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
This brief overview indicates a continuous record of blatant
violations of the Geneva Conventions by countries at war with
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
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
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,
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:
- Make your "Mental Home Base" as a safe haven against upsetting
and negative thoughts and as the home base to operate your Mental
- 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.
- Use visualization to cope with pain. Convert your pain into
an image, such as a soccer ball, which can be kicked far, far
- Know how to escape from boredom through imagination and imagery.
- 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
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.
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
- 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"
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
"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)