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Prisoners of War

Prisoners of War. This essay consists of three articles that examine different aspects of the history of prisoners of war. U.S. Soldiers as POWs describes the treatment of American servicepeople as POWs from the Revolutionary War to the present. Enemy POWs examines the history of how enemy prisoners of war have been treated during America's wars. The POW Experience uses narratives written by American POWs, particularly in recent times, to help understand the experience of modern American POWs.
Prisoners of War: U.S. Soldiers as POWs Although in ancient times wartime captives who were not rich enough to be held for ransom were usually enslaved as laborers by the victors as laborers, by the early modern era, with the emergence of centralized states and regular, professional armies, the practice had changed to regular exchange of prisoners, either during or after war.

In the Revolutionary War (1775–83), although higher‐ranking officers were usually exchanged during the war, the majority of soldiers were not. Because the British government considered the Americans rebels and refused during the war to recognize the Continental Congress as a sovereign government, captured American fightingmen were often treated like criminals. American sailors or seamen from privateers were imprisoned in Britain, sometimes accused of piracy. The majority of American prisoners of war (POWs), however, were soldiers who were confined under wretched conditions in floating British prison hulks around New York City. Many died, some escaped, but few accepted British offers to switch sides. Survivors were exchanged after the war. No accurate count was made, but perhaps more than 18,000 Americans became POWs. During the War of 1812, the legal status of the United States and its servicemen was not an issue; American POWs were generally treated properly and were repatriated following the peace.

The Texas War of Independence (1836) proved particularly brutal. Viewing Texans as rebels, the Mexican leader Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna refused to take prisoners. Texans captured at the Battle of the Alamo and at Goliad were executed.

During the Mexican War (1846–48), although native Texans captured serving with the U.S. Army were executed as rebels, the Mexican treatment of other North American POWs was fair and humane.

The Union army and the Confederate army in the Civil War were modern mass armies of citizen soldiers. In modern wars of intense nationalism and mass citizen armies, civilians identified more closely with the citizen soldier than with the hired professional. Furthermore, the stakes of war became less subject to compromise. Consequently, the practice of prisoner exchange during hostilities declined. During the Civil War, at first, Union and Confederate POWs were regularly exchanged; in 1863, the Union army issued General Order Number 100, The Rules of Land Warfare, detailing regulations for treatment of POWs and enemy civilians in occupied territory. In 1864, however, because prisoner exchange was helping to sustain the Southern war effort and because the Confederacy refused to recognize former slaves serving as African American soldiers in the Union army, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant stopped the regular exchange of POWs. Consequently, both sides were swamped with POWs.

In all, there were some 220,000 Confederate POWs in the North and 211,000 Union POWs in the South, and the makeshift Civil War prisoner‐of‐war camps became notorious on both sides. A total of more than 50,000 Union and Confederate POWs died on both sides. After the war, a U.S. military commission convicted the commander of the camp in Andersonville, Georgia, Capt. Henry Wirz, for the maltreatment and death of 14,000 Union POWs. Although probably guilty of inefficiency rather than the conspiracy for which he was convicted, Wirz was hanged in 1865, the only Confederate official to be executed.

By the time of World War I, the major powers had agreed to the laws of war, which included the treatment of prisoners of war. Drawing on the U.S. Army's 1863 regulations, delegates at the Hague Peace Conferences (1899, 1907) agreed that each other's POWs should receive decent treatment. After the Spanish‐American War of 1898, the United States quickly repatriated thousands of captured Spanish soldiers, and the Spanish returned their limited number of U.S. POWs. In contrast, the Philippine War (1899–1902) eventually degenerated into guerrilla warfare, and counterinsurgency measures were taken in which prisoners on both sides were sometimes tortured and killed.

The enormity of World War I overwhelmed the major powers with millions of POWs. However, since most of the American fighting occurred only in the final months of the war, just 4,120 American soldiers wound up in German POW camps. U.S. diplomats and the American Red Cross sought successfully to ensure decent treatment. Only 147 American prisoners died in the German camps, most of them from previous wounds.

