Questioning U.S. Policy On 'America's Captives' In America's Captives, military historian Paul Springer argues that the history of the U.S. treatment of POWs reveals a haphazard approach. Springer discusses the history of POWs, from the Revolutionary War to today's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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Questioning U.S. Policy On 'America's Captives'

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Questioning U.S. Policy On 'America's Captives'

Questioning U.S. Policy On 'America's Captives'

Questioning U.S. Policy On 'America's Captives'

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Author Paul J. Springer teaches leadership and strategy at the Air Command and Staff College in Montgomery, Ala. Air Command and Staff College hide caption

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Air Command and Staff College

Author Paul J. Springer teaches leadership and strategy at the Air Command and Staff College in Montgomery, Ala.

Air Command and Staff College

In America's Captives, military historian Paul Springer argues that the history of the U.S. treatment of POWs reveals a haphazard approach.

Springer discusses the history of POWs, from the Revolutionary War to today's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

In 1991, the treatment of prisoners captured on the battlefields of the first Gulf War was widely regarded as exemplary. Twenty years later, you only have to mention places like Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo Bay to reopen a bitter debate that includes allegations of torture and murder and admissions that U.S. policy presents our enemies with an important tool for propaganda.

What changed, and how do both the Gulf Wars conform with the policies the U.S. used from Saratoga to Khe Sanh? In a new book, military historian Paul Springer examines America's captives from the Revolutionary War to the war on terror and finds several points of consistency.

For example, he argues the U.S. military has always treated its captives better than the enemy did, but he also finds the military enters each new conflict unprepared and fails to learn from history.

If you have experience working with prisoners of war, if you were a POW yourself, call and tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation at our website. Thats at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the distaff stereotypes of crime novels, but first prisoners of war. Paul Springer teaches leadership and strategy at the Air Command and Staff College in Montgomery, Alabama. His book is "America's Captives: Treatment of POWs from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror," and he joins us today from Boutwell Recording Studios in Birmingham. Thanks very much for being with us on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. PAUL SPRINGER (Military Historian; Author, "America's Captives: Treatment of POWs from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror"): Thank you very much for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity.

CONAN: And let's get back to that seeming disparity between Desert Storm in 1991 and Operation Enduring Freedom just, well, not all that many years later. Why the disparity in the two sets of policies?

Mr. SPRINGER: Well, more than anything else, it's just the type of war that's being faced. In the 1991 Gulf War, it was a conventional conflict, and you were facing conventional forces on the other side. And when you look at the enemy that we're facing today in the war on terror and the insurgency that still continues to sputter in Iraq, the enemy has changed and may not actually qualify for legal status as a prisoner of war.

CONAN: So for one thing, the prisoners of war taken in Kuwait and in Southern Iraq in 1991, they were all wearing uniforms.

Mr. SPRINGER: That's absolutely right. It was a clear-cut case of prisoner-of-war status. They fulfilled all of the requirements for the definition.

CONAN: And the United States could look and say ooh, Geneva Convention, we know what to do with these people.

Mr. SPRINGER: Absolutely. We are well aware of it. We were fundamental in the drafting of those international laws.

CONAN: Yet the same principals, the United States said, do not necessarily apply to those captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan.

Mr. SPRINGER: That's absolutely true. And the reason why is because there are four main qualifications for POW status. An enemy has to bear arms openly. They must wear a recognizable uniform or some form of device. They have to have a rank structure where superiors are responsible for the behavior of their subordinates, and they themselves have to follow the laws of war.

And in the battlefields of Afghanistan, we're really not seeing the enemy fulfilling any of the four qualifications, much less all of them.

CONAN: But a lot of people would say we can't live down to their standards. We should uphold the highest standards.

Mr. SPRINGER: That's absolutely true. And in 2002, former President George W. Bush announced that while the individuals in question did not qualify for POW status, the United States would still treat them in the standard manner provided by the Geneva Convention of 1949.

CONAN: Well, I'm sure we'll get some calls about that because it remains controversial to this day.

Mr. SPRINGER: I'm sure.

CONAN: Nevertheless, the completely different policies within a short time span, it's hard to imagine different policies, more different than those applied during the Second World War and those applied in the Korean War what, five years later.

Mr. SPRINGER: Absolutely true. And in the case of Korea, once again it wasn't such a clear-cut war. We didn't necessarily know exactly what we were getting ourselves into in the same manner that we did with World War II. And in the case of Korea, we were fighting as part of a massive United Nations coalition, something that had never really been tried before on that scale.

