Positive Psychology of POW Survival

Paul T. P. Wong
Ph.D., C.Psych
Trinity Western University
Langley, BC, Canada


The faces of American POWs paraded on TV are both haunting and disturbing. That they are in the hands of Saddam's atrocious fedayeen is enough to make one fearful for the POWs. It is all the more worrisome when Iraqi captors treat Americans in captivity as war criminals and deny them access by the Red Cross.

We cannot even comprehend what life is like as POWs in Iraqi prisons. Nor can we imagine what kind brutality they may have received. A casusal reading of The Geneva Conventions pertaining to the treatments of POWs would provide some indication of the wide range of crimes and abuses that may be inflicted on combatants in captivity, but are prohibited by international law.

Mistreatment of American POWs

If history is any help, mistreatments of American POWs in past wars give us further reason to be concerned about the fate of American POWs/MIAs in Iraq.

Gavan Daw's Prisoners of the Japanese documents the brutal experiences of American POWs, such as beatings, near starvation and forced labour. Many were also treated as human guinea pigs, and subjected to hideous "Nazi-like" medical experiments, such as lethal x-rays, cholera, anthrax etc.

During the Korean War of 1950-1953, American POWs were not treated any better. Some were taken to Russia and subjected to drug experiments. All of them had to cope with horrible living conditions, beatings, interrogations, and indoctrination. Their captors often worked in relays and used the "good-cop, bad-cop" routine until the POWs caved in and signed false confessions.

During the protracted Vietnam War, American POWs once again were treated horribly. In Honor Bound: American Prisoners of War in Southeast Asia, 1961- 1973, Stuart I. Rochester and Frederick Kiley carefully document the harrowing experiences of American POWs in North Vietnam and Laos. They provided graphic descriptions of tortures and deprivations. Again, American POWs were battered and badgered until they were willing to be exploited for propaganda purposes.

This brief overview indicates a continuous record of blatant violations of the Geneva Conventions by countries at war with America.

Concerns about brainwashing

In some way, mental torture and brainwashing are more difficult to cope with than physical pain. During the Korean War, many American POWs, including officers, made false confessions about germ warfare. Americans were even more shocked when 27 of the POWs refused to be repatriated to their own country.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962), a film on American prisoners of war during Korean War, further increased the public's brainwashing scare, and made brainwashing part of our everyday lexicon.

Historically, thought-control was first developed and practiced in Russia, based on the principles of Pavlovian conditioning. Their technique was later perfected by Communist China; it came to be known as brainwashing, which literally means "Xi Nao" in Chinese.

Edward Hunter's 1953 book "Brain-Washing in Red China" describes in details the techniques used to bring about "the voluntary submission of people to an unthinking discipline and robot-like enslavement". The Communist Chinese effectively employed Skinnerian Operant conditioning principles of reinforcing compliance and punishing resistance.

Basically, brainwashing is a collection of techniques, such as isolation, sleep deprivation, beating, indoctrination, and prolonged interrogation, used to control the minds of nonbelievers and convert them into the communist way of thinking.

Today, the term brainwashing has been used loosely to describe a variety of phenomena, such as religious conversion, the power of advertising, and Stockholm syndrome. However, we should not lose sight of the horror of brainwashing, when it is done to POWs captured by a hostile, rogue state.

POW Survival Guide

In recent years, American military leaders have realized that mental readiness is just as important as physical training. They also want to prepare their soldiers psychologically so that they are more likely to survive when captured by the enemy.

Dr. Dennis Gersten's has developed a Military Survival Guide, which was used by both Navy and Army during and after Operation Desert Storm. This survival guide covers the following main points:

  1. Make your "Mental Home Base" as a safe haven against upsetting and negative thoughts and as the home base to operate your Mental Warfare.
  2. Choose a "Focus Word" as your Mental Home Base. Each day, focus and meditate on a word or a phrase, such as "the Lord is my Shepherd", that is most meaningful and helpful to you. Integrate your focus word into your daily survival plan.
  3. Use visualization to cope with pain. Convert your pain into an image, such as a soccer ball, which can be kicked far, far away.
  4. Know how to escape from boredom through imagination and imagery.
  5. Master stress by pouring all your fear, anxiety and depression into an imaginary "Magic Box" outside yourself.

