Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Taking prisoners in war, a moment in history

As indicated in the post below, dealing with prisoners is always an issue during war. It's true in the current war and has been through history.

Right now I'm reading Burke Davis's biography of Chesty Puller, considered by many the greatest US Marine of all time. During the Korean War as Puller's First Marines pushed from Inchon to Seoul, Davis writes that a Marine private had to make a quick decision:

On one of the fiery days of the drive toward Seoul a popular chaplain, Father Keating, captured five North Korean soldiers and herded them along as prisoners. He hailed a passing Marine jeep driven by a Private Wolff: "Son, take these prisoners off my hands. Get them to the rear before they're hurt.

"I can't Father. I'm running ammo to the edge of town, and they're getting low. I can't stop to do it."

"Private, this is an order. Take them over."

Wolff looked rearward at the burning city. "You mean they're mine now? Under my repsonsibility?"


Wolff pulled up a light machine gun and sprayed the group, killing all five. The outraged Keating went to Puller and demanded action. The Colonel listened carefully, ordered Wolff arrested and the priest went away content that he had done his duty.

Ten minutes later Puller asked an aide: "What outfit was it that lost all those boys last night?"

"Barrow's company sir."

"All right. Give that boy Wolff a BAR and send him up there."

Those are certainly situations I'm glad not to deal with. However, all three involved made their choices. The private believed it more important to get badly needed ammunition to his mates. The priest believed it his duty to report a violation. Puller decided he should arrest the private, but knew he would be more valuable fighting the enemy. It goes to show that choices are not always so clear cut in the effort to survive and win in battle.


Blogger jimcaserta said...

1. Many of the prisoners at Gitmo were not party to the conflict, and many people picked up in Iraq are civilians that were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Summarily executing any of those is unconscionable and illegal.

2. What if the private were headed back to camp? Korea was a much different war than Iraq is today, and at that point (I think, as I've read Puller's biography - in book form) we were getting our butts kicked. I won't vouch for this document but treatment of civilians and prisoners has always been a problem.

3. Every time we kill a civilian, we create many more insurgents, ie. their family. Why would you help or support the US when they killed a member of your family? This problem is made worse depending on the circumstances of the civilian death.

Iraq is not Korea, for one, there is no UN mandate to be there, and we should judge how to act based on this situation and our treaty obligations and our guiding principles as a nation.

Blogger jimcaserta said...

Great book - should be standard reading.

Blogger Glenn said...

I didn't want to equate Iraq with Korea. I wanted to point out that knowing the best way to deal with prisoners during the heat of battle is not a clear-cut choice. I interpret Pvt. Wolff's thinking as a choice between interupting his mission of gathering more ammo or taking care of North Korean prisoners. Any interuption of the ammo mission could well lead to the death of his comrades. He chose his fellow Marines over the POWs. I'm sure Wolff's situation is not isolated to any particular war.

However, the wars are similar in the fact that North Koreans and Chinese troops hid among civilians just as terrorists do today. In the prologue to Davis's book, he recounts a moment during the withdrawl from Chosin Resovoir where Puller warned a lieutenant to not allow fleeing civilians to get too close to his tank column because Chinese troops were well known for hiding among civilians. If it came down to it, he ordered the lieutenant to "kill them all." Puller even made him repeat the order. However, the lieutenant could not resist the misery of the civilians and went back to help. Sure enough Chinese soldiers emerged,killed the lieutenant and destroyed about six tanks.

The scope is different in the two wars, but American troops face similar dilemmas in all wars.

As far as some of the Gitmo detainees being more hangers on than terrorists,it may well be a case of choosing to hang out with the wrong side. I would think some of these guys knew with whom they were dealing. However, this is only a segment of the Gitmo population. I don't think Hamdan could be considered a hanger on caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and it's his case on which the Supreme Court ruled.

I concur fully that "Marine" is a must read for any student of history. I've got a little more than 100 pages to read and I regret I haven't had time to pick it up today.


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