In the case of Korea, we first see the United States essentially trying to outsource POWs, and we relied largely upon the South Korean government to supply the camps, the compounds, the guard personnel, et cetera. That's a complete departure from previous American practices.

CONAN: And as difficult as it is to imagine a policy that's been more difficult for the country than the current one, maybe Korea was it.

Mr. SPRINGER: Well, it could be. In Korea, we really lost control of the POW compounds. At one point, riots were extremely common. Murders were happening on a regular basis. There were areas that, quite frankly, American and allied personnel could not go in the POW compounds.

CONAN: The U.S. commandant of one of the compounds was captured, a brigadier general, for three days.

Mr. SPRINGER: That's correct. He was actually captured. He was lured into the compound as part of an attempt to quell a prisoner riot, and then he was held prisoner.

The prisoners essentially were demanding all forms of explanations from the United States. And they were hoping that the United States would provide an awful lot of propaganda value. And the United States and the United Nations was unwilling to really accede to the prisoner command.

CONAN: And one thing that's interesting is a conclusion you reach, and others have, too. The prisoners being held in Korea did not regard themselves as removed from the battlefield. They considered what they were doing in the prison camps part of a continuing struggle, and indeed, some of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay may feel the same.

Mr. SPRINGER: Absolutely true. In Korea, there were actually hundreds of prisoners that deliberately were captured. They actually deliberately surrendered so that they could organize the prisoners behind the lines and so that they could maintain the morale. And they were quite frankly hoping to provoke all kinds of atrocities for the potential propaganda value.

CONAN: It's pretty sad that we were willing to oblige them on that front.

Mr. SPRINGER: Well, we really did a very good job, actually, of avoiding the very things that the prisoners were trying to provoke. When you consider Korea in historical context, we actually did an exemplary job of taking care of those prisoners. Yes, there were times where we had trouble maintaining control.

On the other hand, we don't see massive incidents of starvation of malnutrition or medical diseases spreading through the camps. The vast majority of those prisoners came out of captivity in very good shape.

CONAN: We're talking with Paul Springer, author of "America's Captives: Treatment of POWs from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror." If you'd like to join the conversation, if you have some experience with prisoners of war, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, Nathan's(ph) on the line with us excuse me. Nathan's on the line with us from Salt Lake City.

NATHAN (Caller): Hi, how are you today?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

NATHAN: You know, I had spent about a year at Camp Bucca in Iraq. When we got there, we had about 23,000 detainees. We weren't allowed to call them prisoners. But the United States has done a poor job of learning lessons from past wars, I think.

We had a lot of detainees that were definitely al-Qaida, and a lot of them were guys that were probably just at the wrong place at the wrong time and got picked up. And these groups were intermingled, and it made for a recruiting ground for al-Qaida in Iraq.

So they'd find these guys that weren't al-Qaida before and then say, well, look how terrible these Americans are. They captured you, brought you here, and now you're stuck. Why don't you come join us?

And we tried to do a lot to fix that, but it was very hard to get the big Army to pay attention to what was going on and really focus on trying to separate those groups out and do a better job of categorizing people.

CONAN: Were the instructions you were given and the various regulations, did they seem to you, Nathan, relevant?

NATHAN: The actual regulation did. It was very difficult to get people to follow the regulations, I think. What when we first got there, it was really kind of a situation of oh, just keep them inside the wire, and whatever happens inside the wire, we don't really care.

And so when we got there, there were a lot of riots and things like that going on. The compound that my company was responsible for, we actually really locked down the detainees in terms of following the rules much more closely. And we had actually got to the point where we were able to get some of the worst guys we could find in the compound. We had a very good intelligence officer to help us trying to separate the bad guys out. And by the time we left, they weren't able to have riots. You know, they'd try to stage protests periodically, but we had done a good enough job of keeping dangerous things out of their hand. They really couldnt do anything other than yell at us.

CONAN: Interesting. Nathan, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. And Paul Springer, some of the points you - writes about in your book, you said they failed to learn from history. We already talked about the communist cadre in Korea. There were also the Nazis in the camps in this country, many, many camps, fanatical Nazis trying to organize the prisoners, and they did a very good job of it in the camps in this country.

