America's Captives

Treatment of POWs from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror

Paul J. Springer

Notwithstanding the long shadows cast by Abu Ghraib and Guantnamo, the United States has been generally humane in the treatment of prisoners of war, reflecting a desire to both respect international law and provide the kind of treatment we would want for our own troops if captured. In this first comprehensive study of the subject in more than half a century, Paul Springer presents an in-depth look at American POW policy and practice from the Revolutionary War to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan

Springer contends that our nation's creation and application of POW policy has been repeatedly improvised and haphazard, due in part to our military's understandable focus on defeating its enemies on the field of battle, rather than on making arrangements for their detention. That focus, however, has set the conditions for the military's chronic failure to record and learn from both successful and unsuccessful POW practices in previous wars. He also observes that American POW policy since World War II has largely sought to outsource POW operations to allied forces in order to retain American personnel for frontline service—outsourcing that has led to recent scandals

“In an age of unsettling revelations from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, scholars and the general public will be interested in the degree to which American policies and practices regarding war captives have been better or worse throughout American history. Springer presents a succinct, persuasive, and very readable answer to these questions.”

Journal of Military History

“At last, a balanced treatment of a subject whose modern history has been marked as much by ignorance and demagoguery as by reason and rule of law. It belongs on the desk of any scholar, policymaker, legislator, or bureaucrat who is contending with the legal aftermath of the War on Terror and its implications for the law of war.”

—Roger Spiller, author of An Instinct for War: Scenes from the Battlefields of History

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Focusing on each major war in turn, Springer examines the lessons learned and forgotten by American military and political leaders regarding our nation's experience in dealing with foreign POWs. He highlights the indignities of the Civil War, the efforts of the United States and its World War I allies to devise an effective POW policy, the unequal treatment of Japanese prisoners compared with that of German and Italian prisoners during World War II, and the impact of the Geneva Convention on the handling of Korean and Vietnamese captives. In bringing his coverage up to the so-called War on Terror, he also marks the nation's clear departure from previous practice—American treatment of POWs, once deemed exemplary by the Red Cross after Operation Desert Storm, has become controversial throughout the world.

America's Captives provides a long-needed overarching framework for this important subject and makes a strong case that we should stop ignoring the lessons of the past and make the disposition of prisoners one of the standard components of our military education and training.

About the Author

Paul J. Springer teaches leadership and strategy at the Air Command and Staff College in Montgomery, Alabama, and has also taught at Texas A&M University and the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Additional Titles in the Modern War Studies Series