This Is Why America Leaves No Man Behind
A brief history of prisoners of war
U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s recent release from Taliban captivity in exchange for five Guantanamo Bay detainees sparked a firestorm of controversy.
Is Bergdahl a deserter? Did he willingly join the insurgents? Is his life worth releasing five dangerous men?
What we do know for sure is that Bergdahl is an American soldier. And America decided long ago never to leave any man behind.
The American people witnessed prisoners of war’s suffering and resolved to end it whenever possible. The U.S. military pioneered combat search and rescue to ensure no soldier gets left behind. Washington has a long history of negotiating prisoners’ releases.
And America’s commitment to its lost and wayward service members is part of a grander tradition.
The way back
Prisoner exchange is a recent innovation. For most of the history of war, a conquering army either enslaved or executed its captives. One of the earliest recorded incidents of exchanging captured soldiers occurred during the early years of the Roman republic. Around 300 BCE, the Romans swapped 1,700 captured Samnites for 310 mules.
Carthage pioneered parole programs for war prisoners. Its generals returned captured soldiers to their homelands provided they promised to never again fight against Carthage.
The Thirty Years War in Europe ended with a treaty called the Peace of Westphalia. Under the terms of the treaty, armies were to return captured soldiers to their home countries at the end of hostilities. In addition, the captors were to expect no ransom nor elaborate parole promises in exchange for the prisoners’ return.
The Peace of Westphalia is a precedent—and an important one. It’s the first document in history to formalize how belligerent nations should treat prisoners of war at the end of a conflict.
The first American POWs
During the American Revolution, the British didn’t consider the Colonial Army a legitimate combatant. To the British, the rebel colonists were traitors. And treason was a crime punishable by death in the United Kingdom.
The British imprisoned captured soldiers in massive prison ships in the East River. Because of their status as traitors, the soldiers were treated poorly. They were neglected, starved and beaten. When they died, their captors buried them along the shore.
More colonists died aboard these prison hulks than in every single battle of the American Revolutionary War combined. Some 8,000 soldiers died in battle, while almost 12,000 perished starving and diseased aboard the British prison ships.
Prisoner exchanges became increasingly common at the end of 18th century and into the 19th. The French and British armies traded soldiers during the Napoleonic Wars. The Americans and British used a formalized system of exchange during the War of 1812.
Union Maj. Gen. John A. Dix and Confederate Maj. Gen. D.H. Hill negotiated an agreement to exchange prisoners during the American Civil War. That agreement—the Dix-Hill Cartel—established clear rules for prisoner exchanges. It also assigned values to captured soldiers based on their rank. Under the Dix-Hill Cartel, two privates were worth one noncommissioned officer.
The trading system continued up the chain of command. Negotiators assigned a value in privates to each rank all the way up to general. Releasing a flag officer cost 60 privates.
The Dix-Hill Cartel worked for 10 months then began to collapse. Neither side adhered to the spirit of the agreement. The Union routinely found they were fighting soldiers they had just released. Both sides questioned the treatment of their soldiers in captivity. The Confederacy refused to exchange black soldiers.
In occupied Louisiana in 1862, a Union general executed a civilian for desecrating an American flag. In response, Confederate president Jefferson Davis suspended the exchange of prisoners—and ordered the offending general hanged upon capture.
The Dix-Hill Cartel ended for good in 1863. The Confederacy’s notorious Andersonville prison opened in 1864. Now that prisoners had no path to freedom through a system of exchanges, Confederate prisons such as Andersonville swelled.
In time, Andersonville hosted 45,000 Union soldiers. Almost 13,000 of them died in prison. The camp was open a little over a year. The Union army liberated the prison in 1865. The federal soldiers were shocked by the brutal conditions they found there.
They took photographs—seen above—of the prisoners … and Harper’s Weekly published them. Washington and the public were horrified.
The Union arrested Maj. Henry Wriz—Andersonville’s commandant—and tried him for “conspiring … to injure the health and destroy the lives of soldiers in the military service of the United States and murder, in violation of the laws and customs of war.” A military tribunal found Wriz guilty and hanged him.