Mr. SPRINGER: We see the same behavior there. And the response that the American government finally came up with was to classify every prisoner, every German prisoner, based on their political ideology. And the very worst of the fanatical Nazis were pulled aside and put into two separate maximum-security facilities. Whereas those that were the least risk or the least ideological were actually given much more privileges and much better treatment and an opportunity to educate themselves and to prepare themselves for post-War Germany.

So but I think it's important to bring up a point that Nathan certainly illustrated there, and that is that the American military personnel are wonderful learners. They're very adaptive, and they're doing their very best to handle an extremely difficult job. And so Nathan certainly illustrates that they're adaptive, that they react to the situation and make the best of a bad situation.

CONAN: Again, I was going to point out to the lessons of history, though, when he said it was very difficult to get the big Army, as he described it, to pay attention to what we poor schmucks were doing trying to control these prisoners.

Mr. SPRINGER: Well, big Army certainly has a lot of issues in front of it while it's fighting a conflict. And I don't know which year Nathan was at Camp Bucca, but big Army was fighting a war at the same time. And so it's understandable that prisoners of war aren't the highest priority for the Army. And I'm not advocating that that should be the number one thing that we do.

However, I think if an enemy knows they'll be well-treated by American military personnel, if they know their time in captivity will be one of respect and one of, you know, security and safety, I think they're far more likely to surrender. And there is no faster way to remove enemy troops from the battlefield than by inducing mass surrenders of enemy formations.

CONAN: One of the things we've learned since the invasion of Iraq was that there were several aspects of what would happen after the fall of Baghdad that were overlooked by that big army, and prisoners was among them, nevertheless a war of choice, where you're running up to the war and making the preparations and going on your own timetable. There's not a lot of excuse here.

Mr. SPRINGER: You know, I suppose there really is a case of not really looking at the lessons of history. You could go all the way back to the Civil War and see that the fastest way to reduce the Confederate army was through mass surrenders. And that was actually the mechanism by which the Confederacy was eventually defeated.

If you could not get the enemy to surrender, it's almost impossible to destroy an enemy army through force of arms. It can be done, but it's extremely expensive, both in lives and in terms of the supplies that you have to expend and the time that it takes.

And so I certainly hope that in future conflicts, this is something that gets a little more attention ahead of the conflict.

CONAN: "America's Captives," Paul Springer's book, "Treatment of POWs from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror," the first comprehensive history of prisoners of war and how America has treated them in, what, 55 years or so. He'll be with us. If you have experience with prisoners of war, give us a call, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking with Paul Springer about U.S. policy on POWs, a policy he argues is often haphazard. In 2001, he writes, the United States led a coalition to invade Afghanistan and Iraq as part of the war on terror.

The Afghanistan invasion resulted in revised definitions for who received prisoner-of-war status. Interrogations of prisoners taken in Afghanistan led to reports of torture and violations of the Geneva Convention by U.S. interrogators. The Second Gulf War further blurred the definition of POWs in the 21st century.

Paul Springer's book is titled "America's Captives: Treatment of POWs from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror." You can read an excerpt, including more on how Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind behind 9/11, demonstrates many of the problems facing American POW planners. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And if you have experience working with prisoners of war or if you were one yourself, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email You can join the conversation on our website. Thats at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Paul Stringer Springer, rather - is with us from Boutwell Recording in Birmingham, Alabama, and let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Eric(ph), Eric calling from Binghamton, New York.

ERIC (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

ERIC: Very cool, very cool. I was a sergeant in the Marine Corps during Desert Storm. We had hit the beaches we were expecting the absolute worst. You know, Marines, they go in, they take care of business, and they move on.

Well, we'd be driving along, driving along and driving along, and then we start seeing little bumps in the sand, people are starting to call out sectors of fire, getting ready to do our duty, and we get closer, and we start to identify these things as tanks. They're tanks that are buried, hull-down, which is the majority of the tank is buried in the desert.

CONAN: Covered by a berm of sand in front, on the sides, yeah.

ERIC: Well, actually, it's not on the front or the side. They're buried. The only thing that's sticking out is the turret, just the turret, and there's one, you look, two, three, four. There's, like, 15, 16 of these things all set up pointing in different directions.

And we're, like, what the heck is we start calling in the coordinates for our artillery fire, and then we start seeing Iraqi troops standing up, waving a white flag over here on this vehicle and that one over there and that one over there. And we're like, you guys, you had us. You had us 100,000 miles ago.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ERIC: You know, we should have been done, and we weren't, luckily. And they just started surrendering left and right, and they're all when they finally get to us, and my guys are on pins and needles. They're ready to they're ready for anything.