By contrast, World War II was characterized by the mistreatment and even murder of Allied prisoners and civilians by Germany—especially on the eastern front—and by Japan throughout Asia and the Pacific. This led to the postwar trial and execution of some German and Japanese officials and military officers for war crimes. The 1929 Geneva Convention further elaborated details for treatment of POWs. While subjecting many captured civilians and others to slave labor, torture, or death, Nazi Germany usually treated American (and West European) military POWs within the Geneva rules.

Before December 1944, the majority of American soldiers held in Stalags (German POW camps) were captured airmen. In the ground war, only a few G.I.'s were captured before December 1944, but in the surprise German Ardennes offensive, known as the Battle of the Bulge, thousands of Americans were surrounded and captured. In the Malmédy massacre in Belgium, eighty‐six captured G.I.'s were executed by a German SS unit on 17 December. During the bitter winter of 1944–45, the Germans force‐marched thousands of Allied POWs across the country in an attempt to keep them from the armies invading from the east and west. Several thousand American POWs in the east were therefore liberated by the Red Army and held for a while, after the German surrender on 8 May 1945, and through the Potsdam Conference in July, although they were eventually repatriated before the end of 1945. Of the 93,941 American POWs held in the European theater during the war, only 1 percent died in captivity, most of them from combat wounds.

In contrast, Japan's treatment of POWs was brutal. Influenced by the military, Tokyo had not signed the 1929 Geneva Convention, and Japanese military leaders instilled in their soldiers the belief that surrender was a betrayal of the emperor and a disgrace to the individual and his family. Pursuing a policy disdainful of Allied servicemen who surrendered, the Japanese military treated Allied POWs viciously. Some POWs, such as captured American airmen who bombed Japan, were beheaded. The majority of American POWs had been captured when the Japanese conquered the Philippine Islands in the winter of 1941–42.

In the infamous Bataan Death March of April 1942, some 78,000 American and Filipino POWs led by Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, many already starving and weak from malaria, were beaten, clubbed, and bayoneted as they were forced to walk sixty‐five miles with little or no food, water, or shelter to the prison camp near Cabanatuan. Between 7,000 and 10,000 people died or were killed on the march. (After the war, Japanese Gen. Masaharu Homma was held responsible and executed. In the Philippines, homage is paid annually to the American and Filipino victims on Bataan Day, 9 April, when Filipinos rewalk parts of the death route.)

After the Americans began the liberation of the Philippines in October 1944, the Japanese put surviving POWs onto ships to take them to Japan as hostages. There were orders to kill them if the Americans invaded the home islands. Nearly 4,000 American POWs died in unmarked transport ships sunk by American planes or submarines, but others survived the journey in filthy holds to be worked in mines and other hazardous facilities in Japan until the Japanese surrender in August 1945. (Indeed, after the emperor's call for surrender, several dozen captured American airmen were beheaded by imperial military units in Japan.) Of the 25,600 American POWs held in the Pacific during the war, 10,650 or nearly 45 percent died, most of starvation and disease since they were worked incessantly and given little food, clothing, shelter, or medical treatment.

In the postwar era, despite the trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo of Germans and Japanese for war crimes, several Communist states refused to accept the 1949 Geneva Conventions, which further developed the laws of war. In the Korean War (1950–53), North Korean forces executed many G.I.'s in the field, their bodies later re covered with their hands tied behind their backs. A report to Congress in 1954 concluded that this was a deliberate tactic of psychological warfare. Many more Americans were captured during the winter of 1950–51 when United Nations forces retreated following the massive Chinese intervention.

Of the more than 7,000 Americans captured by the Communists during the Korean War, only 3,800 returned alive. An estimated 1,000 were murdered, and at least another 1,700 died of sickness and malnutrition. When the Chinese Communists took control, the prisoners' physical conditions improved slightly, but they now underwent indoctrination efforts. Under torture, a number of American airmen “confessed” to germ warfare and other atrocities. Twenty‐one Americans and one Englishman renounced their citizenship and decided to remain in China following the armistice in 1953. Although only one out of every twenty‐three American POWs was ever suspected of serious misconduct, the so‐called “brainwashing” of POWs who denounced the United States led to a public outcry. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued Executive Order 10631, prescribing a code of conduct for American POWs designed to forge captive Americans into a unified community through a common standard of behavior.

