Alexandria, VA – We thank current or former military service members for their service or attend ceremonies to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice to defend their country. But others are often overlooked or forgotten: those still missing or unaccounted for or being held as prisoners of war.
A prisoner of war (POW) is a person held captive by a belligerent power during or immediately after an armed conflict. Belligerents may hold POWs for a variety of legitimate – or illicit – reasons: isolating them from fellow troops still fighting, collecting military or political intelligence from them, signifying military victory, exploiting them for labor, prosecuting them for war crimes, indoctrinating them in new political or religious beliefs, or recruiting or even conscripting them as their own combatants.
In the early history of warfare, a defeated enemy, their women, children, and elders were often killed or enslaved by the victor. As warfare changed, however, so did the treatment afforded captives and those conquered. The earliest recorded usage of the phrase “prisoner of war” dates to 1610 in Europe.
In the 1700s, a new attitude of morality in international law profoundly affected the issue of prisoners of war. A captive was no longer property to be disposed of at the whim of the victor but was simply to be removed from the fight.
By the mid-19th century, the Western world generally recognized a definite body of principles for treating POWs. Starting with the Brussels Conference of 1874, several international conferences were held to improve the processing of prisoners and prevent inhumane treatment. Nations adopted conventions or resolutions, and from them, international law specifies that POWs be treated humanely and diplomatically. And when a conflict ends, the captives were to be sent home quickly.
The Geneva Convention of 1949 broadened the term “prisoner of war” beyond members of regular armed forces to include militia, volunteers, irregulars, and members of resistance movements forming a part of the armed forces, and supporting non-combatants, such as war correspondents, civilian contractors, and labor service units.
Regardless of regulations, however, prisoner rights violations continue. The number of US soldiers dying in captivity during World War I was relatively low but jumped significantly in World War II as Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan failed to honor their commitments to the various conventions. Russia never signed the Geneva Convention, nor did the North Koreans, who quickly developed a reputation for brutality.
Unlike traditional wars, there was no Korean War peace treaty that would have included prisoner exchanges. Some 8,000 US service personnel from that conflict are still listed as Missing in Action (MIA).
The Vietnam War saw 766 known US personnel taken prisoner. We have heard the horror stories of the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” While 114 died in captivity, over 200 have never been repatriated and are still listed as MIA.
In the late 1960s, a small group of military wives sought to compel the government to make determining the fate of missing American service members a national priority. They galvanized public support for their cause, selling bracelets containing the names of Americans missing and unaccounted for from the Vietnam War, and persuaded government and military leaders to take action.
The POW/MIA flag was created in 1971. Initially recognized by Congress for the Vietnam War, it has become a symbol for POW/MIAs from all US wars. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter proclaimed the third Friday in September as National POW/MIA Day.
Often, the appropriate military service secretary issued an administrative Presumptive Finding of Death after a statutory review found no evidence to indicate that a person previously listed as MIA or POW could still be alive. However, efforts continued to account for them. In 2015, the Department of Defense created the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) “to provide the fullest possible accounting for our missing personnel to their families and the nation.”
The DPAA synchronizes the efforts of the accounting community, comprising personnel and medical resources of the military services and the intelligence and diplomatic communities. This community is responsible for determining the fate of American personnel who remain captive, missing, or unaccounted for at the conclusion of hostilities; securing their release if alive or locating, recovering, and identifying their remains. According to DPAA, some 81,000 Americans remain missing from World War II, Korea, the Cold War, and Vietnam.
“Leave no man behind” is more than just a saying. It is a belief held by all who have served in uniform and has become part of our Nation’s ethos. This September 15, let us remember and honor those taken prisoner, who returned to us or died in captivity, and those whose disposition is still unknown.
Service Casualty Officers are primary liaisons for families concerning personnel recovery and accounting. For information or to report a missing service member, go to dpaa.mil for contact information for the appropriate military service casualty office.
On September 30, American Legion Post 24 will host an author talk/book signing by Taylor Baldwin Kiland, long-time Alexandrian, former Naval officer, and co-author of Unwavering: The Wives Who Fought to Ensure No Man is Left Behind. The free event is open to the public. See facebook.com/AmericanLegionP24 for information.
Thanks to Jim McDermott, American Legion Post 24, for his contributions to this article.
If you are a veteran, a veteran’s family member, or know a veteran who needs help, go to Virginia Board Veterans Services at www.dvs.virginia.gov/dvs; dss.virginia.gov/community/211.cgi; contact American Legion Post 24 Veteran Service Officer at [email protected]; or check out the Resources List on the Post 24 website: valegionpost24.com. For crisis intervention and suicide prevention services, dial 988 and Press 1, or text 838255, for the Veterans Crisis Line.