A Look Back November 2004

60 Years Ago in The Atlantic

"What to Do With German Prisoners: The American Muddle"

News reports and special investigations have detailed American incompetence, mismanagement, and outright cruelty toward detainees at Abu Ghraib prison, in Iraq. Devising fair and effective methods for dealing with POWs has always been problematic. In the November 1944 Atlantic, James H. Powers, The Boston Globe's foreign editor, took the U.S. Army to task for putting German prisoners in the hands of its least competent officers. The result, Powers argued, was that rules were not being enforced, and avid Hitler adherents were treating their captors with disrespect and tormenting fellow prisoners.

The United States Army has been coöperative and open-minded in its general policy regarding public interest in prisoner-of-war problems. Visits and studies by penologists, representatives of the press, and others are numerous. Yet little has been done to relate these reports one to another, to assemble pertinent evidence regarding desirable changes, and to draw the necessary conclusions. Until some such comprehensive analysis is undertaken, the administrative defects and weaknesses of policy now apparent will persist.

The assumption is all too prevalent in the Service Command that the prisoner-of-war problem is unimportant and can be relegated to officers who do not fit well elsewhere. This view of the P.O.W. camp as the incompetent officer's last hope persists, despite brilliant exceptions. It should be ended at once. Soundness in the policy applied to the P.O.W.'s in this country, efficiency of the administration which governs them, and a high standard of competence, character, and experience in officers charged with the responsibility of the task—all these must be achieved, even if it implies drastic revisions of present procedure.

Attitudes toward prisoners among camp guards and other camp personnel should be firmer and more objective. Prisoners, especially German noncoms, should not be permitted to set the tone of that relationship. No provision of the Geneva Convention requires that they retain their own importance or prerogatives.

[Volume 174, No. 5, page 50]

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