost in of any of our wars. I can’t describe the cruelty of the Korean and Chinese Communists against our soldiers without feelings of disbelief, outrage, and revulsion.

21 POWs, confused young men generally, refused repatriation, though all eventually made their way back to the US. Lech found evidence that 66 additional prisoners and civilian captives were forcibly withheld by the Chinese during the repatriation process and were never returned to UN control.4,418 men were returned to US military control. 

This book focuses on the POW and post-POW experience of 14 repatriated prisoners who were then court-martialed for several forms of collaboration with enemy. The prosecutions of POWs for alleged disloyalty were decidedly ironic considering the protracted time and patient effort it took in negotiating their release. At that time, military criminal prosecutions were rather inconsistent, as some of the accused walked free, others jailed, and yet other had their careers ruined. All their reputations suffered.

The prosecutions also revealed the anxiety that characterized American politics and culture in the mid-1950s . Politically speaking, people were generally worried about Reds under the bed and the heavy burdens of being a superpower in a new globalized world full of trouble. Prisoners of war returned the US from Korea to fretful questions if their patriotism had weathered communist brainwashing. Hollywood stoked that dread with terrifying movies about the POW experience such as like Prisoner of War (1954), The Bamboo Prison (1954), The Rack (1956), Time Limit (1957), and the one we remember today The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Thus began a misperception that dogs us still today, that there was large scale collaboration with the enemy in Korean prison camps. That’s unfair and inaccurate.

Moreover, culturally speaking, in the middle Fifties many Americans were worried about the perceived decline of American manhood, stamina, and willpower. The poster boy for this unease was the absurd father in an apron in Rebel Without A Cause. Serious intellectuals had somber discussions about how individualism and conformism contributed to collaborationism.

Lech points out that the recruiting standards of the Army after WWII were not ideally high. They allowed in men with little or no education and were thus illiterate or barely literate. Those were also the days when judges gave convicted thugs and dummies the choice of going to jail or joining the army. Many soldiers could not find Korea on the map much less defend America’s war aims or argue that the enemy ought to abide by the rules of the Geneva Convention. Such men had little chance of resisting Communist indoctrination once they had seen the brutality of their captors on the way to the prison camps.

Hopelessness resulted from the Korean POW experience largely because the illnesses and difficulties the prisoners faced were viewed as out of the control of their captors. Prisoners knew that their guards had the same problems of lack of nutritious food, warm housing, and medical care as well as the crushing boredom with nothing to do except feel cold and sick and alone.

The Army brass was shocked that some prisoners failed to stay in cohesive units and understand the advantages of rank in such a brutal situation. That is, cohesion through mutual moral support and respect for rank would contribute to the retention of their identity as American servicemen. Learning from the Korean experience, the Army started to give soldiers training in survival, evasion skills and methods to survive the ugly possibility of becoming a POW.

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