Saturday, October 16, 2010

Stephanie Carvin's "Prisoners of America's Wars"

Stephanie Carvin is a Lecturer in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Prisoners of America’s Wars: From the Early Republic to Guantanamo, and reported the following:
Okay, when initially asked to consider the Page 99 test, my first glance at the page made me think that I was probably going to fail the test. The page basically covers a brief summation of the Korean War before half a paragraph that starts the conclusion to the first part of the book. But after reading it out once again for the blog, I think it may actually work better than I thought. It discusses the US Military Code of Conduct and how its origins relate to POW issues that came up in Korea. And then it goes on to suggest that the problems in Korea were unfortunate foreshadowing for what was to come in terms of Vietnam.

But I wonder if the page 100 test would have been more awesome? That page engages with some of the major themes of the book: whether there is a dualistic tendency in terms of applying the laws of war to “civilized” and “non-civilized” people, (which the last sentence on 99 just starts to get into!) and acknowledgement of the evolution of the implementation of the laws of war from 1776-1953.

So, maybe I’ll give myself a B+ on this one. (I’m an easy marker.)

Essentially, the book is a history of prisoners in conflicts that the US has fought (even before it was the “US”). This includes both prisoners that American forces have taken and Americans that have been taken prisoners themselves. It seeks to show that political issues surrounding prisoners have been a constant in almost every conflict that the United States has engaged in. Certainly many of the issues that we are now discussing in light of Guantanamo Bay (recognition of status, rights, trials, etc) were present in the American Revolutionary Wars and the Civil War.

Bearing all of this history in mind, it looks at modern conflicts through this historical lens and also raises question about the role of culture, ideology and the emergence of ‘new actors’ on the battlefield in terms of posing challenges for implementing the laws of war. Overall, it aims at presenting a balanced picture that is neither a rant nor apology for the US armed forces.

Page 99:
technology, but not the laws of war. The result for prisoner of war caught by the North Koreans was disastrous as Cold War politics came to dominate the way they were treated. Wounds were left untreated and prisoners were given an insufficient diet especially in the first year of the war. POW camps were left unmarked and several were accidentally attacked by the UN Command forces. This made the implications of Soviet reservations to Article 85 very clear. It was also a foreshadowing of the unfortunate events to come. This would not be the last time that the Americans would face problems with ensuring reciprocal respect for the laws of war in a conflict in the twentieth century, especially as the number of wars of national self-liberation was on the increase, including that of Vietnam.

For now, the implication of the Korea n War as that the American approach to the laws of war began to heavily emphasize the rights of American soldiers who were captured. Concern over the twenty-one Americans who chose to stay in North Korea after having spent years there as POWs (most of whom had collaborated with their captors) prompted President Dwight Eisenhower to establish the Military Code of Conduct. The Code was applicable to all soldiers and geared towards providing them with a standard of behaviour expected of them, especially if they were captured. Many Americans were shocked at the idea that Americans would betray their country while in Communist captivity, and allegations that their troops had surrendered too easily did not sit well with the American government or its people. In some ways the text of the Code reads as a way to maintain the honour of the armed forces and/or the individual soldier if he is captured. However, the Code of Conduct reflected another American realization/assumption about future conflicts; that soldiers were not likely to be treated according to the standards of the Geneva Convention. Principles like “I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability” seem to assume that American POWs would be pressed to answer questions with tactics that went above and beyond those practices allowed by the laws of war.


Many have written on the tendency of the United States to see itself as an exceptional nation from its very founding. Yet during this period its approach to the laws of war, the republic remained very European, keeping with the traditions that had been established by the British before the Revolution. This resulted in what Peter Maguire calls a “dualistic tendency” in the American
Learn more about Prisoners of America’s Wars at the publisher's website, and follow Stephanie Carvin on Twitter and at The Duck of Minerva blog.

--Marshal Zeringue