Joe Stalin knew what he thought about prisoners of war. Surrender was treason. Being taken prisoner was evidence of surrender. Punished accordingly. When Soviet prisoners were repatriated from Germany, he had them shot.
I have trained soldiers in how to accept enemies’ surrender but never in how to give themselves up. British soldiers are taught that a white flag represents a request to parley, but the army doesn’t issue white flags to soldiers.
Prisoners of war are a fundamental part of modern warfare, but prisoners are often prisoners because they have surrendered. Surrender is a something with which armed forces are profoundly uncomfortable. Without the option of surrender all sides in an armed conflict frequently have no alternative but to assume that the enemy will fight to the death. That assumption means that defeating the enemy means physically annihilating the enemy: killing or maiming them all.
The difficulty in coming to terms with surrender, capture and treason is in tension with ideas of heroism, fighting and honour. In Iran this difficulty is extreme: the Ayatollahs’ cult of martyrdom has made those who returned alive from the Iran-Iraq war, even those who were badly maimed, dishonourable compared with one who went willingly, often unarmed, to death.
This difficulty has been explored in classic films like Renoir’s La grande illusion and Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17; and recently on television in the Israeli Prisoners of War and its American version, Homeland.
I once interviewed an American-Israeli, Jay Jacobson, who as a civilian driver in 1973 rescued a Syrian crewman from a burning armoured vehicle. The panicked Syrian begged his rescuers not to eat him, first in Arabic then in excellent American English. He explained that the Syrian Army had told them they must not surrender or they would be eaten by the Israelis. The soldier had believed them.
Jacobson asked him where he had learned his excellent English. The Syrian soldier replied, ‘I did my master’s degree in psychology at the University of Illinois’.
He was, I assume, made prisoner in due course, exchanged at the conclusion of hostilities, and returned home uneaten.
At the same time as this Syrian was being deluded by his own side there was genuine widespread mistreatment of Western prisoners by the forces of Communist dictatorships. Merely enduring captivity under North Korean and North Vietnamese control required heroism.
Furthermore, North Vietnam did not, for a long time, comply with the Geneva Convention requirements on notification that soldiers had been taken prisoner. The repatriation of Americans in the 1970s was in some cases slow and painful, in no small part due to the official non-war status of that war.
The American perception of prisoners of war was politicised in the 1980s by the largely specious claim that a significant number of Americans listed as missing-in-action in Vietnam lived in Vietnam as prisoners of war. What began as a genuine difficulty in getting POWs back in the 1970s turned into a conservative political touchstone in the 1980s.
So powerful was the politicisation of American prisonerhood in Southeast Asia that NATO doctrine stopped altogether referring to enemy prisoners as POWs, preferring the terms EPWs (enemy prisoners of war) or just PWs.
The means whereby they surrendered were rarely discussed. The ideal prisoner was a downed pilot who we can assume was unable to fight without a functioning aircraft.
When Gilad Shalit was taken prisoner and when he was released there was some discussion of how not-heroic his capture had been. This is what much of war is about: not-heroic actions by young people under tremendous stress. Being captured is no great honour, but it is no great shame either.
US National Security Advisor Susan Rice referred to Sgt Bowe Bergdahl as a soldier who ‘served the United States with honour and distinction’ after his recent release from enemy captivity in an exchange similar to many prisoner exchanges at the conclusion of wars. This fits in with the narrative which accords heroism to anyone who endures harsh enemy captivity, as Sgt Bergdahl assuredly has.
This narrative ignores the problematical nature of prisonerhood. While some are captured when incapacitated by injury and others are captured after firing the last round and breaking their bayonets as hordes of enemy overcome them; many are captured when their will to fight is broken.
Many prisoners of war are made prisoners when they surrender because they perceive their situations to be hopeless. Many surrender from an understanding that their tactical situation is hopeless. Many surrender because they become psychological or physical casualties.
When Bill Kristol said that Sgt Bergdahl had behaved dishonourably in his conduct before capture he was upholding the American tradition of politicising prisoners of war. He criticised Sgt Bergdahl’s surrender and criticised the US Administration’s exchange of Sgt Bergdahl for enemy prisoners. He was wrong to do both.
If prisoners were not exchanged at the conclusion of hostilities or under flags of truce (as a certain Francis Scott Key once famously was) then enemies might not take or might mistreat prisoners. Regardless of whether Sgt Bergdahl was right to surrender (and he may have acted improperly) it was right to bring him home.
To be a prisoner of war is neither to be a hero nor to be a traitor. To be a Prisoner of War is to perform military service, often under harsh conditions, far from home and family. He has no doubt endured worse than Bill Kristol has, and deserves to be honoured no more than the comrades who feel he let them down, but to some extent no less.