As news of a prisoner hunger strike finally begins to trickle out from Guantanamo, rest assured any wrongdoing will be pinned on a few bad apples. However, even a cursory glance at U.S. treatment of enemies captured during military interventions will demonstrate that the goings-on at Gitmo (or Abu Ghraib for that matter) are standard operating procedure for the home of the brave.
During the Second World War, for example, it required a mouthpiece none other than prominent racist Colonel Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr. to expose American tactics in the Pacific. His sentiments are summed up in the following journal entry:
“It was freely admitted that some of our soldiers tortured Jap prisoners and were as cruel and barbaric at times as the Japs themselves. Our men think nothing of shooting a Japanese prisoner or a soldier attempting to surrender. They treat the Jap with less respect than they would give to an animal, and these acts are condoned by almost everyone. We claim to be fighting for civilization, but the more I see of this war in the Pacific the less right I think we have to claim to be civilized.”
“When Lindbergh finally left the Pacific islands and cleared customs in Hawaii,” says author John Dower, "he was asked if he had any [Japanese] bones in his baggage. It was, he was told, a routine question.”
While the treatment of Japanese POWs was commonly little more than making sure there were no Japanese POWs, those Axis soldiers captured in the European theater often learned firsthand how good the good guys were.
“Before the invasion of Sicily, General Patton told his men to accept no surrender from enemy soldiers who continued to fire within the highly lethal 200-yards range,” says historian Michael C.C. Adams. “At Biscari, U.S. troops killed thirty-four unarmed prisoners who had given up at the correct distance, but these GIs had seen buddies killed, and they didn't feel that a few yards made any difference...[Even] Audie Murphy told new men to take no prisoners and to kill Axis wounded.”
Many of those who were actually taken prisoner may have soon wished they were killed. “Captured Germans held in France under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower were systematically starved,” writes David K. Wright while another 676,000 or so German prisoners were shipped to the United States between 1942 and 1946.
Alexander Cockburn adds: “In U.S. camps, POWs were starved to the point of collapse, performed 20 million man-days of work on army posts and 10 million man-days for contract employers. Some were assigned to work for the Chemical Warfare Center at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland.”
Some 372,000 German POWs in the United States were forced -- at the behest of Eleanor Roosevelt -- to undergo a re-education program, “to return them to ‘Christian practices’ and to reject ‘German thinking,’” says Cockburn. “As time wore on, the name of the program was changed to 'intellectual diversion.’”
Canadian writer James Bacque, in his book Other Losses, goes even further, claiming that up to one million German POWs in Europe died from Allied neglect while others were used by the French to fight the Vietnamese. While perusing “Good War” documents called the “Weekly Prisoner of War and Disarmed Enemy Report,” Bacque found statistics under the heading Other Losses which he interpreted to mean POW deaths. The author consulted with Colonel Philip S. Lauben, who had been chief of the German Affairs Branch of the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF).
“[Other Losses] means deaths and escapes,” Lauben explained.
When asked how many escapes he recalled, Lauben replied, “Very, very minor.” Bacque later discovered the number was less than one-tenth of one percent.
“It is beyond doubt,” Bacque writes, “that enormous numbers of men of all ages, plus some women and children, died of exposure, unsanitary conditions, disease and starvation in the American and French camps in Germany and France starting in April 1945.” Bacque puts those numbers at “almost certainly over 900,000, and quite likely over a million.”
Needless to say, these controversial figures have been vigorously denied by official sources. Adams addressed Bacque's unsettling work in his book: “Bacques’ crediblity has been assailed by Stephen Ambrose, a biographer of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man who would bear ultimate responsibility for these crimes. Ambrose points out that Bacque at times relied on slender or circumstantial evidence and that it would have been hard to keep so great a scandal quiet for so long [New York Times Book Review, February 24, 1991]. On the other hand, American guards have come forward to support Bacque. One wrote: “I witnessed the atrocities Stephen E. Ambrose tries to deny or gloss over.” [New York Times Book Review, April 14, 1991] . . . The truth is probably somewhere in the middle...As another guard admitted: ‘we sometimes slipped over the boundary of civilized behavior and resembled to some extent what we were fighting against.’”
With the high level of censorship existing in the Allied theater of operations, perhaps the key to keeping “so great a scandal quiet for so long” is that, for most people, it never existed. At the time, General George S. Patton wrote in his diary: “Ike made the sensational statement that while hostilities were in progress, the one important thing was order and discipline, but now that hostilities were over, the important thing was to stay in with world public opinion-apparently whether it was right or wrong...Eisenhower talked to us very confidentially on the necessity for solidarity in the event that any of us are called before a Congressional Committee.”
No matter who's in office or where the war takes place, it's all the same.
Mickey Z. is the author of several books, most recently 50 American Revolutions You're Not Supposed to Know: Reclaiming American Patriotism (Disinformation Books). He can be found on the Web at: www.mickeyz.net.
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with Thaddeus Rutkowski