Prisoner of War escapes have been in the news quite a bit over the last week or so. First up, hundred of inmates escaped from the infamous Abu Ghraib jail, including (apparently) lots of senior al-Qaeda members. To perhaps compound the headaches of American counter-terrorist policy types, 250 Taliban were liberated from a Pakistani jail yesterday. All in all, it’s been a bad week to be a prison guard. But those weren’t the only escapes in the news. The passing of Colonel Bud Day, who endured torture at the hands of North Vietnamese captors, made quite a bit of the fact that he was awarded a medal of honor for escaping capture. Here in Britain, we re-run World War 2 POW breakouts by watching The Great Escape on telly every Christmas, even if Steve McQueen’s bike jump never actually happened. If you happen to live in London, the V&A’s Museum of Childhood is currently running an exhibit on War Games where you can see how we turned the escape attempts from Colditz into a board game.
It’s a curious, but I think perfectly reasonable, position to take that we deplore ‘their’ breakouts and celebrate ‘our’ own ones. But after all, if our culture celebrates continued resistance to ‘the enemy’, why should we expect ‘them’ to be any different? The Abu Ghraib breakout now makes Guantanamo closure political suicide, even as the prisoners are adding to Obama’s failure to make good on his campaign promise to do so by hunger striking in protest. One argument says that the military just aren’t cut out to run extended detention. Another might be that even though the legal character of POWs hasn’t changed, the concept and practise definitely has. Maybe recognising the inherent contradiction in our attitudes towards ‘theirs’ and ‘ours’ might help us work on the latter two issues.
Anyway, I’ll leave this with John McCain’s remarks on the death of his friend, Colonel Bud Day:
Those who knew Bud after the war could see how tough he was. But, my God, to have known him in prison – confronting our enemies day-in and day-out; never, ever yielding – defying men who had the power of life and death over us; to witness him sing the national anthem in response to having a rifle pointed at his face – well, that was something to behold.