From our POW Code of Conduct

“….I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist. If I am captured, I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy. If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information or take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior, I will take command. If not, I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way. When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number, and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.”

This code of conduct was created and adapted for all the American services in the wake of the Korean War, when American (and other nationalities) POWs were both brutally mistreated and exploited for propaganda purposes by their captors. While some service personnel may be a trifle foggy on the exact requirements of the Geneva Convention until the need for familiarity with those conventions floats up to the top of their personal “to-do” duty requirements, the POW code of conduct is branded on our consciousness. Well, that and the bitter knowledge that the last military opponent of ours who paid anything like strict attention to Geneva Convention requirements when applying them to captured American service personnel were the Germans in WWII.

So, we have quietly gotten our heads around a couple of facts, one of the most important being the brutal reality that Americans best not surrender. The odds of surviving long enough for the International Red Cross to make that all-important visit to verify your well-being are practically non-existent. Snuff videos made available various pro-fundamentalist Islamic media throughout Middle East make it pretty damn clear that no surrender in the first place may be the most viable career option.

Even if a prisoner is lucky, and the market for death-porn is flooded, the odds of being used as a hostage, and paraded like a puppet in front of the video cameras are pretty much a given. Exactly how far one can or ought to go in resisting this kind of exploitation is a judgment call. Admiral James Stockdale, as the senior American POW in North Vietnam chose to mutilate himself rather than be paraded in public for propaganda purposes, and threatened suicide if the North Vietnamese continued to continue torturing other POWs.

Pvt. Patrick Miller, of the 507th Maintenance Company was taken prisoner during the dash into Iraq in 2003, (at the same time as Pvt. Jessica Lynch) and was one of the five surviving members of his unit paraded on Iraqi television. I remember seeing the clip of the five on the news, and thought that he was the only one of them who seemed to be defiant. He answered back with his name and rank, and looked like he was about to spit into the camera, even if he and the others were entirely at the mercy of Saddam Hussein’s goons. In the long run, ones’ response to the extreme of captivity and threatened (or actual torture) depends on training, and maturity. But sometimes it depends on strength of character, and maybe a large lashing of stubborn bloody-mindedness, which are harder to predict in advance and inculcate with training. But I digress. I have a point, and I am getting to it.

This week, it’s the fifteen British sailors and Marines, taken by Iranian goons, and paraded in front of cameras, while Tony Blair and the British media agonize over how to react, what should have been done, and what can be done to get them back without loosing any national self-respect, and their families try and maintain a stiff upper lip under the hot searchlight of media interest.

It pretty much looks like it was deliberate and well-planned, done expressly for the purposes of getting hostages to toy with, probably with an eye for a prisoner exchange, and building up their image internally. They announced their intentions to kidnap coalition personnel some weeks ago, but at this point in the war, American personnel are probably just too damn hard to catch unawares. So, go for the easily gathered harvest, and drag it out as long as possible. I am afraid that if it drags on for a long time, as long as the Teheran embassy hostage crisis that it will become as much of a political hot potato. I can see the Blair government in a cleft stick; having neither the means or the will to respond with gunboats, or the 21st century equivalent. Being that the war in Iraq is resoundingly unpopular (as near as I can judge from a distance) I wonder if there is any stomach for that kind of response anyway. And while the diplomatic alternative grinds slowly away, over weeks and months, and the hostages families fret and worry, and the national media pounds away, involvement in the coalition may become even less popular. Getting the hostages freed may come to seem to be such an overwhelmingly good thing that no one will care very much about the price paid for such an end.

I hope that there is a Stockdale, or a Miller among the captured British sailors and Marines. I hope that they are not being tormented, as Admiral Stockdale was, at the hands of the North Vietnamese… and I hope that they are resisting as best they can, for the sake of their own self-respect as members of a proud military with a long tradition of defiance and resistance to captivity. I hope they will return knowing in their hearts that they held to the code, and to their comrades, and never in their hearts surrendered.

Sgt. Mom is a freelance writer and retired Air Force NCO who lives in San Antonio and posts at The Daily Brief

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