Gitmo, Prisoners and Perspective

For the last few years the whole issue of Gitmo and prisoner treatment has been mostly relegated to the back pages of the news.   There was first the whole Abu Grub ado and then the alleged burning of Korans in Gitmo and allegations of abusive treatment of the prisoners there.   I doubt anyone rationally believes in the gratuitous maltreatment of prisoners during any war.  That was clearly the specialty of the Japs.  They killed maimed and tortured their prisoners often for no other  reason than having fun with them.   Please don’t take my word for it read just a little of that history and the facts will jump out at you.   Very few Allied prisoners during the War had any intelligence of use to the Germans or the Japs.  Mistreatment by the Germans was the exception rather than the rule contrary to the Japs.

During our current war we have had to deal with the reality that many of the prisoners we capture do in deed have information that would be useful in preventing a future attack on the West.   That creates a completely different dynamic in evaluating what is proper treatment of a prisoner.  As a society and the institutions representing that society (CIA and military) we made a rational decision to push much harder on prisoners to extract actionable information to thwart other attacks and save lives.  I don’t believe we mistreated prisoners for mere enjoyment or to even humiliate them.  Yes, that is what Abu Grub was all about and those responsible had the world fall in on their heads.  Mistreatment for fun was truly not an American value.  It was acknowledged, condemned and punished and rightly so.   It was certainly not policy approved and encouraged from those higher up the command chain.   Prisoners during wars have always faced scary and uncertain futures because they are at the mercy of their captors.   Some would say that decent and civilized societies would never permit cruelty to prisoners.

Everyone forgets that at the end of WWII the Germans had a very large well-armed force stationed in Norway.  It was some 400,000 strong and except for some relatively small engagements at the beginning of the War had not faced serious fighting.   It was a formidable force that the Allies were not eager to take on for obvious reasons.  It was the hope that if we defeated Germany on the mainland of Europe they would surrender without having to fight them.   While they sit watching and hearing the results of the fighting in relative safety in Norway the Allies advanced and their continued to garrison Norway.  It worked out for the Allies as they wished.  When German forces collapsed completely in the first week of May, 1945, the Germans in Norway were also ordered to surrender.   They did at the same time as the rest of the German forces.  They stacked arms and were now the prisoners of the people they had dominated for 5 years.   Some 12,000 Norwegians who had been trained in Sweden now descended on their homeland along with 20,000 plus Allied troops to take control of Norway and the prisoners. 

Those prisoners were not returned home right away.  Norway had suffered very little damage during the War compared to the rest of Europe.  But the prisoners were put to work as the government saw fit.  One of their main jobs was to remove the minefields they had laid at strategic locations around the country.   Most had never been trained in this work.  They did the job under the guns of the Norwegians.   They learned on the job.  About 400 of them were injured or wounded from the exploding mines and almost 300 were killed outright.  The Norwegians and Allies doing the same work suffered only a couple dozen injuries during this time.  On more than one occasion when an area had been deemed cleared by the Germans they Norwegians would make them then run across the field in a zig-zag pattern to assure all the mines had been removed.  Several of the Germans were killed while being forced to do this.  The guards often fired shots at them to make sure they would move and made it clear that if they didn’t run everywhere indicated they would in fact be shot.  The prisoners were finally started on their journey home in late 1946.   Of course all  this treatment was a clear violation of the Geneva Convention but there was not complaint for any quarter.

Members of the SS in Norway in for especial treatment and abuse.  The members of the SS were mostly Norse.  You forget that Stalin had attacked Finland in the fall of 1939 before the rest of Europe was invaded.   Norway shares a border with the Soviets.  Lots of volunteers joined the German army during the war to fight the Communist, not because they were Nazis.  No matter at the end of the War.  Stalin was now our ally.   If they had only waited a few years to fight the Commies they would have been hailed as heroes but the clock of fate was against them.

We should never abuse prisoners who are stand up opponents, don a uniform and fight army to army.  Terrorists who sneak and intentionally target innocent civilians are not entitled to the same treatment as prisoners.  If we had been lucky enough to catch a 20th plotter on 9/11 who was on the ground, I would not feel any qualms about waterboarding him for information about future plans, locations of other terrorists or any useful information to protect our society.  The Rules of War apply to those who follow them.

“Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.”  Wm. Pitt


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Filed under Culture, Foreign Affairs, government, military history, terrorism

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