The abuse by American soldiers of detainees at Abu Ghraib, Bagram and Guantanamo Bay continues to haunt the prosecution of the war on terror. Most obvious is the harm done to the faltering U.S. effort to attract sympathy for American values and goals in the broader Middle East. Beyond that, the need to pursue a ruthless enemy abroad has evoked concern at home about the corrosion of American liberal virtues.It should therefore be of more than passing interest that the U.S. military endured an earlier wartime prison scandal that caused nearly as great a public relations uproar as the prison scandals of today. The origins and details of events from the two eras are not directly analogous, but the political implications of the little-known scandal from half a century ago are nonetheless relevant to recent U.S. troubles.
* * *By the middle of 1952, the Korean War truce talks between the U.S.-led UN delegation and North Korea, which had been ongoing for a year, had essentially boiled down to one contentious issue: voluntary repatriation of prisoners of war. The Allies were morally committed to voluntary repatriation, understandably so considering the dismal fate of returned Soviet POWs at the end of World War II. UN screening of Korean and Chinese POWs revealed that only half of them wanted to return to their homelands. The North Koreans, however, were determined to avoid the humiliation of defections en masse. The Americans were ill-prepared for the lengths to which their ideologically schooled enemy would go to bend world opinion to support its negotiating position. In what was the first political use of U.S. prisoner-of-war facilities by an enemy, the North Koreans plotted to manipulate their own captured POWs by orchestrating a riot at the massive Allied POW compound off the South Korean coast on Koje Island, or Koje-do. The design of the compound and poor training of the Allied guards lent themselves to just the sort of disorder the North Koreans were seeking to create. The Koje-do compound crammed upwards of 80,000 prisoners inside overcrowded, adjacent barbed wire enclosures holding several thousand prisoners each. Allied guards, completely ignorant of the political context of the ongoing truce talks, were naively instructed by superiors to be lenient with the prisoners. Unbeknownst to the Allies, high-level North Korean cadres had infiltrated the compound with the express intent of inducing Allied repression of prisoners to weaken the case for voluntary repatriation. By early 1952, hardcore communist POWs had essentially taken control of the compound from the tolerant guards, set up a communist ruling order of sorts with kangaroo courts and all, and begun savagely torturing and killing non-communist POWs. The violence did indeed slow down the UN’s screening of enemy POWs, upon which voluntary repatriation depended. The tense situation exploded on February 22, 1952, when–on orders from Pyongyang–communist leaders in the compound launched extended full-scale riots with an arsenal of deadly homemade weapons. Allied guards were forced to fire on the prisoners, which gave the North Korean negotiators the pretext to accuse the Allies of “massacre and brutal inhumanity.” The coup de grâce of the propaganda campaign occurred when prisoners kidnapped the Koje-do camp commander, whose deputy then conceded–in writing, no less–to the demands of prisoners to accord them “humane treatment” in the future and to stop UN screenings. One cannot help but be struck by the similarities between the unruliness at Koje-do and that at certain U.S. military detention facilities today. The poor design of the Koje-do compound has a close parallel in Iraq: the Camp Bucca prison compound, site of a massive riot profiled in detail by the Washington Post on August 24, 2005. Like the rioters at Koje-do, those at Camp Bucca used weapons fashioned out of materials lying around the camp itself, and were able to dominate their environment and shield their subversive activities (including the building of a 357-foot escape tunnel) from the prison guards. In the words of the U.S. officer overseeing the Iraqi compound, the prisoners saw the camp not just as a prison “but actually as a battle space”–a description that perfectly mirrors the mentality of the communist POWs who orchestrated the riots at Koje-do. A half century after the Allies wised up and restructured the Koje-do compound by shrinking the size of prison cells and restricting the prisoners’ ability to communicate and coordinate, the U.S. military undertook the very same sort of restructuring at Camp Bucca. The historical parallels extend well beyond the construction of prison compounds. At Abu Ghraib as at Koje-do, U.S. military leaders failed to provide strict guidelines for the physical handling of prisoners, and overlooked entirely the need to make sure guards were familiar with the political context of their missions. If the ignorance of the guards at Koje-do is hard to comprehend–particularly that of the deputy camp commander, whose written concessions allowed the North Koreans to impugn Allied treatment of communist POWs–the