In the Vietnam War (1965–73), North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front in the South refused to consider any requests from the International Red Cross Commission regarding POWs. In effect, Vietnamese Communists viewed American servicepeople as having been criminals before they were captured and thus as without the status of POWs. In the ground war in South Vietnam, some Americans were shot while trying to surrender. Others were taken north to POW camps. Many of the navy and air force aviators captured during the bombing of North Vietnam were held in a prison known sarcastically as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Most of the POWs suffered considerable mental and physical abuse and some were tortured, but only a few agreed to issue anti‐American propaganda.

Between 1964 and 1972, of the known American POWs held in North Vietnam, 114 died in captivity. After the Paris Peace Agreements (1973), 651 POWs returned to American control. However, the status of over 2,000 Americans missing in action (MIAs) and the question of whether the Socialist Republic of Vietnam had retained some American POWs remained controversial for years afterward.

During the Persian Gulf War (1991), although Iraq, like the United States, had signed the 1949 Geneva Conventions, Saddam Hussein refused to allow the International Red Cross Commission to inspect Iraq's POW facilities. In captivity, the twenty‐three American POWs, including two female soldiers, suffered physical mistreatment that ranged from sexual abuse of the women to electric shocks and bone‐breaking for the men.


Pat O'Brien , Outwitting the Hun: My Escape from a German Prison Camp, 1918.
Ralph E. Ellinwood , Behind German Lines: A Narrative of the Everyday Life of an American Prisoner of War, 1920.
Clifford Milton Markle , A Yankee Prisoner in Hunland, 1920.
William B. Hesseltine , Civil War Prisons: A Study in War Psychology, 1930; repr. 1962.
U.S. Department of the Army , Communist Interrogation, Indoctrination and Exploitation of Prisoners of War, 1956.
Stanley L. Falk , Bataan: The March of Death, 1962.
John G. Hubbell, et al. , P.O.W.: A Definitive History of the American Prisoner of War Experience in Vietnam, 1964–1973, 1976.
David Foy , For You the War Is Over: American POWs in Nazi Germany, 1984.
Marion R. Lawton , Some Survived: An Epic Account of Japanese Captivity During World War II, 1984.
John Dower , War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, 1986.
Richard B. Speed III , Prisoners, Diplomats, and the Great War: A Study in the Diplomacy of Captivity, 1990.
Susan Katz Keating , Prisoners of Hope: Exploiting the POW/MIA Myth in America, 1994.
Dwight Messimer , Escape, 1994.
S. P. MacKenzie , The Treatment of Prisoners of War in World War II, Journal of Modern History, 66 (September 1994), pp. 487–520.

Robert C. Doyle

Prisoners Of War: Enemy Pows Four principles have guided American treatment of enemy POWs: military customs and tradition of the time; internal American military law such as the Rules of Land Warfare (1863 to the present); international agreements on the law of war such as the Hague (1899) and Geneva Conventions (1929, 1949); and, most important, American responses to the practical dynamic that if one side treated its prisoners humanely, the other side was expected to do the same so far as its means allowed.

The first European POWs taken in the British colonies were French prisoners, who, according to custom, were either paroled or exchanged for British or colonial military prisoners held in French Canada. (Indian prisoners, if taken at all, were often sold into slavery before the Civil War, or afterwards, like Geronimo, made prisoners for life.) The Americans took more than 16,000 British, Hessian, and loyalist POWs during the Revolutionary War. Officers were exchanged; enlisted men were generally sent to work on farmland in the frontier, particularly in western Pennsylvania. Captured loyalist became political prisoners and were sent back to their own regions for internment. All prisoners were released by 1783; some assimilated into American society, especially expatriate Hessians; others, including loyalists, returned to England or settled in Canada. During the Revolution, despite the lack of formal British recognition of American POW status until 1783, few enemy POWs perished in American captivity. In the War of 1812, POW status was recognized and Americans kept enemy POWs under similar conditions to the way that Americans were kept by the British.