The above are primarily cognitive techniques used to maintain your sanity and morale in captivity. However helpful, these mental tricks are not sufficient to carry you through the ordeal of brainwashing and torture. The triumph of the human spirit comes from somewhere much deeper than cognitive stratagems, as evidenced by the following stories of formal POWs.

Lessons from survivors of captivity

What better way to learn POW survival than to listen to those who have already done it?

Lester Tenney captured by the Japanese after the fall of Battaan. One of the very few who survived the Bataan Death March, and 3 and half years of Japanese prison camp, his amazing story can be found in My Hitch in Hell: The Bataan Death March. In addition to mental alertness, his sense of humor and love for his family enabled him to overcome unimaginable suffering.

Another famous POW from World War II is Ray "Hap" Halloran. He became a navigator and bombardier. On Jan 27, 1945, he was shot down and was captured after parachuting into the outskirts of Tokyo. "Faith and devotion" helped him through the pain and horror of imprisonment. He was liberated Augu.29, 1945. He has co-authored Hap's War: The Incredible Survival Story of a POW slated for Execution.

James B. Stockdale and Sybil Stockdale provide a moving account of how captivity in Vietnam affected him and his family in a book: In Love and War: The story of a family's ordeal and sacrifice during the Vietnam Years. As senior naval officer, he carried out his leadership responsibilities to other American POWs in spite of many enemy restrictions. He survived the brutal imprisonment because of his love for his family, an abiding faith and a deep sense of honour, integrity, and courage.

Senator John S. McCain, shared his heroic experience as a POW in Faith of my Fathers. He learned from his father and grandfather how to face adversity with honour, integrity and courage. He credited his survival to his faith, a sense of humor, and group bonding with other POWs. Even during long periods of solitary confinement, he communicated with his fellow captives in code.

Dave Carey, also endured 5 ½ years as a POW in Vietnam. His experience was recorded in The Way We Chose: Lessons for Life from a POW's Experience. In August 31, 1967, a 25-yearold naval aviator flying over North Vietnam, he was shot down and captured. During the first two days of imprisonment, he was tortured to the point of begging to be killed.

He later regained his balance by recalling and meditating on Psalm 23 "The Lord is my shepherd". Carey and other POWs also entertained each other by recalling movies and books and kept their sense of humor. And kept their faith. "What I try to tell people is that we're much stronger, more creative, more flexible and innovative than we ever give ourselves credit for," he said, "We are indeed wondrously wrought."

The positive psychology of POW survival

A careful reading of their life stories will reveal the following lessons:

  1. 1. All the above men made an important choice - to find creative ways to resist their captors and to stay mentally and spiritually alive. They chose to live with dignity than to cave in to their captors' demands. Viktor Frankl, who survived the Nazi death camps, discovered that we always have the freedom of choice, regardless of the situation. In his besting selling book Man's Search For Meaning, he wrote: "Everything can be taken from a man, but…the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way"
  2. They all affirmed that the meaning of life, in spite of the suffering. Frankl also emphasizes the meaning can be found in the most horrible situations. Even in captivity, love of one's family, honour for one's country, helping fellow POWs are some of the things that made life worth living.
  3. They all kept their faith, no matter how bleak the situation. As David Carey pointed out: "Faith is the key to survival. You have to have faith. Faith in yourself, faith in our country and faith in God." Faith provides an inner sanctuary to which one could retreat and renew one's strength.
  4. The maintained their hope, no matter how hopeless their situations. Frankl called that tragic optimism. (Elsewhere, I have treated tragic optimism with greater detail.) Their ability to hope gives them the courage to live for yet another day, no matter how difficult and painful.
  5. They all mentioned the importance of having a sense of humor. To be able to laugh at the absurdity of war and the ironies of life make their suffering more bearable. (Please read my article on Humor and Laughter in Wartime).

The above lessons constitute the positive psychology of survival. They address the deeper matters of meaning and spirituality, the very foundations of life. When POWs are equipped with cognitive strategies and armed with an abiding sense of meaning and spirituality, their capacity for survival is greatly enhanced.


While our focus is on the POWs, let's not forget the ordeal of their families. They cannot fight their battle for them, nor can they share their sufferings in the hands of Iraqi captors. All they can do is to wait anxiously and pray for the safe return of their loved ones.

I would like to offer the following verses for the POWs and their families:

"Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." (Lamentations 3:22:23)

©1998-2007, International Network on Personal Meaning, Unless otherwise noted
Visit http://www.meaning.ca for more information.