Voices from Captivity

Interpreteting the American POW Narrative

Robert C. Doyle

Popularized by books and films like Andersonville, The Great Escape, and The Hanoi Hilton, and recounted in innumerable postwar memoirs, the POW story holds a special place in American culture. Robert Doyle's remarkable study shows why it has retained such enormous power to move and instruct us.

Long after wartime, memories of captivity haunt former wartime prisoners, their families, and their society-witness the continuing Vietnam MIA-POW controversies-and raise fundamental questions about human nature and survival under inhumane conditions. The prison landscapes have varied dramatically: Indian villages during the Forest Wars; floating hulks during the Revolution and War of 1812; slave bagnios in Algeria and Tripoli; hotels and haciendas during the Mexican War; large rural camps like Andersonville in the South or converted federal armories like Elmira in the North; stalags in Germany and death-ridden tropical camps in the Philippines; frozen jails in North Korea; and the "Hanoi Hilton" and bamboo prisons of Vietnam. But, as Doyle demonstrates, the story remains the same.

“This book examines, with a gift for both analysis and narrative, how the American POW experience, over three hundred years from the first settlers to Vietnam, was perceived and what being a prisoner of war was really like. Yet it is also more than that, in showing how individuals have sought personal meaning in catastrophic experience and borne witness to it in telling their stories.”

—Stanley Weintraub, author of Long Day’s Journey into War

“A stunning work filled with fresh and distinctive interpretations. It should be of interest to a very broad readership.”

—Gordon O. Taylor, author of Chapters of Experience: Studies in American Autobiography

Doyle shows that, though setting and circumstance may change, POW stories share a common structure and are driven by similar themes. Capture, incarceration, isolation, propaganda, torture, capitulation or resistance, death, spiritual quest, escape, liberation, and repatriation are recurrent key motifs in these narratives. It is precisely these elements, Doyle contends, that have made this genre such a fascinating and enduring literary form.

Drawing from a wide array of sources, including official documents, first-person accounts, histories, and personal letters, in addition to folklore and fiction, Doyle illustrates the timelessness of the POW story and shows why it has become central to our understanding of the American experience of war.

About the Author

Robert C. Doyle lectures in American Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. In 1970-71, he served as a Naval intelligence officer in Vietnam and has taught numerous courses and lectured frequently on the Vietnam War. He has published articles in the Journal of American Culture and Folklore Historian.

Additional Titles in the Modern War Studies Series