But the Union also ran brutal prison camps. Elmira prison in upstate New York lost 3,000 of its 12,000 prisoners to malnutrition and exposure. Camp Douglas in Chicago also kept Confederate soldiers in awful conditions. The Union buried Camp Douglas’ 4,000 dead prisoners in a mass grave at Oak Woods Cemetery. It’s the largest mass grave in the western hemisphere.
The Hague and the horror
As the 19th century became the 20th, countries re-evaluated their treatment of war prisoners. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 laid the groundwork for what became the Geneva Convention. The 1929 Geneva Convention established parameters for the humane treatment of prisoners of war.
The World Wars tested these parameters. The German, French, British and Russian armies captured millions of soldiers during World War I. Many of them died in captivity, but conditions were not always terrible. The Red Cross and inspectors from neutral countries audited the prison camps of belligerent countries.
By contrast, World War II was not kind to prisoners of war. The Nazis were especially cruel to Russian soldiers, killing some 60 percent of those they they captured. Prisoner exchanges were rare. Work camps were common.
After Japan’s invasion of The Philippines, Japanese soldiers pressed American and Filipino POWs into the infamous Bataan Death March. Japanese guards subjected prisoners to food and water deprivation, forced labor, extreme beatings and beheadings.
Accounts of what was happening, relayed by Filipino resistance, horrified even the most battle-hardened allied commanders.
On the night Jan. 30, 1945, U.S. Army Rangers backed by Filipino guerrillas launched a rescue operation into Cabanatuan POW camp. They successfully liberated 489 POWs and 33 civilian prisoners. “No incident of the campaign in the Pacific has given me such satisfaction as the release of the POWs at Cabanatuan,” Gen. Douglas MacArthur said. “The mission was brilliantly successful.”
American soldiers endured grueling conditions during the Korean War. North Korean soldiers sent Americans on forced death marches, bound them in stress positions and withheld medical care.
North Korea’s Chinese allies fed their American detainees a steady diet of propaganda. They interviewed prisoners, asked them to fill out questionnaires and write essays and presented themselves as friendly, all in attempts to get the captive soldiers to defect.
The Chinese also tried to play on racial divisions, attempting to exploit the dissatisfaction of black soldiers by telling them that American society as it was would never treat them as equals—and that they would be better off becoming communists.
It’s possible that the United States left behind hundreds of American POWs after the war’s end. In 1996, The New York Times reported on newly declassified documents from the end of the war. The documents showed that the Pentagon knew about 900 living POWs still in North Korea in December 1953.
“In the past I have tried to tell Congress the fact that in 1953, 500 sick and wounded American prisoners were within 10 miles of the prisoner exchange point at Panmunjom but were never exchanged,” Col. Phillip Corso, a retired aid to American Pres. Dwight Eisenhower, told a House National Security subcommittee on military personnel in 1996.
In response to The New York Times report, the Department of Defense said it had no compelling evidence that any American troops remained after the war. Pyongyang also denies the existence of any remaining POWs.
Vietnam changed the way Americans think about war prisoners. At the end of the conflict in 1975, the U.S. government estimated that 1,350 American soldiers were prisoners or missing in action.
These missing and captured soldiers became a source of contention between Hanoi and Washington. Many veterans and civilians believed the Vietnamese continued to hold live American prisoners.
Schlock filmmakers seized on the idea and made movies such as Rambo: First Blood Part II and Missing in Action, in which actors Sly Stallone and Chuck Norris portrayed war heroes battling the Vietcong and rescuing prisoners.
The U.S. Congress investigated the issue for decades. In 1993, the United States Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs found “no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia.”
Most politicians and military personnel were convinced that Vietnam held no more living American prisoners. The Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command—a task force with the job of tracking down all of America’s POWs—still routinely travels to Southeast Asia.
The JPAC lists 1,642 soldiers still missing in Vietnam. Despite the investigations of Congress and the assurances of the Pentagon, many families of the missing aren’t sure if their loved ones are alive or dead.
Iraqi troops captured a handful of American, British, Italian and Kuwaiti troops during the First Gulf War. There were widespread allegations that Iraqi secret police tortured these POWs.