So they're they get up to them, and then they tell them get on your knees, on your knees. They had one interpreter for the whole company. So he's brought up from the back, and he comes up, and the Iraqis, the troops are just, they're underfed, malnourished. They're wearing some semblance of a uniform.

Some of them have weapons. Some of them don't. Most of them didn't have ammunition. They weren't wearing socks. They weren't wearing some were wearing sandals. Some were wearing boots.

You were talking about the uniform being for an opposing force. They all had helmets. Every one of them had a helmet, but you know, they might have been lacking a weapon here, lacking some boots there.

CONAN: Sure, ragtag, I think, is a fair description.

ERIC: You know, and it's yes, and so it's and then they get to us, and the interpreter says, after 15, 20 minutes of this, he's saying that well, they knew the Marines were coming. So they all decided to give up because their officers had told them, in order for an American to become a U.S. Marine, they had to dispatch one of their parents to become a Marine. That was the rite of passage for...

CONAN: You had to murder one of your parents.

ERIC: And you had to do that to become a Marine, which...

CONAN: I've heard a lot of things about Camp Lejeune, but it's not that bad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ERIC: And it totally blew us away. They had they were that scared. Now, the idea was, from what I can understand, was that the officers wanted them to fight period. You're going to come up against this, you're going to have to fight. We want you do this, you're going to you know, all this political nonsense.

CONAN: So you have to fight because if you surrender, they'll eat you for lunch or something.

ERIC: Absolutely, or worse.

CONAN: Yeah, and by the way, just to clarify, when you said they had you in other words, since you didn't identify these tank turrets, they out-ranged you. They could have shot up your unit.

ERIC: They could've had us at maybe 1,500 meters, before we even saw them. They were so far out on the horizon, and even if they shot from that distance, it would have been nothing but a big dust cloud. We'd have to use infrared. We'd have to use, you know, all the nice technology that we have today. But it's just it's amazing that they decided to give up.

CONAN: Eric, thanks very much. That's an interesting story, appreciate it.

ERIC: Absolutely.

CONAN: I'm glad they didn't shoot. Paul Springer, it brings to mind the use of propaganda about, you know, surrendering or continuing to fight. Obviously, that has been more successful with some enemies than others. You think about the Japanese, very few of whom surrendered.

Mr. SPRINGER: Well, very few of them surrendered early in the conflict. Thats certainly true. And they had heard similar stories from their leadership, that the Americans would only torture them, that the Americans were composed of cannibals who would eat them. You name it, the myth that could possibly be added to us was out there.

However, over the course of the conflict, by 1944, 1945, the United States was engaging in tremendous efforts to compel the surrender of individual Japanese soldiers. And one of the things that we were doing was dropping millions of leaflets over Japanese positions.

And these leaflets contained, basically, how to surrender. It essentially ordered the Japanese to strip down to their underwear and walk out of whatever position holding a surrender document over their heads.

And it worked. It worked really well. The vast majority of those surrender propaganda pieces were actually created by Japanese prisoners of war, who we got to work with us after they saw the kind of treatment that they could actually expect. And so it was a phenomenally successful operation.

And we saw the same thing in the Gulf War. We saw the same thing in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, basically teaching the enemy how to surrender and making promises of what they could expect.

CONAN: Yet we read in Paul Dower's book, "A War Without Mercy," and other books about the history of the Pacific war, certainly earlier in the conflict, there were many situations where, due to their experiences of Japanese who declined to surrender by rolling hand grenades at men who were trying to help them, U.S. Marines again reciprocated with that and often declined to accept surrender.

Mr. SPRINGER: Sure, and if you don't believe the enemy is actually trying to surrender, it's very hard to accept them into your midst, effectively. And so in the case of the Pacific war certainly, the United States had a fundamental problem in that whereas we believed the Japanese would not surrender due to their moral code, we thought it was in our best interest to stop asking on the individual level.

However, we also found that incentives for American service personnel were very effective ways to help increase the tally of prisoners.

CONAN: Even ice cream, yeah.

Mr. SPRINGER: So by giving them ice cream, by giving them R&R for the entire unit if they took prisoners, these were ways to encourage the Americans to at least give the Japanese a chance to surrender, and as we increased the number of our captives, then it became easier and easier to induce further surrenders.

