Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Fruits of Observing the Geneva Conventions

Several years ago, I read Arnold Krammer's excellent book, Nazi Prisoners of War in America. One of the points he made is that our War Department made a conscious decision to follow the Geneva Conventions to the letter in hopes that the Germans would reciprocate with the American P.O.W.'s that they held.

While the Germans did not feed their prisoners as well as we did (possibly because war-torn Germany faced real food shortages), they treated American P.O.W.'s far better than the Russian P.O.W.'s in their custody.

Another benefit of treating prisoners humanely is that it greatly assisted our government's re-education (and de-Nazification) efforts. The long train ride across the U.S. to the prison camps did more to counter-act Hitler's propaganda than any debriefing from our War Department. Instead of a bombed-out nation struggling to survive, the prisoners saw miles of farmland and peaceful, prosperous towns where virtually everyone had an automobile. It is no wonder that post-war West Germany embraced U.S. economic and cultural practices so whole-heartedly.

Krammer mentioned that many former P.O.W.'s returned to the U.S. years after the war, some as immigrants fleeing poverty, but many as tourists who brought their families to visit the country for which they had developed a great affection while they were prisoners here. Employees at one gift shop in Arizona near the site of a former camp could always spot the former prisoners, because they bought a postcard showing the view of the mountains as seen from the former prison camp (apparently the postcard was not sufficiently scenic to appeal to anyone else).

One former prisoner who later settled in Wisconsin passed away on Sunday at the age of 87. Kurt Pechmann was a stonecutter, a monument-maker by trade. The Wisconsin State Journal ran an article about him yesterday. This is what I found most interesting:

He helped build, often at or below cost, war memorials around Wisconsin. In 1986, when the Veterans Memorial Monument at Forest Hill Cemetery was vandalized, he volunteered his services...“Dad still likes giving back to veterans,” said Gerhard Pechmann, who now runs the family monument business. “It was, and still is, his way of saying thanks for what they did so we can have the freedom to do what we want.”

Somehow, I doubt that many former Gitmo or Bagram detainees will one day be saying thanks for what our soldiers did.

3 comments:

Forward Our Motto said...

Very interesting post.

(Also, the remark about not having mill worker parents is funny stuff. My parents didn't work in a mill either).

Deekaman said...

Different world from the 1940's. Much.

Clutch said...

A nice observation, Jill, and an important one. This isn't just an abstract academic matter of how morally defensible a nation's actions are -- it has a powerful effect on how the rest of the world, including the country's current and former enemies, regard it and treat it.

The attitude that handwaves and says, "9/11 changed everything; so to hell with natural justice and break out the torture devices!" isn't just morally degenerate. It's grossly imprudent, and ignores the USA's own history of successes and failures in how it treated enemy combatants.