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How Bergdahl's Release Fits In The History Of Prisoner Exchanges

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NPR's Arun Rath speaks with military historian Paul Springer, author of America's Captives, about the history of prisoner exchanges in times of war.


The exchange of Bowe Bergdahl for five Guantanamo detainees was not the first time the U.S. has exchange prisoners in times of war - far from it. Earlier this week, I spoke with Paul Springer. He's a military historian with the Air Force's Air University and author of "America's Captives: Treatment Of POWs From The Revolutionary War To The War On Terror." He spoke to us in his role as a historian and was not representing the government. He says that prisoner exchanges have been standard practice for the U.S. in times of war.

PAUL SPRINGER: Prisoner swaps have occurred in the United States with enemy nations in every war in which we've taken prisoners.

RATH: Has the frequency changed? Was it more common in the past or less common?

SPRINGER: In the past, the frequency was much higher for prisoner exchanges. They were far more common. And that was in part because prisoners being held in POW compounds tended to have a fairly high mortality rate. They were very dangerous places to spend a long time. The prisoner mortality rate has dropped to almost zero for prisoners held in U.S. custody. And so, from that standpoint, there's not really a humanitarian push to put people back onto the battlefield.

And then secondly, American personnel have been captured at increasingly lower rates, which means that there's a far more unbalanced potential trade to be had. And we really don't like returning enemies to the battlefield.

RATH: Were there any particular conflicts where, you know, things changed dramatically in terms of how the U.S. handled prisoners of war?

SPRINGER: During the Civil War is the big dramatic turning point. In the first couple years of the Civil War, the exchanges of prisoners were extremely common. In the first two years, they essentially managed to empty their prison compounds. But with the enlistment of African-American troops, the Union had a significant manpower advantage. The Confederacy was concerned that the use of African-American troops might create a slave insurrection. And so the Confederacy passed a law that suggested that they would execute any white officers of black troops, and they would enslave any captured black troops.

In retaliation, the union halted all POW exchanges. And over the course of the succeeding century and a half, then POW exchanges have become really the exception to the rule rather than the norm. Now they're most common when you have sick or wounded personnel that really have no potential to return to the battlefield.

RATH: In this case of Bowe Bergdahl, five detainees were released for - in exchange for his freedom. Are lopsided trades like that standard? Or is it typically an equal exchange?

SPRINGER: Well, if you look through history, the most common exchanges have been man for man and rank for rank. But, over time, because exchanges have become the exception rather than the rule, a lot of those assumptions of equality have really gone out the window. So if you look at the exchanges near the end of the Korean War, for example, the United States is giving back about 10 prisoners for every one that we are receiving on behalf of United Nations forces. By the time of Vietnam, the ratio is probably closer to about 40 to 1. And so there's really no set rule anymore for exactly what kind of equality you might expect in these trades.

RATH: And leaving aside the politically charged debate involving the Bergdahl exchange, in terms of what actually happened with the exchange, what's noteworthy about it historically? What are the ways in which it's really unique?

SPRINGER: Well, it was the only exchange involving an American service person from the engagement in Afghanistan. And so, in that regard, it's certainly unique. But otherwise, there's ample precedent for there to be a non-equal exchange of personnel, for there to be exchanges negotiated by third parties. This is not particularly atypical in the history of warfare.

RATH: That's Paul Springer. He's a military historian, and his book is "America's Captives."

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