The Ghraib Escape

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.


6 thoughts on “The Ghraib Escape

  1. Cyrus says:

    “It’s a curious, but I think perfectly reasonable, position to take that we deplore ‘their’ breakouts and celebrate ‘our’ own ones”


    Amazingly, we also celebrate our victories whilst not celebrating those of the enemy. As do they. Nothing curious about it.

    Exceptions do exist — remember “The One That Got Away”. Although, of course, that was influenced by mutual respect, shared culture and post-war reconciliation.

    The obvious points re: modern POWs are that (1) the war isn’t over yet and (2) the system was originally designed for European state conflict not global counter-terrorism.

    • Perhaps I should have been a bit clearer. I think it relates to the second point you make – which is that modern POWs aren’t like they were when the regulations were encoded in law. I suppose I find it quite interesting that states such as America on one hand seek to enforce traditions of military detention (well, the military does) in order to safeguard their soldiers from torture (as happened at the hands of the N Vietnamese), but on the other quite happily celebrate continued resistance and escape which is, I think, breaking the traditional covenant of POW detention where large units would surrender en masse and be detained afterwards. Less than 1% of axis POWs tried to escape American camps in WW2, but now continued resistance appears to be considered part of a soldier’s duty.

    • Cyrus says:

      I don’t think that it was the case historically that POWs were expected to surrender and then not escape, which is what you seem to be saying. Most might not have tried but those who did were lauded.

      Certainly in the twentieth century, from Winston Churchill’s escape during the Boer War onwards there has existed a wide literature which celebrates the POW escape attempt.

      The First World War produced some, the Second World War produced lots and every war fought by Western powers subsequently has also produced such accounts.

      Undoubtedly there is now more focus on escape and evasion among Western armies but I don’t think that it represents something wholly new.

    • I think I’m at fault for being unclear. What I’m referring to is older notions of surrender linked to parole, whereas currently surrender leads to internment. If you have access, there’s a very interesting article on the shift in the Napoleonic wars, which seems to me to be something of a start point for the shift. It does nothing to change the legal character of surrender (and the requirement to give quarter), but it changes it on a conceptual level (it used to mean people would respect parole, now it’s expected that they will continue ‘struggling’ for as long as it takes).

      Link to the article (v. interesting read) –

    • Cyrus says:

      I haven’t got access at the moment but I’ll have to read that article later. Thanks for the link.

      I agree that there was a major shift between parole (for the few at least) and the emphasis today on escape. I imagine – though I’d have to do some reading to back it up – that the change is linked to the rise of total war and the decline of the aristocratic warrior class.

      You could probably add a further level by discussing the medieval use of ransoms for POWs.

      One important point is that both ransom and parole require a degree of shared cultural values that doesn’t exist in the GWOT.

  2. I fail to see how anything President Obama does can amount to “political suicide”. His destiny is already written. Whatever he does is revered by his adoring fans and reviled by his opponents. Yes, closing Guantanamo in these days following mass escapes from other prisons would seem foolhardy, but that’s just my opinion. Indeed, I didn’t need any such example to form it.

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