ignorance of U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib of the recruitment power their actions would provide to Iraqi insurgents and al-Qaeda is equally shocking. What becomes readily apparent when comparing Koje-do to the prison scandals of today is the futility of trying to hide a military detention system from public sight. If this was true a half century ago, it is even more true today in an age of “global political awakening”–as Zbigniew Brzezinski has termed it in these pages–when modern telecommunications link popular perceptions across the globe by instantly transmitting fact and rumor alike.1 In such an age, unless the U.S. government devises a military prison system that is both transparent and based in a framework that can be justified legally and morally to foreign nations, we will continue to be on the communications defensive–reacting to negative perceptions of our detainee system rather than positively shaping those perceptions. As an optimistic and pragmatic people with unlimited faith in the universal appeal of their ideals, Americans have yet to grasp just how central popular perceptions are to success in Iraq and in the larger war on terror–central to how difficult these struggles will be, how long they will persist, and indeed whether America will prevail in them. In World War II, widespread revulsion against Nazism throughout Europe held little prospect for loosening the Nazi grip on occupied nations (Churchill’s hopes to the contrary). Yet in the current wars of insurgency, in which the enemy aims to supplant ruling regimes with its own perverse notions of governance, shifts in popular sympathies may define the critical tipping points of success and failure. This is exactly what Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, stressed in a recently released letter to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi about operations in Iraq: [The establishment of a caliphate] will not be accomplished by the mujahed movement while it is cut off from public support. . . . Therefore, our planning must strive to involve the Muslim masses in the battle. If perception seems to contend so handily with reality in today’s world, are we to surrender before rumor and allegation, and stop trying to convince others of proven facts and the merits of our liberal values? Clearly not. The key lesson to be drawn here, perhaps, is simply how difficult it is to win the type of warfare in which we are engaged. Since September 11, the Bush Administration has consciously emphasized action and results instead of image and rhetoric, based on a belief that the powerful example of success over our enemies will serve as the best deterrent to potential recruits. As important as our success in Afghanistan has been and our success in Iraq undoubtedly would be, the Administration’s nearly single-minded focus on material results has contributed to an underestimation of the degree to which foreigners see things differently from Americans, and the degree to which differing interpretations of events can tangibly affect the broader battlefield. If the Bush Administration had a fuller appreciation of the dominant role perception plays in our current struggles, it would have long ago resolved the indeterminate legal status and detention terms of those held at Guantanamo Bay; it would have showed an immediate determination to hold responsible the entire chain of command involved in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal; and it would have supported rather than resisted the recent Senate resolution calling for uniform standards for U.S. treatment of prisoners worldwide. Perhaps ironically, given his roles as an architect of the Iraq war and a defender of U.S. policies at Guantanamo Bay, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld does well appreciate how America’s uphill public diplomacy struggle with foreign audiences is hurting our war efforts. In a talk to Pentagon employees in the summer of 2004, Rumsfeld admitted that, for a multicultural country, we are not very good at selling our values and clarifying our intentions abroad. He further acknowledged that anger over Abu Ghraib and the Iraq war in general have likely won recruits to our enemies’ side. And in a July 18, 2005 Wall Street Journal essay, Rumsfeld discussed the challenge and urgency of combating the rapid spread of rumors in the age of 24-hour news. The hope Rumsfeld offers to those wondering how we can convince others of our way of seeing things is that “over time” (years? decades?) the truth wins out. When the future of the Iraqi state and the stability of the Middle East hang in the balance, and when al-Qaeda operatives are closing in on ever more ingenious ways to maximize the scope of their destruction, waiting for others to view things from our perspective is a luxury we cannot afford. Factoring images and perceptions into our conduct is a much surer path toward success. 1 Recent press coverage of the CIA's most secret methods of detention reinforces the point. The November 2, 2005 Washington Post exposed the CIA's use of secret prisons in up to eight countries.