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Tuesday, January 22, 2008


During the time Ulrich Straus was writing his book, THE ANGUISH OF SURRENDER: JAPANESE POWs IN WORLD WAR II, he thought its importance would be chiefly as part of the historical record of that war. He did not dream then, or even after the book was first published, that the United States would be debating the permissibility of torturing prisoners in the 21st century. But because of stories that came out of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo since the publication of his book, and because of public statements by individuals highly placed in the American government, Straus has been repeatedly invited to speak and write on the subject of treatment of war prisoners. It has almost become a second retirement career for him, and he is passionate about it.

In the INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE, on December 22, 2004 (complete text available online), Straus wrote: “The abhorrent and illegal treatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the coercive interrogation of Afghan war detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, contrast sharply with the human extraction of ‘actionable’ intelligence from Japanese POWs during World War II. Sixty years ago, we learned that abiding by international law and treating the enemy as a member of the human race not only shortened the war in the Pacific, but also helped win the peace in the occupation that followed.” During that long war, Straus writes, the United States “realized that in order to win the war and, equally important, the peace that would follow, we would have to treat POWs decently, as we ourselves would want to be treated if the roles were reversed.” This was the right strategy both on moral grounds and in terms of its consequences: It was the respectful way to treat fellow human beings, and it worked to win them over to our side.

When I contacted Rick by e-mail recently, telling him I wanted to feature his book in my blog, this was his reply: “Pamela, Your message could not have been more timely. My book has become the centerpiece, it seems, of an effort by retired and active duty U.S. military to stop the torture of POWs in Iraq. My book demonstrated, quite convincingly I think, that by and large we treated Japanese POWs in World War II decently, with the result that we got information that helped shorten the war somewhat and also contributed among many factors to a successful Occupation. When I wrote the book all this did not seem especially relevant, but that was before the US Government made torture a valid form of POW treatment. Aside from being illegal and immoral, torture is generally not an effective means of gaining intelligence. Our military hate it because it leaves us with nothing to say when, in the next war, the other side employs torture against US POWs.” In other words, when we desert the moral high ground in our treatment of those we hold as prisoners, we cut out from under ourselves any ground from which to ask for humane treatment for our people taken as prisoners. Immoral, illegal, ineffective and dangerous to our own people. Straus makes a strong case, not based on argument alone but on evidence from wartime prison camps. This is a story that demands attention, now more than ever.

Rick Straus serves on the board of the International Affairs Forum held at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, a series of presentations in which top international issues are addressed by former ambassadors, government advisors and think tank participants. Recognition of the importance of his book continues to grow.

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