During the Mexican War (1846–48), the U.S. Army took over 40,000 Mexican POWs, most of whom were paroled in the field. The practice of field parole survived in the first year of the Civil War but proved impractical. Both sides established a system of facilities: Union camps held more than 220,000 Confederates, and the Confederacy held more than 211,000 Union soldiers. In practice, both sides paroled prisoners until 1864. Although Abraham Lincoln issued General Order 100, Rules of Land Warfare, to the Union army in 1863, over 56,000 Americans on both sides died in captivity, mainly in 1864–65. In the Spanish‐American War (1898), thousands of Spanish troops who surrendered in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines were returned home upon the conclusion of hostilities.

Only a handful of German POWs, mostly merchant marine and political internees, were held in the United States during World War I. In Europe, the American Expeditionary Force held over 40,000 German POWs by November 1918; all were freed in 1919. In World War II, the U.S. Army held more than 325,000 German, 50,000 Italian, and 5,000 Japanese Army POWs (the last mostly Koreans and Formosan drafted to work for the Japanese Army) in some 500 prison camps in the United States. The militant Bushido Code required Japanese soldiers to commit suicide rather than surrender until the emperor himself ordered his armed forces to surrender in August 1945.

Treatment of enemy POWs in the United States was proper, just, and humane, and generally consistent with the 1929 Geneva Convention. The most significant problem for American authorities was distinguishing between kind of Axis prisoners: political opportunists, German nationalists, nonpolitical POWs (mostly draftees), and dedicated Nazi Party members, who did distinguish among the other three groups. A total of 1,000 German POWs escaped, but most were soon returned by the FBI, military, or local police, and the last German POWs sailed for Europe in July 1946. American military intelligence initiated programs directed toward reeducation and denazification.

After Germany's surrender in May 1945, Allied powers established a vast system of POW camps for millions of surrendered German soldiers known as “Disarmed Enemy Forces” (DEF). Spread along the Rhine Valley, the meadow camps operated by the American Military Police were filled beyond capacity, and large numbers of former German soldiers, already weakened from long combat and diminished rations, died of starvation, exposure, and disease. By 1947, realities of the Cold War descended on Europe, and the American occupation discharged most DEFs except for members of the SS, SD, Gestapo, and others held for war crimes trials.

During the Korean War, the largest prison facilities for North Korean and Chinese POWs were on Koje and Pongam‐do Islands south of the mainland. In Korea, Cold War issues changed American policy from accepting forced repatriations of all POWs to admitting defectors as political refuges. In May and June 1952, the United Nations Command witnessed the results of that policy change: Communist resisters in the camps staged one of the most successful uprisings in POW history. Rioting lasted for nearly two months. The Americans answered with force and also began separating Communist and non‐Communist prisoners upon arrival. No real solution was ever found, and only the 1953 armistice ended disputes over POW conditions and treatment on both sides.

In the Vietnam War, especially from 1965 to 1971, thousands of Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers fell into American hands. If North Vietnamese soldiers were captured in uniform, they were protected by the 1949 Geneva Convention with oversight by the International Red Cross, and repatriated in 1973 after the Paris peace accords. However, a political war raged and more than one prison system operated in secret on both sides. Special units like the Province Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) arrested civilians suspected as Communist Party members and incarcerated these political detainees without habeas corpus or international inspection in notorious conditions such as those at Con Son Island.

Following the Persian Gulf War in 1991, captured Iraqi soldiers fell into two categories: those who participated in a failed rebellion against the dictator Saddam Hussein, and those who helped him repress their country's minorities. With recent wartime experiences in mind, American authorities conducted rigorous screening of thousands of Iraqi POWs to determine which ones would likely suffer political retribution and imprisonment following repatriation. Many of those POWs were granted political asylum.