CONAN: Let's get Nelson(ph) on the line, Nelson with us from San Antonio.

NELSON: Yes, sir, thank you for taking my call. Just real quickly, my dad was a young Army officer stationed in Huntsville, Texas, at a German at a prisoner-of-war camp for German soldiers. And as your guest knows, and as you know, too, Neal, they did have in those cadres of German prisoners, hard-core Nazis, and in fact, they caused a lot of problems sometimes.

Daddy related one that there was a riot there, and some of the Nazis actually, or they theorized, killed another prisoner because he wouldn't come under the thumb of the hard-core members of the prisoner corps there.

One of the things, though, that actually did happen, he said that the food your guest had said we always treated our prisoners very well, and this story testifies to that. The food was better than the rations that the local citizens got, the American citizens. They had a better butter ration.

There was almost a riot in the prisoner-of-war camp because the prisoners got a ration of corn, and they were outraged. They thought it was a provoking measure because apparently in Germany at that time, the corn was fed only to pigs, you know, and they said swine food, swine food, and they were very upset about that.

And further - just one other quick vignette. At the time that daddy was there first at the fall of '43, the prisoners worked very well in different levels of there were Nazis there who were there to maintain a certain order, if you will, for their German prisoners, and they were hard-core. They were tough guys and very bad.

And daddy said that by '44, the prisoner cadre had changed quite a bit, and he made them when he they would show them the newspapers about how the war was going, and they'd say propaganda, propaganda. He made them all line up when the prisoners started coming in in '44. They were bedraggled, they were in bad shape, and they said, yeah, there's your propaganda coming walking in the gates. They're a totally different, dispirited group than in '43 apparently.

CONAN: Well, Nelson, I can tell you, I lived in Europe in the '80s and they still considered corn to be animal feed. So it's certainly - corn on the cob not a popular side dish there.

NELSON: Yes, exactly. But a difference in culture. Finally, just real quickly, we have an heirloom in the family. Some of the German prisoners were so grateful for the very good treatment they give, they took some apple crates that they found in the kitchen and made a desk for daddy and gave it to him as a gift.

CONAN: Well, that's interesting. Nelson, thank you very much for the call. Appreciate it.


CONAN: And, Paul Springer, I'm not sure if it's the same incident Nelson was referring to, but you do describe in the book one incident where a prisoner was killed by other prisoners and they were, in fact, then put on trial and some of them executed.

Mr. SPRINGER: That's correct. Actually, there were a number of incidents where prisoners held what they called kangaroo courts, where they would put people on trial for their behavior, whether it was possibly informing to the American captors of escape attempts or whether it was not conforming ideologically. So we had prisoners murdering other prisoners.

When it was possible to determine who was responsible, the murderers were then put on trial by American authorities and if found guilty, they faced the possibility of execution. Geneva does not preclude putting prisoners on trial for crimes that they commit either before being captured or after they have been captured, if they commit crimes while a prisoner of war.

CONAN: Let's get Ginny(ph) on the line. Ginny with us from Ann Arbor.

GINNY (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

GINNY: I had a question about military rank, as far as prisoners of war are concerned. My great grandfather was held prisoner in Germany. He attempted an escape. He was an officer. He attempted - his first attempted escape, he was stopped by two enlisted German soldiers and beaten nearly to death. Then he was placed in a prison camp. He ended up eventually escaping.

After the war, those enlisted men were actually brought on trial for the way they treated a ranking officer, even though he was in the enemy's army. And I'm just curious, is - do those standards still apply today concerning ranking officers and enlisted men? It seemed to be, at least during the first World War, that, you know, there was some respect there that was expected even of your enemy to respect your rank.

CONAN: And indeed, it was considered an officer's duty to try to escape. But anyway, Paul Springer.

Mr. SPRINGER: Yeah. Quite frankly, the Geneva Convention makes a distinction between officer prisoners and enlisted prisoners. And the standards required for the treatment of each are different. As for why those individuals would be brought up on trial, you're not allowed to beat prisoners within an inch of their life...

CONAN: Whatever...

Mr. SPRINGER: ...regardless of whether they're in an escape situation or not. You are actually allowed to - not execute, but kill prisoners to prevent an escape attempt. Essentially, they can be shot while attempting to escape. But if you recapture the prisoner...

GINNY: They tried that, too.

Mr. SPRINGER: can't do that.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. All right. Ginny, thank you.

