Reviewed by Derek Leebaert
Sunday, January 4, 2009
The Untold Story of American Prisoners During the Revolutionary War
By Edwin G. Burrows | Basic. 364 pp. $27.50
MY PRIVATE WAR
Liberated Body, Captive Mind: A World War II POW's Journey
By Norman Bussel | Pegasus. 310 pp. $24.95
The True Story of Vietnam's Final POW Rescue Mission -- and the Last Navy SEAL Killed in Country
By Kevin Dockery | Berkley Caliber. 294 pp. $25.95
The savagery of war has increased in tandem with the sense among democratic peoples that even enemy soldiers merit civilized treatment once they are at our mercy. First U.S. and British bombers incinerated Hamburg; then allied forces housed and fed the inferno's survivors. A ferocious "shock and awe" campaign destroyed Saddam Hussein's army in 2003, yet the American public was disgusted the following year at prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib. It's a contradiction central to the moral revolution underway since the Enlightenment. Long before the Geneva Conventions, President Lincoln's administration first codified U.S. rules of war to restrain excesses against civilians, insurgents and captives.
None of these three books about American soldiers in enemy hands deals directly with current events. But at the start of Forgotten Patriots, his pathbreaking examination of the treatment of American prisoners during the Revolutionary War, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edwin G. Burrows notes: "I will not be sorry if readers find themselves thinking about Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, about the evasion of habeas corpus, about official denials and cover-ups, about the arrogance and stupidity that can come with the exercise of great power."
Burrows's book is a landmark whose significance far outweighs recent, popular biographies of the Founding Fathers. His sparkling prose, meticulous research and surprising findings recast our understanding of how the new nation was brought forth. He shows that systematic British atrocities served only to mobilize the American insurgency and harden U.S. resistance. It was a moral Rubicon. Once the British had crossed it, there could be "no compromise, no turning back" in the fight for independence. The British thought that even to refer to Americans as prisoners of war would seem to concede the legitimacy of the rebels' Congress. So the British had to decide: Were captured Americans to be treated as POWs or as nonpersons to be handled with intimidating brutality? His Majesty's ministers bobbed and weaved around the question while insisting to an increasingly shocked Gen. George Washington and the pro-American opposition in London that prisoners in the colonies were receiving decent care and two-thirds of a redcoat's rations.
But the vermin-infested prisons and prison ships of New York City witnessed scenes akin to Dachau: living skeletons, corpses heaped up like cordwood, creaking "dead-carts" each morning bearing away the men lost at night. Americans (as well as their French allies) froze to death in winter and suffocated in summer, disease-wracked and starved. The British were at best "half-fool, half-brute, wholly a clod," as Steven Vincent Benét later characterized the commandant of Andersonville Prison in the Civil War. Right from the start, the tone was set from the top. Gen. Thomas Gage, Britain's initial commander in North America, and even his successor, Gen. William Howe, dined and danced while men rotted in stronghouses and prison ships just outside their doors.
Burrows masterfully explores a subject that had been left nearly untouched for more than two centuries, partly because of the long-held assumption that accounts of the atrocities were wartime propaganda. Based on a wealth of cross-referenced diaries, ledgers, ration books and other primary sources, he estimates that at least 30,000 Americans passed through British hands, nearly twice as many as previously believed. Over 18,000 perished, more than twice the number who fell in combat. To put Burrows's findings in perspective, this means that about 1 percent of the American population -- and 2 to 3 percent of adult males -- were imprisoned, with 60 percent of those dying.
Every town and village knew the degrading fate of fathers, sons and brothers. Yet the record, however terrible, is also inspiring. The British essentially gave captives a choice between defection and death. Thousands of men could have saved themselves but refused to abandon the cause. What's more, Burrows writes, American diplomats who negotiated treaties of commerce beetween 1782 and 1787 with foreign powers such as the Netherlands, Sweden and Morocco took unprecedented steps to mitigate the evils of war. The 1785 treaty with Prussia specifically pledged the young nation "to treat future prisoners of war with the decency and humanity never accorded them by the British," Burrows says. Prisoner abuse, as New Jersey Gov. William Livingston put it in 1782, was inconsistent "with the honour of the American nation whose glory it has hitherto been to triumph over its Enemy not only by force of arms but by the virtues of humanity."
Yet privation and mistreatment have often been the fate of U.S. troops captured in battle. In My Private War, Norman Bussel chronicles his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder after being shot down over Berlin as a 19-year-old radio operator/gunner and spending 366 days in the Luftwaffe's POW camps. Labeled a "Terrorflieger" (terror flyer), he and his fellow survivors endured malnutrition, cold and, at the start, daily interrogations. "A couple of times" he was slapped around, but his courageous stonewalling brought no other physical consequences.
Unfortunately, this tale has been served poorly by its editor. The formless text gives no more space to a POW shot dead for straying too near the camp's fence than to detailing how the author's mother-in-law was "grossly overweight and could not sleep lying down." Bussel attempts too much of a life story as he tries to connect his later unhappiness -- alcoholism, divorce, strained relations with his children -- with his year and a day in the Stalags. But his authentic voice closes on a chilling note: "When the atrocities against Iraqi detainees by our troops at Abu Ghraib were discovered and the interrogation methods at Guantanamo exposed . . . every POW friend I spoke with about this felt as indignant and as ashamed as I did."
Operation Thunderhead is mostly the story of an Air Force fighter pilot, Capt. John Dramesi, who was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967 and repatriated in 1973. Its author, Kevin Dockery, has written previously about Naval Special Warfare and cites among his credentials having been a "corporate mercenary" in Iraq. He has found a riveting protagonist, but the thwarted rescue mission mentioned in the book's title figures only in the last 40 plodding pages, and there are many gaps in the narrative. We never learn, for instance, about the secret method by which Dockery says POWs in Hanoi were able to communicate directly with Washington. But Operation Thunderhead does convey Dramesi's unimaginable courage in repeated escape attempts followed by gruesome punishment at each failure. And Dockery makes hideously real the brutality of the captain's torturers.
Although our conduct has sometimes fallen short of our ideals, the United States has sacrificed mightily to set a standard of endurance in adversity, and of decency in triumph. As Burrows helps to remind us, it is a betrayal of numerous "forgotten patriots" whenever we abandon America's founding virtues to mimic the brutal behaviors of our enemies. ·
Derek Leebaert is the author, most recently, of " To Dare and To Conquer: Special Operations and the Destiny of Nations from Achilles to Al Qaeda."