It was 1950. An armed conflict that began on the Korean peninsula almost immediately dubbed the Korean War. It was one of the major armed conflicts of the second half of the XX century. Its main participants were the North and South of Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Republic of Korea, respectively).
The world superpowers entered the conflict almost in the beginning. North Korea’s military action was backed by pilots and military instructors from the USSR and so-called “Chinese People’s Volunteers” (in fact – an active unit of the People’s Liberation Army of China). South Korean armed forces were backed by the US military, formally operating under the UN flag. Military actions were of maneuverable character and their success was varying. However, in terms of military, this war finished with a draw. It was summer of 1953. The warring parties agreed to a ceasefire, the limit marking and separation along the 38th parallel – exactly where the war had begun 3 years earlier.
The US Soldiers in Korean POW Camps
This article concentrates on one of the episodes associated with the American soldiers captured by North Korean forces. Their story was explored by William E. Mayer, who took part in the Korean War as a Major and later became the chief psychiatrist of the US Army. He traced the lives of about 1,000 American prisoners of war detained in one of the camps in North Korea. Initially, his attention was drawn to an extremely high mortality rate among prisoners. He finishes his studies with a conclusion that the captives were subject to a very special way of psychological warfare with a highly negative impact. The book How Full Is Your Bucket? reflects on the situation thoroughly.
POW Camps Imprisonment Conditions
The way the US soldiers were kept in POW camps can not be regarded as particularly cruel. It was not that much different from the usual standards for such “institutions”. The prisoners were provided with food, water and shelter which were quite acceptable. There were no physical tortures. The camp administration attitude was mostly politely detached. In fact, there were fewer cases of physical ill-treatment in Nort Korean POW camps than in other major military conflicts of the XX century.
These camps were NOT surrounded by barbed wire and were not even guarded all across their territory. Yet neither a group of captured soldiers, nor even single captive soldier made any attempt to escape. Further still, the prisoners did not try to preserve the unity in their ranks, but often quarreled and fought with each other. Commonly, prisoners had more smooth regulations with a camp administration than with each other.
Nevertheless, the mortality rate among prisoners was strikingly high. Along with that, neither bad imprisonment conditions, nor diseases were the cause for that. It was a mortality of a special kind. Usually the events followed the same scenario: a prisoner desperately observed his cabin, seeing no possibility to do anything to save himself. He refused food and his friends communication. He sat in the corner and pulled a blanket on his head. A few days later, he died.
When the surviving prisoners were handed over to the Japanese Red Cross, they were given the opportunity to call their relatives in the USA, to cheer that they were alive. But very few accepted such an opportunity. Back home, the ex-prisoners did not keep in touch with each other.
Absolute Hopelessness Disease
Being a health pro, Mayer called such a studied behavior of American POWs with symptoms of a new disease – “disease of absolute hopelessness”. He accounted for lack of resistance and passivity to be the main prerequisites of the disease. The following Mayer’s argument is extremely important: If the prisoners of war were bullied or beaten, they would get angry. Anger would give them the motivation and strength for resistance and survival. But they just died, in the absence of any motivation, although there were no classical medical causes for these deaths.
Despite the relatively low degree of physical violence, the death rate in North Korean camps for American prisoners has reached an incredibly high value – 38%. This is the highest death rate among American prisoners of war in the history of military conflicts with US army involved. And a “disease of absolute hopelessness” became the cause of almost half of the deaths. Once again: A man desperately observed his cabin and saw no possibility to do anything to save himself. He sat in the corner and pulled a blanket on his head. A few days later, he died.
How could that happen?
The events can be explained within the specific strategy chosen by the administration of the North Korean camps. Its purpose was to spread anxiety and hopelessness among the prisoners of war, induce passivity, deprive the resistance of motives and reduce the level of interpersonal relationships.
According to Mayer, the North Koreans used the 4 main ways of exposure to achieve this goal:
- encouraged whistle-blowing;
- inoculated self-criticism;
- damaged devotion to leaders;
- deprived of positive emotional support.
The whistle-blowing practice that was encouraged by the camp administration did not bear any punishment purposes. No one was punished: neither abuser, nor informer. The informer received a pitiful incentive such as a pair of cigarettes. The real purpose of this practice was to destroy the relationship between people, set them against each other, make each suspect his neighbor of potential betrayal – informer.
To develop self-criticism, the camp administration gathered prisoners regularly in groups of 10-12 people. Everyone had to stand up and tell all the bad deeds that he has done, and all the good ones that he could commit, but had not committed, facing his companions. Little by little, this tactic destroyed trust and respect for each other, tearing interpersonal links between them.
Leaders devotion derogation (in POW camps, the chiefs, senior officers) undermined credibility of captives to those who, due to greater life experience, could provide moral, emotional support, and possibly become leaders of the resistance.
Deprivation of any emotional support was varied and exhaustive. Probably, that was a central point in the North Korean program, since it destroyed one of the main American culture values – a positive emotional experience mindset. For example, if a captive received a message from his home with words of support, it was not given to him. By contrast, the letters, containing any negative news, such as reporting the death of loved ones, or where wife informed her husband that she was tired of waiting and left him for another man – were immediately transferred to the recipient.
Taken altogether, it immersed the American prisoners in “isolation so emotionally and psychologically complete that nothing like that had ever happened before”, as Mayer puts it.
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