Lucy Leigh Bowie , German Prisoners in the American Revolution, Maryland Historical Magazine (September 1945), pp. 185–200.
William Best Hesseltine , Civil War Prisons, 1930; repr. 1962.
Ovid L. Futch , History of Andersonville Prison, 1968.
Charles H. Metzger, S. J. , The Prisoner in the American Revolution, 1971.
Judith M. Gansberg , Stalag USA: The Remarkable Story of German POWs in America, 1977.
Howard S. Levie, ed., Documents on Prisoners of War, Vol. 60 of Naval War College International Law Studies, 1979.
Arnold Krammer , Public Administration of Prisoner of War Camps in America Since the Revolutionary War, 1980.
James Bacque , Other Losses: An Investigation into the Mass Deaths of German Prisoners at the Hands of the French and Americans After World War II, 1989.
Günter Bischof and Stephen Ambrose, eds., Eisenhower and the German POWs: Facts Against Falsehood, 1992.

Robert C. Doyle

Prisoners of War: The POW Experience American POW experiences began in the colonial past and continue as part of the human legacy of war. For three centuries, American POWs have examined their experience by writing personal histories that search for a sense of social, legal, historical, and personal order in the midst of captivity. In a corpus of American literature, POWs' accounts reveal cultural conflicts of ideologies, international conflicts in law, and stressful human tensions that require life‐or‐death choices. They also ask ethical and moral questions.

Former POWs often wrote accounts in which they reflected on their experiences as a chaotic hell on earth. These are our best guides to the POW experience. Simple and unadorned, POW narratives contain anecdotal evidence of brutality, torture, stress, and a strong sense of moral outrage. More important, they contain readily identifiable political, social, religious, or military purposes. With a strong sense of mission, some POWs like Ethan Allen during the Revolutionary War designed their stories to generate both emotional response and renewed commitment to armed political struggle. Other POWs followed the Puritan jeremiad model and reinforced the power of religious faith. Modern POW literature such as the accounts of the war in Southeast Asia by James N. Rowe, Five Years to Freedom (1971), Dieter Dengler, Escape from Laos (1979), and James B. Stockdale, In Love and War (1984), bear witness to an experience that affected not just the authors but an entire class of Americans whose human rights were denied in wartime. In effect, POW narratives lie beyond the documented statistical histories of war; instead, they tell highly personalized, extremely painful stories about a world consisting of seven commonly recurring events that structure experience and give it meaning.

Precapture guides the reader through personal memories before the POW experience took place. The POW identifies the core value systems—family, comrades‐in‐arms, God, institutions, country—that later help to establish and maintain the will to survive. Capture describes how, where, and when the POW was taken by the enemy. The victim can be man or woman, a civilian caught in the battle's center or in the throes of a political crisis, an individual soldier, sailor, or an entire military garrison that was forced to surrender as a unit. This event dramatizes the battle's loss: a person has nothing more than the moment at hand in which to make decisions. All is lost but life itself, and one's future depends on luck and the whim of one's captor. The long march describes the dangerous journey from the place of capture to the place of permanent internment, with intermittent stops along the way. The experience removes the outer layers of the prisoner's cultural veneer as POWs are executed for such trifles as wanting water, walking too slowly, or falling down.

POWs describe the prison landscape as the permanent prison facility where chronological time stood still. Simple affairs of life are transformed into time‐marked events. Food becomes an obsession, and no POW forgets the cell, filth, rats, or the hunger. In resistance or assimilation, the POW begins to understand his or her captors better. No longer stereotypes, captors become real people who demand absolute obedience. POWs describe physical torture and psychological pressure made to change their way of thinking, or at least to change their overt behavior. As a result, many POWs undergo deep personal transformations when they are confronted with basic decision making. Beginning this process as one person, the POW ends it as another.

POWs describe release as the happy‐sad return (or attempted return through escape) to the world from which they came. Escape takes place in this phase of the experience; however, most escapees suffer recapture and receive severe punishment for their efforts. Consequently, there are ever‐intensifying social, ethical, and moral conflicts among POWs about the efficacy of escape, especially when the well‐being of the entire captive community is at stake. This phase focuses also on the joy of anticipation, the oddities of renewed personal freedom, and the shock of homecoming.

