IN OCTOBER 1965, combat pilot Fred Cherry was shot down over North Vietnam, taken to a village, and told to disclose his bombing target. Instead, the American withdrew his Geneva Convention identification card, outlining his rights as a prisoner.
"Forget about it," the interrogator said, ripping it up. "You're a criminal."
As the first black officer in captivity, Cherry was singled out for special abuse, including torture, as the communists tried to convince him to support Asia's people of color. Refusing, Cherry was imprisoned for 7 1/2 years before returning home; an oil portrait of him now hangs in the Pentagon.
The sacrifices made by Cherry and all the American prisoners from Vietnam are worth recalling in light of today's scandal out of Iraq. The most recent disclosures -- hundreds of harrowing new photographs and videos, plus graphic testimony from detainees -- have deepened the harm. From the "Hanoi Hilton" to Abu Ghraib, the United States has squandered its moral authority on POWs. In Vietnam, our captives became synonymous with resilience, courage, and honor. In Iraq, America's treatment of prisoners is now equated with gratuitous abuse, personal humiliation, and simulated sex acts.
The contrast could not be starker. Vietnam left us with the image, at war's end, of American POWs disembarking from a C-141 Starlifter at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, smiling wanly, waving gingerly, and saluting the flag. The current war has left us the images of bare Iraqis stacked in a fleshy pyramid or controlled by a leash.
These images have done more than debilitate our standing in the Arab world. They have also cost the United States the high ground it has long held on POWs -- a position we used brilliantly in Vietnam to summon compassion for our captives, to rally international opinion to our cause, and to define our values as a people.
Ironically, the US government has long tried to use its treatment of POWs to distinguish itself from its adversaries. After World War II, America was one of the original signatories to the Geneva Conventions on prisoners of war, an expansion of previous agreements designed to make war as humane as possible by eliminating unnecessary cruelty. Under the Conventions (there were four), prisoners should not be subjected to abuse or violence and should not be exploited to affect the outcome of the conflict.
Combatants, of course, have often ignored those standards, and the official abuse of POWs has been seen as emblematic of those countries' political corruption or flaws in national character. The Bataan Death March in 1942, for example, in which thousands of American prisoners died in the scorching heat of the Philippine jungles, confirmed the inhumanity of the Japanese Army. In the Korean War, more than 40 percent of the 7,140 Americans taken prisoner died in captivity, the result of disease, hypothermia, starvation, and torture -- all viewed as evidence of communist mendacity.
But not until Vietnam did POWs take center stage in American life. At the time, more than 100 countries, including North Vietnam, had signed the Geneva Conventions. But our POWs, particularly in the early years of the war, were often isolated, humiliated, and harassed. Medical needs were ignored, food and water withheld, mail privileges denied. In campwide purges, the enemy used ropes and "hellcuffs" for torture, twisting prisoners' bodies until they felt like they were being ripped apart.
But the brutality ultimately backfired against North Vietnam. When the atrocities became known, the Vietnamese lost the mantle of innocence they had tried to build for themselves. Human rights advocates around the world decried the abuse, and even antiwar activists in the United States could not defend such a ruthless regime.
Clearly, the POW episodes in Vietnam and Iraq differ in many respects. What happened at Abu Ghraib was not official government policy and did not occur in a systemic fashion over many years. Once the misdeeds were discovered, they were stopped. The perpetrators will be punished; corrective action will be taken.
But our experience in Vietnam should still remind us what Abu Ghraib has cost us. We have made a mockery of the very international laws that we once used to protect our prisoners, and we lost an opportunity to distinguish our democratic values from the authoritarian impulses of our adversaries in the region and beyond.
I don't know how long it will take for us to regain the high road, but I fear the next time an American soldier is captured, he will have little use for a Geneva Convention card.
James S. Hirsch is the author of "Two Souls Indivisible: The Friendship That Saved Two POWs in Vietnam."
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