U.S. Army Maj. Rhonda Cornum was one such victim. Cornum was a flight surgeon with the 229th Attack Helicopter Regiment in Iraq. Saddam’s forces downed her Blackhawk helicopter behind enemy lines in 1991. They captured her and a fellow soldier.
Returning home after the war, Cornum spoke before a presidential commission on women in the military. Cronum candidly explained the details of her confinement—including a sexual assault.
Cronum’s statements before the commission, as well as her subsequent interviews with the media, helped to lift the taboo against women serving on the front lines. Cronum survived and thrived, rising to the rank of brigadier general before retiring in 2012.
In 1993 the American military attempted to render humanitarian assistance to a starving Somalia. The operation began as a mission to end a famine. It became a manhunt for Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid.
Mark Bowden immortalized the story of the mission and the ensuing Battle of Mogadishu in his 1999 book Black Hawk Down. During the battle, forces loyal to Aidid captured Blackhawk pilot Chief Warrant Officer Michael Durant.
His captors administered rudimentary first aid to the wounded Durant and locked him in a darkened room. American helicopters flew over Mogadishu equipped with loudspeakers. Durant’s fellow soldiers blared messages of support, telling him he would not be left behind.
After 11 days of captivity, Aidid’s forces released Durant and a Nigerian peacekeeper. Pres. Bill Clinton insisted that the U.S. traded nothing for Durant. American ambassador Robert Oakley claims he told the militia that if Durant wasn’t released, he could not prevent an attack.
But recent testimony by Department of Defense lawyer Stephen Preston suggesting that there in fact had been a deal has cast the official story into doubt. Regardless, America left no soldiers—living or dead—behind in Somalia.
Prisoners of the desert
Militants have captured few American soldiers during combat operation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even fewer have become POWs. Besides Bergdahl, the highest profile POW arguably is Pvt. 1st Class Jessica Lynch.
Her capture by Iraqi forces during the Battle of Nasiriyah in 2003 and subsequent rescue by U.S. Special Operations Forces became a major media event.
But Lynch was not the only soldier Ba’athist forces captured in the battle. They also took Spec. Lori Ann Piestewa, Spec. Shoshana Nyree Johnson, Spec. Edgar Hernandez, Spec. Joseph Hudson, Pvt. 1st Class Patrick Miller and Sgt. James Riley.
Iraqi forces severely wounded Lynch and Piestewa in the attack. Piestewa died shortly after her capture. Iraqi doctors had attempted to save Piestewa, but she had sustained a severe head injury and the doctors lacked the skill and the equipment to render aid.
Iraqi troops took a wounded Lynch to a hospital and separated her from the other POWs. The Pentagon launched an elaborate search-and-rescue mission for Lynch and her fellow prisoners.
A little over a week after Lynch’s capture, three battalions of Marines backed by Navy SEALs besieged Iraqi troops near the hospital. The attack created a diversion, allowing a Joint Special Operations Task Force including Army Rangers and Delta Force to rescue Lynch.
Controversy surrounded the media and military’s emphasis on Lynch over the other prisoners. Lynch is a white woman. The press paid little attention to Johnson—America’s first African American woman POW—or to Piestewa, the first Native American woman to die while serving in the U.S. Army.
Lynch herself has stated that she considers Piestewa to be the true hero of the battle. She named her daughter Dakota Ann in honor of her fallen comrade.
U.S. and coalition forces captured by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan often endured brutal captivities followed by execution.
Pfc. Kristian Menchaca and Pfc. Thomas L. Tucker were taken in 2006 when insurgents attacked their checkpoint. U.S. forces discovered their bodies a week later near a power plant outside of Yusefiya. Their killers had mutilated the bodies beyond recognition and wired the surrounding area with explosives.
U.S. troops spent 12 hours defusing the bombs in order to recover the bodies.
Iraqi insurgents ambushed British Army Sapper Luke Allsopp and Staff Sgt. Simon Cullingworth outside of Al Zubayr in 2003. The two lay wounded in the dirt for four hours before Iraqi soldiers dragged them away.