The lament allows the POW to reflect on and grieve for what was lost in captivity. As witness bearers, most narrators grieve the cost of the sacrifice in terms of the loss of those who died needlessly or who suffered greatly. POWs also grieve the loss of irreplaceable time—especially time away from home, family, and cultural institutions that put them into another unique class where they have more in common with other POWs than with those people closest to them.

Each scenario contains varied examples of what POWs view as dramatic events that reinforced or destroyed the will to live. Capture is usually individual, whereas long marches tend to be group events. The act of resistance takes place as both a group and an individual event, depending on the nature of the captivity. Interrogation and torture are individual acts of resistance. Assimilation, if it occurs at all, tends to be an individual decision. Escapes are usually individual or small‐group ventures, whereas release/repatriation are often group experiences. POWs, once part of a community of prisoners, become individuals again after their repatriation, alone with their memories, but with little support from those other POWs on whom they depended for so long. The lament gives them the opportunity to grieve for the time wasted in captivity; for the material opportunities lost over time; and most often for the dead.

For individual POWs, the act of writing about their experience often serves as a catharsis for personal feelings, an ethical forum to tell the world what happened to them and why. Most important, in their expressions of outrage, POWs serve their respective communities as witnesses against willful and often illegal acts of inhumanity. Because writing a memoir terminates an extended act of violence that nearly consumed them, they also achieve a sense of closure. The common denominator remains the moral judgments that test an individual's ability to withstand the unexpected when the chips fall about as low as they can go.


Michael Walzer , Prisoners of War: Does the Fight Continue After the Battle?, American Political Science Review, 63 (1969), pp. 777–86.
Robert F. Grady , The Evolution of Ethical and Legal Concern for Prisoners of War, 1971.
A. J. Barker , Prisoners of War, 1975.
John G. Hubbell , A Definitive History of the American Prisoner of War Experience in Vietnam, 1964–1973, 1976.
Richard Garrett , POW: The Uncivil Face of War, 1981.
Pat Reid and and Maurice Michael , Prisoners of War, 1984.
Sydney Axinn A Moral Military, 1989.
Robert C. Doyle , Voices from Captivity: Interpreting the American POW Narrative, 1994.

Robert C. Doyle

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prisoner of war

prisoner of war, in international law, person captured by a belligerent while fighting in the military. International law includes rules on the treatment of prisoners of war but extends protection only to combatants. This excludes civilians who engage in hostilities (by international law they are war criminals; see war crimes) and forces that do not observe conventional requirements for combatants (see war, laws of).

Historical Attitudes toward Prisoners of War

Attitudes toward prisoners of war have changed over time. Originally slaughtered, captives were later considered war booty. The captor still held life-and-death power, but it became more useful to make slaves of the prisoners. In feudal Europe the nobles were ransomed, and the Ottoman Empire and the Barbary States generally ransomed their Christian captives.

The basis of the modern treatment of prisoners of war was stated by Montesquieu in De l'esprit des lois and by J. J. Rousseau in his Social Contract; both held that the right of the captor over the prisoner was limited to preventing him from taking up arms again and ceased altogether with the end of hostilities. Their view was elaborated by Emerich de Vattel. During the American Civil War, Francis Lieber drew up the first systematic, written regulations on the treatment of prisoners of war.

The first international convention on prisoners of war was signed at the Hague Peace Conference of 1899. It was widened by the Hague Convention of 1907. These rules proved insufficient in World War I, and the International Red Cross proposed a more complete code.

The 1929 Geneva Convention

In 1929 the Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War was signed by 47 governments. Chief among the nations that did not adhere to the Geneva Convention of 1929 were Japan and the USSR. Japan, however, gave a qualified promise (1942) to abide by the Geneva rules, and the USSR announced (1941) that it would observe the terms of the Hague Convention of 1907, which did not provide (as does the Geneva Convention) for neutral inspection of prison camps, for the exchange of prisoners' names, and for correspondence with prisoners.