GINNY: Okay. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. We're talking with Paul Springer about his book, "America's Captives: Treatment of POWs from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Cliff(ph) is on the line. Cliff from Inverness in Florida.

CLIFF (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call. I had a friend a number of years ago who had served in the German U-boat service during World War II and was captured, which was a bit unusual of its own because there was something like a 75 percent fatality rate. When U-boats were sunk, it was generally an all-hands affair. But this man's name was Hans Goebler(ph) and he was a young enlisted man, some sort of a machinists mate who had the - he was infamous for being the guy who had pull the plug on U-505 - that was his submarine.

CONAN: That's the one that's at the Chicago - Museum.

CLIFF: Yeah. They were trying to scuttle the boat and he removed a hatch from a sea strainer to basically open, you know, open the boat, you know, to the sea water and to scuttle the boat. And the crew was mostly captured alive. Only one or two were killed in the exchange. But the Americans were able to, you know, refit the plug and capture the submarine intact and, most importantly, its codebooks. And the submarine is on display to this day at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

CONAN: Okay. I got the museum wrong. But it's - there's a long story about the codebooks and the controversy over capturing that submarine. But nevertheless, your point, Cliff.

CLIFF: Yeah. He had been imprisoned in Louisiana, he had told me. And he - Hans just died about 10 or 11 years ago. And in his retirement, he moved back here to Florida, you know, and relocated. He had been working in logging - lumber camps in Louisiana doing very menial labor at the prison camp. But always said he was well-treated, well-fed and not much opportunity to get into trouble or escape and had - well, I guess, as a fond a memory as you could imagine and was released at wars end.

I think he was only in prison for about a year here and was repatriated to Europe but was held by the British and didn't actually get released from custody and returned home until 1948, as I recall. And it seems - he was handled a little more roughly by the British. But...

CONAN: Well, that may have been - Paul Springer, it was interesting, you noted that in 1949 when the nations, including the United States and Great Britain, recast the Geneva Conventions and said must be released immediately upon the end of the conflict, they were still holding prisoners from the second World War.

Mr. SPRINGER: That's right. Actually, there were still prisoners being held as late as 1954 from the second World War and might have even been some held longer than that. And so that's one of the reasons that provision was put in there was this indefinite period of captivity. Now, that doesn't mean the day the war ends you have to immediately release your prisoners, but it does mean you have to send them back as quickly as possible, as soon as the enemy nation can actually reabsorb all of those service personnel, because you certainly don't want them to starve to death as soon as they get back to their own home country.

CONAN: And here's an email to that point we have from Mike Kuhn(ph). I served on Task Force 134 staff in 2008, which, as we understand it, was responsible for ensuring due process for detainees in Iraq. During that time, we implemented educational, vocational and religious discussion programs. It had a significant impact on recidivism. We also released or turned over to the government of Iraq thousands of detainees. A very important aspect of detention operations is that many individuals are going to have to be released and we have to be prepared for that eventuality.

Well, that's the situation we're still confronting with the detainees in Iraq and indeed from Afghanistan and Iraq. And indeed, it's been a controversy, certainly a central controversy to the war in Korea. This is one of the many aspects of America's policies over the years that you can read about in "America's Captives: Treatment of POWs from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror." Paul Springer, thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. SPRINGER: Thank you very much for the opportunity.

CONAN: When we come back, why crime novelists rarely get women right. We'll talk about the four common cliches that should be banned forever. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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Excerpt: 'America's Captives'

Cover of 'America's Captives'
America's Captives: Treatment of POWs from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror
By Paul J. Springer
Hardcover,278 pages
University Press of Kansas
List price: $34.95

Chapter 9: POW Policy in the Post–Cold War Era

By far the most famous prisoner of the global war on terror, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, spent more than a decade planning, financing, and orchestrating terror attacks before his capture in Pakistan in 2003. He was uniquely suited to targeting American institutions: he possessed not only a technical understanding of target structures, but also a cultural understanding of the United States. Both educations were earned at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, where Mohammed received a degree in mechanical engineering in 1986. He then moved to Afghanistan to join the mujahideen in their resistance against the Soviet military occupation. During this time, he met Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al Qaeda, and became interested in attacking Western civilization, which he considered to be a corrosive influence in the Muslim world.

