Yankee Fables

When President Eisenhower signed the Executive Order authorizing a code of conduct for prisoners of war, he created the first explicit standard for all GIs in captivity. No longer may Air Force pilots resign from the service with an honorable discharge after the same misconduct which sends Army ex-prisoners to jail.

Yet if a clear formula was essential for informing soldiers of the POW's obligations, its lone ingredient--resistance--helps perpetuate the horror that soldiers face in Communist prison camps. While the code directs men to resist enemy interrogation to "the utmost of their ability," the Defense Advisory Committee report behind the code informs GIs and all potential enemies that prisoners will not be prosecuted if they yield to torture. Captors know they can extract signed confessions--but only by applying irresistable pressure.

Brutality, unfortunately, has some American devotees. One school of military thought sees value in the savage treatment GIs receive as prisoners, for they believe the horror of captivity preserves discipline in the fighting ranks. No doubt many soldiers fear capture, but a humane nation should desire no motives for loyal fighting beyond a firm conviction in the necessity of battle, and fair courts-martial for those who desert their ranks without good reason.

But even though most responsible military authorities abhor the Chinese atrocities, their Stoic code of conduct asks American prisoners to accept them without flinching. If the code allowed prisoners to sign all confessions demanded in violation of the Geneva Convention, on the other hand, the enemy's incentive for torture would disappear. The Communist captors would receive a plethora of confessions--the same confessions they now extract more painfully. Confessions signed so freely would convince no one who does not already believe the "confessions" Chinese Communists have obtained through unspeakable torture. Prisoners of war already carry too many burdens to be asked to suffer in the erroneous belief that their sacrifices will prevent Communists from wining converts with lies about America.

But in deserting the unrealistic objective that every captive must attempt to preserve American prestige, the code need not desert all standards. Rather, it should rely upon the instinctive, more sacred American justification for sacrifice; group loyalty, aimed at minimizing the hardships of fellow prisoners. Even if prisoners of war are allowed to confess their own "crimes" freely to lessen torture, they must not lighten their burden by betraying fellow prisoners. Each prisoner should be obligated to withstand torture whenever possible to prevent incriminating a fellow prisoner. Also disclosure of vital information, bringing danger to American troops, deserves the full punishment of law.

In this respect the new code is satisfactory: it instructs captured soldiers to use all their resources for the welfare of other prisoners. They should first try to prevent capture, and once captured, aid their fellow prisoners and use every means to escape. Under new orders issued by Defense Secretary Wilson, military instructors deepen this resourcefulness by training men how to avoid interrogation, to minimize suffering, and increase their chances of survival. Easing the hardship of captivity demands every capacity of each prisoner of war. Yet the new conduct code fails our soldiers when it asks them to rely on their strength in a valiant but obviously hopeless attempt to convince Communist sympathizers of the fairness of American war morals.