Civil Liberties

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.

After the Revolutionary War, prisoner treatment was inconsistent. During the early 1800s, the U.S. and its enemies had few overarching agreements on POW procedures, and many prisoners were subjected to the whims of the officers who captured them. If the capturing general were George Washington during the revolution or Zachary Taylor during the Mexican-American War, chances are that prisoners were treated humanely and, in some cases, paroled (i.e., sent home with the agreement that they would not rejoin the fight). This was especially true during the Mexican-American War — the U.S. military had no place to put their prisoners and parole became a prominent option.

It wasn’t until 1863, during the Civil War, that the U.S. reformed its POW policy by introducing General Order 100. This order (also known as the Lieber Code, for its author, Francis Lieber, who had sons fighting on both sides of the war) reinvented the way prisoners of war were kept and treated. Instead of being the prisoner of a specific general, POWs became prisoners of the U.S. government and were afforded a certain list of rights — including the right not to be tortured.

Although the Confederacy at first considered the order Northern propaganda, Gen. Robert E. Lee sagely recognized the value in the document. The timing was good as the war was quickly escalating into a “catastrophe of uncontrolled, retributive bloodletting.” Even this new protocol couldn’t stave off unnecessary deaths in poorly maintained prisoner of war camps — such as the infamous camp in Andersonville, Ga. — that became cesspools for disease and rife with abuse.

Still, according to Doyle, General Order 100 became one of the true innovations of the 1800s and set the stage for the international community to follow suit with the landmark Hague and Geneva conventions in 20th century.

The most striking stories in The Enemy In Our Hands arrive in the chapter titled “War in the Philippines” — what the author calls “the hardest chapter to write” because of the complexity of the events involved. In this conflict, which followed the Spanish-American War, the limits of General Order 100 were tested, and U.S. officers may have turned a blind eye to torture. The violence of what became an insurrection in the Philippines proved to foreshadow the messy conflicts in Vietnam and the Middle East.

After the relative ease of victory against the Spanish in Cuba in 1898, the U.S. turned to the Philippines, seeking to assimilate the islands. Spurned by American officials, resistance forces, led by Emilio Aguinaldo, refused to recognize U.S. sovereignty and began a guerrilla war.

Although the American soldiers in the Philippines were subject to General Order 100, article 81 of that order denied POW status to “nonuniformed enemy fighters who conducted hostilities.” Doyle notes that this type of fighting made some American soldiers feel as if they were fighting another frontier Indian war — which meant, in essence, that there were no rules.

As the conflict wore on (nearly 4,200 American soldiers were killed during the three-year-long guerrilla war), frustrated U.S. soldiers were caught between their duties to obtain field intelligence and, also, to treat prisoners humanely. They interrogated prisoners harshly; their commanding officers turned a blind eye, but also issued orders against physical abuse of prisoners. “Americans were damned by the law if they used unconventional methods,” Doyle writes, “and damned by the failure to obtain hard field intelligence if they refrained.”

According to historian Brian McAllister Linn, who is cited in the book, the interrogation method of choice in the Philippines was the “water cure” — what Doyle refers to as a “medieval” version of the practice that current-day Americans know as waterboarding. In the water cure, a prisoner was forced to drink dirty water until his stomach was about to explode, then asked a question. If the response was unsatisfactory, the prisoner was kicked until he vomited all the water out and the process was repeated.

Doyle doesn’t spend time debating the effectiveness of the water cure or its slightly more humane modern cousin, but he does write that skilled interrogators got the answers they were looking for from prisoners after about 30 seconds of waterboarding. Perhaps tellingly, the author doesn’t mention whether the prisoners gave usable information or just told interrogators what they wanted to hear.

He writes about the interrogations: “Moral? No. Lawful? No. Effective? Absolutely.”

When Capt. J.A. Ryan was court-martialed in the Philippines for dunking prisoners’ heads into a barrel of water, he responded, “To say that under such circumstances as these, [the] ducking of the heads into a pail of water was unlawful is to my mind crying out ‘Law’ where there is no law.”

Surely, some Vietnam veterans and a few soldiers currently in Afghanistan or Iraq would agree.

When the Bush administration denied non-state, nonuniformed enemy combatants the right to be held by the standards of the 1949 Geneva Convention, it did so convinced that the decision would make America safer. Even the well-publicized dissent of Colin Powell couldn’t change the mind of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the neo-conservatives who held sway with the president.

Robert C. Doyle doesn’t argue whether or not changing the rules was necessary after the events of 9/11, only that there was a painful cost to the decision. The tangible losses included abandonment by European and other coalition states during the occupation in Iraq and a blow to American prestige around the world.

The low-level guards at the understaffed, ill-maintained prison facilities at Abu Ghraib are only partly to blame for the despicable abuses that occurred in March of 2004. The Bush administration had sought and received Justice Department opinions that explicitly allowed interrogators to go beyond the limits set by the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war. But the rules for treatment of captured unlawful combatants in Afghanistan, in Guantanamo, and in Iraq remain murky, at best.

Though it may be a pipe dream, The Enemy In Our Hands argues that a new, stronger international convention on prisoners is necessary to establish the rules of war for the 21st century. At the very least, this well-balanced book showcases the difficulty of even defining what Doyle calls “that elusive term enemy.”