History Lesson

The POW in the American Imagination

Why we’re obsessed with American soldiers captured by the enemy.

Seven American soldiers have been captured in Iraq, and 19 more are missing. To judge by the intensity of feeling that has attached to their fates, something more than idle curiosity is at work here, something deep in the national subconscious.

A mystique has always surrounded the prisoner of war and the missing in action. On the one hand, their experience embodies the ultimate nightmare: being captured by, and at the mercy of, a demonized enemy, out of reach of America’s laws and protection. On the other hand, the POW gains a closer look at the enemy, and perhaps a more satisfying insight, than the citizen or average soldier ever attains. At some level, we wish to know or share the POW’s experience, which, even in this most televised of wars, remains unknown, a black hole that imagination rushes to fill.

For most of human history, prisoners of war, including women, children, and elders, were killed, tortured, enslaved, or held for ransom. The prisoners’ helplessness allowed the captors to indulge the darkest human fantasies. Cuneiform tablets from ancient times, discovered by archaeologists, bear messages such as: “I have captured many men alive; with some I have had their hands or arms cut off, with others their nose or ears. I have put out the eyes of many—torn out the tongues of others—cut off their lips.” During the Punic Wars, the Romans and Carthaginians crucified each other’s generals. Only as laws of war evolved in modern times—producing The Hague and Geneva Conventions of the last century—did these practices begin to subside.

But barbarism and mistreatment, although diminished, continue in every war. And our knowledge that POWs inevitably receive rough handling, whatever the laws, feeds our fears and our imaginations. Such prurient curiosity has always been part of society’s concern with the POW. Stories of wartime captivity—whether real, embellished, or imagined—have been tapping into our worst fears of sex and violence since the first battles between Indians and European settlers.

In Colonial America, “captivity tales,” as the popular genre of wartime abduction accounts came to be known, expressed both anxiety and voyeurism. Typically, a woman spirited away by evil Indians struggles to maintain her faith in God and save her virginity. Captivity tales offered readers glimpses into an alien culture, a dose of sexual prurience, and a narrative of religious redemption, with the protagonist’s test to retain her purity symbolizing a test by God of the larger society.

Precisely because the POW’s experience is unknown and unknowable, what we imagine varies with time and place. Just as the Puritans did with their captivity tales, Americans in recent times have attached varying fantasies to the POW, depending on our societal concerns.

During the Korean War, fantasies about the POW experience centered on the fear of brainwashing (a term whose usage dates to that war). Throughout history, captors had often tried, with little success, to convert their prisoners to their religion or worldview—see, for example, the Allied “de-Nazification” programs in World War II. But the Communist Chinese during the Korean War were exceptionally intensive in their effort to indoctrinate Western POWs. Prisoners were insulated from all outside reading materials except the doctrinally correct, subjected to lectures full of Communist ideology, and forced to take exams in which they were asked questions like, “Say why the triumph of World Socialism is inevitable.” Those who seemed to succumb to the ordeal received better rations, medical care, and overall treatment. Defiance led to the deprivation of clothing and water or solitary confinement.

Hardly any American POWs wound up adopting the Communist line. (In reality, defections more commonly ran the other way, as many captured Chinese and North Korean soldiers pleaded not to be repatriated to their Communist homelands.) But a good many Americans never returned home—in all likelihood having died or been killed—and their disappearance prompted fantasies that they had defected. The reputation of the POW that emerged from the Korean War was closer to traitor than hero. Like Frank Sinatra’s character in The Manchurian Candidate, Korean War POWs were suspected of being treacherous and easily manipulated into betraying their country. In 1955, President Eisenhower set forth a code of conduct for apprehended soldiers that addressed the fear of apostasy. The code ordered soldiers to tell their captors only their name, rank, service number, and date of birth and required them to “make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country.”

The Vietnam War changed the image of the POW, as H. Bruce Franklin has demonstrated in M.I.A, or Mythmaking in America. By the late 1960s, Americans had come to see Vietnam as a moral as well as a military quagmire. U.S. soldiers and citizens struggled to find honor in a losing battle and painfully reckoned with war crimes committed by the American side, including the mistreatment of Vietnamese captives. From this morass sprung the cult of the POW.

Partly the impetus was political. With funding and organizational help from Ross Perot, then a relatively anonymous Texas billionaire, President Nixon put together a media blitz, replete with rallies, TV shows, and merchandise, to fix public attention on those missing or captured in Vietnam. (Perot worked closely with the wife of POW James Stockdale, later his vice presidential running mate.) The PR campaign, promoting images of victimized Americans in peril of being forsaken and in need of support from back home, aimed to drive from people’s TV screens and conversations the less welcome images of massacred Vietnamese villagers and napalmed children.

Hungry for a story line that cast American soldiers as heroic victims, not oppressors, a large segment of the public took up the POW/MIA cause. Families of the unaccounted-for soldiers formed groups to lobby the government to retrieve the missing—waging their campaigns long after the war ended and Nixon resigned. Spreading the fiction that American servicemen remained imprisoned in Southeast Asia, the cause won legions of adherents and managed to get the now-familiar black-and-white POW/MIA flag to fly over the White House once a year, on National POW/MIA Recognition Day—the only flag other than Old Glory given that honor.

Despite the findings of congressional committees, historians, and other investigative efforts that refuted the claims, an almost religious belief in the existence of unreturned POWs in Vietnam took hold in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The belief reflected a desire to redeem the Vietnam War. A spate of popular movies such as Rambo and Missing in Action, in which former Vietnam POWs returned to the jungles to free forgotten comrades, reflected and reinforced a new mythology of the war, which is in effect won—or at least redeemed—the second time around. In these films, the hypermasculine Sylvester Stallone and Chuck Norris, brimming with patriotism, loyalty, and pectorals, make short work of their feeble Vietnamese enemies, save their forsaken buddies, and give the lost war a victorious end. This romance of the POW, it should be added, wasn’t only a Hollywood concern: The cult of John McCain owes much to his inspiring story of refusing to use connections to escape the brutal suffering of the Hanoi Hilton.

The glamorizing of the Vietnam POW, like that of the hostages taken captive in Iran in 1979 who became celebrities upon their release, marked an effort to replace weakness and defeat with heroism and redemption. But the Vietnam-era image of the POW may now, like so much else in this new Gulf War, be in flux—its masculine imagery no longer adequate for an Army touting virtues of flexibility and mobility and featuring women on the front lines.

Indeed, the developing story line about the Iraq POWs focuses on the sole female soldier captured, Spc. Shoshana Johnson. Like Army Maj. Rhonda Cornum, a POW in the first Gulf War who was sexually assaulted while in custody, Johnson, although a trained soldier, is cast in the role of the innocent maiden of the Indian captivity tales, her purity threatened in unspeakable ways. As with Colonial captivity tales, a prurient interest accompanies the expressions of fear and concern about her well-being. It’s too soon to say, but perhaps the image of the POW to emerge from this war will be poignant rather than inspiring, more feminine than masculine, more tragic than heroic—a figure who, not unlike the society that sent her to battle, was unprepared for the animosities awaiting.