That Mohammed organized and led attacks, particularly against American targets, has never been in doubt. However, the question of whether he should be classified as a prisoner of war, an illegal enemy combatant, or simply a criminal illustrates the problem facing the United States and its allies in the global war on terror. International law is unfortunately muddled on the issue — Mohammed clearly engaged in acts of war by planning the 11 September 2001 attacks, given that some of the targets were military in nature. Likewise, he coordinated other, earlier attacks on military and government targets overseas, including a role in planning the 2000 attack on the USS Cole. On the other hand, Mohammed did not act in accordance with the international laws of war, including his decisions to target civilians in most of the attacks. As such, he cannot claim protection under the Geneva Convention Relative to Prisoners of War. Mohammed thus became a divisive subject — not for his participation in terror attacks, which he proudly admitted to during interrogations and military tribunal proceedings, but rather for the way he had been treated while in captivity, including allegations of torture during interrogations. His classification as a prisoner held by American military forces offers insight into the problems faced by American POW planners during the twenty-first century.

From 2003 until 2006, Mohammed was held in a variety of locations, including Jordan and Poland, before his transfer, along with thirteen other high-value suspects, to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. During his captivity, Mohammed was interrogated almost constantly, including the use of the controversial waterboarding technique. According to Central Intelligence Agency officials, he was subjected to "harsh interrogation techniques" more than 100 times in the first year of his captivity. Mohammed subsequently claimed that he admitted to various activities primarily to escape the interrogation methods. In his 2007 combatant status review tribunal, his prepared statement claimed responsibility for dozens of attacks and planned operations against American targets. On 8 December 2008, Mohammed and four co-conspirators indicated that they would like to plead guilty to planning the 11 September attacks. Such a plea would not necessarily indicate the defendants should not be considered prisoners of war, given that the Geneva Convention Relative to Prisoners of War allows criminal trials of prisoners for crimes committed before and during their captivity. However, the fact that Mohammed and his compatriots are facing criminal trials illustrates the broader point: that detainees from the global war on terror do not fit neatly into the category of POWs.

After the end of the Vietnam War, the United States next captured large numbers of military prisoners in 1990-1991 with the commencement of Operation Desert Shield. Once again, the United States faced an aggressor state, Iraq, in a distant and hostile terrain, as part of a coalition of military forces. As in Korea, the United States adopted a leadership role for the coalition forces to develop and implement a POW policy, particularly after the start of combat in Operation Desert Storm. Despite a four-month period of deployment and buildup, the United States entered combat unprepared for the capture of enemy forces, and it improvised ways to maintain Iraqi prisoners for what turned out to be the short period of combat after commencing land operations.

In 2001, after the 11 September terrorist attacks, the United States led a coalition to invade Afghanistan and Iraq as part of the war on terror. The Afghanistan invasion, begun with the intent of dismantling terrorist organizations, resulted in revised definitions for who received prisoner of war status. Interrogations of prisoners taken in Afghanistan led to reports of torture and violations of the Geneva Convention by U.S. interrogators. The Second Gulf War further blurred the definition of POWs in the twenty-first century. Iraqi military and civilian captives were housed together in massive prison compounds and mistreated by poorly trained American guards. The resulting scandal provoked world outrage and fueled insurgents combating the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

The Persian Gulf War

Iraqi president Saddam Hussein launched an invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990, provoking immediate condemnation from other nations and a flurry of United Nations resolutions. Iraq's military occupied Kuwait and threatened the sovereignty of Saudi Arabia, destabilizing the region and disrupting the world's oil supply. Eventually, thirty-six nations deployed forces to participate in ousting Iraqi forces from Kuwait, including over 540,000 American troops. American planners anticipated the capture of thousands of Iraqi POWs, but they expected to hold them for a period of only one week before transferring them to Saudi Arabian control for detainment and eventual repatriation. To encourage surrenders, coalition planes dropped more than 32,000,000 surrender leaflets. Over 70 percent of prisoners cited the leaflets as a factor in the decision to surrender, and virtually all reported that they had seen the leaflets. American forces captured over 60,000 Iraqi troops and accepted custody of 8,000 more captured by British and French forces, but they could not process them rapidly enough to transfer them to Saudi control for several weeks. All told, coalition forces captured almost 87,000 Iraqi prisoners, most during the four days of ground combat. Although American commanders dictated policies governing the treatment of Iraqi POWs, in practice, after capture, POWs remained an afterthought.

Excerpted from America's Captives: Treatment of POWs from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror, by Paul J. Springer. Copyright 2010 by the University Press of Kansas. Used by permission of the press.