According to the Geneva Convention no prisoner of war could be forced to disclose to his captor any information other than his identity (i.e., his name and rank, but not his military unit, home town, or address of relatives). Every prisoner of war was entitled to adequate food and medical care and had the right to exchange correspondence and receive parcels. He was required to observe ordinary military discipline and courtesy, but he could attempt to escape at his own risk. Once recaptured, he was not to be punished for his attempt. Officers were to receive pay either according to the pay scale of their own country or to that of their captor, whichever was less; they could not be required to work. Enlisted men might be required to work for pay, but the nature and location of their work were not to expose them to danger, and in no case could they be required to perform work directly related to military operations. Camps were to be open to inspection by authorized representatives of a neutral power.

In World War II, Switzerland and Sweden acted as protecting powers. The International Red Cross at Geneva acted as a clearinghouse for the exchange of all information regarding prisoners of war and had charge of transmitting correspondence and parcels. With minor and inevitable exceptions on the lower levels, the United States and Great Britain generally honored the Geneva Convention throughout the conflict. Japan at first committed such atrocities as the "death march of Bataan," but began to abide by the rules after a sufficient number of Japanese prisoners had fallen into Allied hands to make reprisals possible. Germany did not treat all its prisoners alike. Americans and British subjects received the best treatment, Polish prisoners the worst.

The 1949 Geneva Convention

The changed methods of warfare in World War II, the maltreatment of prisoners of war that constituted an important part of the war crimes indictments, and the retention of a great number of German prisoners of war by the USSR for several years after the war showed that the 1929 Convention required revision on many points. A new convention, reaffirming and supplementing the 1929 Convention, was signed at Geneva in 1949 and subsequently ratified by almost all nations. It broadened the categories of persons entitled to prisoner-of-war status, clearly redefined the conditions of captivity, and reaffirmed the principle of immediate release and repatriation at the end of hostilities.

Although the North Koreans promised to respect the Geneva Convention in the Korean War, they refused to recognize the impartial status of the Red Cross and denied it access to the territory they controlled. The unprecedented refusal of prisoners to be repatriated, moreover, established a new principle of political asylum for prisoners of war. The governments of North and South Vietnam, parties to the 1949 Geneva Convention, were charged with violating it in the Vietnam War—the North by not permitting full reporting, correspondence, and neutral inspection, and the South by allegedly torturing captives and placing them in inhumane prisons. The national anguish over the Vietnam War was extended for decades after the war's end in part because of the lack of resolution over the POW and MIA (missing in action) issue. While the Pentagon's MIA list still contains names of missing servicemen, the last official prisoner of war was declared dead in 1994.

Combatants captured and held by the United States as a result of its operations in Afghanistan against the Taliban government and Al Qaeda forces were not recognized as as prisoners of war by the Bush administration and were termed "unlawful combatants" instead. This decision was criticized by human rights groups as a failure to abide by international law, and drew criticism from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as well. In June, 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that these prisoners, which the Bush administration had claimed it could hold indefinitely (most of them at the Guantánamo, Cuba, naval base), were not beyond the bounds of U.S. federal law and had the right to challenge their detention.

A month before the ruling, U.S. prestige had suffered a significant blow when it was revealed that U.S. forces had abused Iraqi prisoners in 2003–4. Later revelations suggested that the abuse may have been an outgrowth of U.S. prisoner policy in place since the 2001 terror attacks on the United States, and the ICRC expressed concern that the United States might be continuing to hide prisoners from it, as had been attempted in Iraq. The ICRC subsequently privately charged that U.S. treatment of some prisoners at Guantánamo was "tantamount to torture." Also in 2004 the Bush administration determined that some non-Iraqi prisoners captured in Iraq were not subject to the Geneva Conventions, and that such prisoners could be transferred out of Iraq, as the CIA secretly had done with a small number of prisoners since 2003.

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prisoner of war

prisoner of war (POW) In international law, military personnel captured by the enemy in an armed conflict between states. Their treatment is generally expected to be humane. The 1907 Hague Convention and the Geneva Convention of 1949 widened the scope of the first international convention on prisoners of war, signed at the Hague Peace Conference of 1899.

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