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On a POW accepting an offer to be released ahead of his fellow POWs

Posted by John T. Reed on

I m not going to criticize McCain today. But I must correct the record on POW rules about getting released early by the enemy.

1. The U.S. military chain of command is in effect among POWs. McCain was not the highest ranking POW in North Vietnam. The guy who was ordered him not to accept the NV offer to release him if he denounced U.S. policy in Vietnam and his father who was a top commander in that war at the time.

2. All U.S. military personnel are required to memorize and abide by the Code of Conduct for POWs. It says in pertinent part:

I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.

If I am senior, I will take command. If not, I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way.

I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.

To ensure achievement of these standards, members of the armed forces liable to capture shall be provided with specific training and instruction designed to better equip them to counter and withstand all enemy efforts against them, and shall be fully instructed as to the behavior and obligations expected of them during combat or captivity.

Among those receiving this training are midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy which McCain was (’58) and cadets at West Point which I was (’68).

3. There is a rule—I do not know where it is codified—but it says that POWs will be released in the order in which they were captured. True, the enemy controls all that, but to the extent that the POW has any say, he must stand aside and let his fellow POWs with more tenure to leave first if they leave in batches. McCain was not the most tenured POW. As it happened, the Vietnam POWs all left in one batch.

4. Midshipmen and cadets also get POW training. We spent part of a day in a POW camp at West Point complete with huge pictures of Mao and cages. I am well aware that a day of pretend POW status bears virtually no relationship to five and a half years in the Hanoi Hilton. But I remember being surprised at how awful just that small dose was. In that training, we also had it reinforced that you do not accept special favors from the enemy or jump the line to go home or denounce your country. 

5. If North Vietnam wanted to release McCain early, all they had to do was fly him to a neutral country and dump him on the tarmac. McCain could not refuse to be released early. He had zero ability to make any such decision. What he did was refuse to denounce his country and his father in return for being released early, in compliance with the Code of Conduct.

Those wishing to grade his conduct as a POW should rely entirely on his fellow POWs to do so. Only they can accurately rate him. None of them denounced their country either, nor were any of them released early. True, they did not get the offer he did because of who his father was. He did sign a false confession that he was a war criminal explaining that everyone has a breaking point. I believe they all signed similar confessions. As far as I can tell, they all conducted themselves about the same and about as well as anyone could.

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