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Prisoners of the States: How America Has Violated Prisoner Rights For Generations

A new book, “The Enemy In Our Hands,” looks at how America has treated -- and mistreated -- prisoners of war through history, resonates in the age of terror.

In March 2004, the Abu Ghraib scandal seared unsightly images of prisoner abuse into the consciousness of a new generation of Americans. The allegations blindsided citizens who — galvanized by the specter of a nuclear Saddam — had been mostly supportive of the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. Not since the Mai Lai massacre in Vietnam 42 years earlier had so many questioned whether the nation held higher moral ground than its enemies.

Despite the courts-martial of the guards involved, the ensuing media frenzy only muddled the policy debate regarding the status of “unlawful combatants.” The incoming Obama administration promised change, but it has achieved little so far on the terror-suspect front. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement that he would try 9/11 “mastermind” Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in a New York federal court ran into congressional and local opposition, and now it’s unclear whether he will be tried in a civilian court or a military tribunal. And the president has only ceremonially closed the prison facilities at Guantanamo Bay.

Inserting itself deftly into the current debate is The Enemy In Our Hands, the latest book from Robert C. Doyle, a history professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and a Vietnam War veteran. With the very definition of “torture” subject to partisan politics, the author is content to objectively relay the precedents that shaped America’s treatment of captured enemies without pointing fingers or making sweeping judgments.

What readers are left with is a lively primer illuminating the people, events and prejudices that have shaped the government’s handling of prisoners of war and homegrown political dissidents over time. In chronological order, Doyle marches through American history from the Revolutionary War to the skirmishes with the Plains Indians all the way through more famous and deadlier conflicts of the 20th century.

How have Americans treated foreign prisoners of war? In general, fairly well, if they are uniformed and have made it off the battlefield into prison camps.

The first shots fired during the American Revolution introduced what the author describes as the dichotomy of prisoners of war and prisoners of state. The POWs held by Americans — British and Hessian troops — were treated mostly with restraint and respect during their time in captivity. American-born loyalists — those who, out of political or economic necessity, were devoted to the British Crown — did not receive such sympathy. Doyle writes that many were subjected to a series of loyalty tests then hounded out of their homes and stripped of their property. Some headed north to Canada while others were subsequently recruited by the British (who enlisted nearly 50,000 of these sympathizers).

These early actions “set the stage for what would take place repeatedly in American military history.” Namely, the military tends to treat foreign prisoners of war humanely, but internal prisoners, especially Americans perceived as disloyal, face a host of troubles.

These troubles, for the most part, came swiftly to those who committed treason. The Irish turncoats in the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, a band of deserters who fought for Mexico during the Mexican-American War, were promptly hanged upon being captured. Other notable and fascinating treason cases described in the book include those of the infamous German and Japanese propaganda voices of World War II, “Axis Sally” and “Tokyo Rose.” Both American citizens, these radio personalities were later tried and sentenced to more than a decade in prison and fined substantially. Unfortunately, American perceptions of disloyalty have also encompassed far more than clear treason — and at times have attached to groups whose primary offense appears to have been ethnicity, including Japanese-Americans taken from their homes along the Pacific Coast and sent to internment camps during World War II.