The Geneva convention states that wounded soldiers are to be rendered aid and treated as prisoners of war. Iraqi forces took Allsopp and Cullingworth to a Ba’ath party headquarters, not a hospital. Their captors then transferred them to an intelligence compound outside of Basra, where they died.
U.S. Marine Sgt. Fernando Padilla-Ramirez disappeared while on a convoy mission near Nasiriyah, Iraq. American forces discovered his body when they took the city of Ash Shatrah. It was in a trash dump. His killers were never identified.
The one we left behind
Iraqi insurgents captured U.S. Army Spec. Ahmed Altaie in 2006. They killed Altaie in 2007 but did not tell Washington for five years. Altaie’s body returned to the United States in 2012, one year after the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Altaie was born in Iraq. His parents emigrated to the States when he was 10. The family settled in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Altaie studied engineering at college and got his pilot’s license. He settled into work as an airplane mechanic.
But 9/11 hit the airline industry hard, and Altaie lost his job. He struggled to find work. His parents returned to Bagdhad in 2003 to visit family and help rebuild their home country. Altaie tagged along. While on the trip, Altaie fell in love with Israa Abdul-Satar, a young Iraqi college student. The two married.
Returning to Michigan, Altaie joined the Army. Later, his family would tell reporters that he had hoped he would be able to both serve his adopted country and help build a new future for his county of birth.
Altaie was station in Baghdad’s Green Zone, where he worked as an interpreter. It was not far from where his wife attended college. He often changed into civilian clothes and sneaked into Baghdad to see his wife. This was a blatant violation of Army regulations, but Altaie always returned to base.
Oct. 23, 2006 was different. When Altaie went to visit his wife for the Eid—the feast at the end of the Ramadan fast—Shia insurgents were waiting for him outside of her apartment.
They pulled Altaie from his motorcycle, handcuffed him and threw him into the back of a car. His wife witnessed the kidnapping and begged the insurgents not to hurt her husband.
His uncle Entifadh Qanbar, an Iraqi politician in the new government, received a ransom demand. American forces launched a search for Altaie, offering a $50,000 reward for information. In February 2007, insurgents released a proof-of-life video. Altaie appeared malnourished and exhausted.
It was the last time his loved ones would see him alive.
Altaie’s Iraqi wife relocated to the States for safety. America elected a new president. And in 2011, the U.S. military left Iraq. As American troops withdrew, Altaie still had not been accounted for. “I just want to know one thing,” his father Kousay Altaie told The Wall Street Journal. “If they killed him, tell us. If he’s alive, what do they want from him?”
“How maddening it must be for Altaie’s family to see news reports of ‘all’ U.S. troops leaving Iraq, knowing that their son and husband has been left behind,” former U.S. Marine Bigham Jamison wrote in January 2012.
About a month after the publication of Jamison’s article, the Altaies got a knock on their door. It was U.S. Army Maj. Curtis Belen. He told them Altaie was dead. The Iraqi government had retrieved his body in a prisoner exchange with Shia extremist group Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq.
His captors admitted that they had executed Altaie back in 2007, not long after shooting the proof-of-life video.
Though Altaie’s case received relatively little attention, Bergdahl had many vocal advocates demanding his release. Ironically, many of his most enthusiastic supporters were some of the very conservatives now leading the current backlash against the Bergdahl-Taliban swap.
Nathan Bradley Bethea, one of the first soldiers to publicly question the characterization of Bergdahl as a hero, conceded that “retrieving him at least reminds soldiers that we will never abandon them to their fates, right or wrong.”
Even many soldiers like Bethea—who contend that Bergdahl is a deserter— are uncomfortable with the tone the debate is now taking. “This has become such a horror show,” Bethea tweeted on June 7 in a discussion with fellow veterans about death threats against the Bergdahl family.
Bergdahl is an American soldier, regardless of whether or not he’s a deserter or traitor. He answers to the military, not to the Taliban and not to the court of public opinion.
America has seen the cost of leaving soldiers on the battlefield and decided not to pay it. America never leaves a soldier behind.