American prisoner of war policy and practice from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror
Springer, Paul Joseph
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American prisoner of war (POW) policy consists of repeated improvisational efforts during wartime followed by few efforts to incorporate lessons learned. As such, in every war, the United States has improvised its system of POW maintenance and utilization. At no time prior to World War II was the United States military prepared to capture and maintain the prisoners taken in any American conflict. The United States has depended upon reciprocal treatment of enemy prisoners and threatened retaliation for mistreatment of American captives in every war. It has also adhered to accepted customs and international law regarding prisoners, providing housing, food, and medical care to POWs at least the equal of that given to American prisoners. However, the U.S. military has often sought the most expedient methods of maintaining prisoners, a practice that has led to accusations of neglect. In the nineteenth century, American wars were typically fought upon the North American continent and were limited in scope, which facilitated the maintenance of enemy prisoners and eased the improvisation of policy and practice. In the twentieth century, the United States participated in conflicts in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, complicating POW issues. World War II and subsequent conflicts show a radical departure from earlier wars, as the army planned for the capture of enemy troops and was better prepared to maintain them. However, the War on Terror represents a return to improvisation, as a lack of planning and a failure to follow established policies contributed to allegations of mistreatment in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.