Is Canada ready for our next PoW?
Squadron leader Andy MacKenzie of t he Royal Canadian Air Force was the l ast of his kind. On Dec. 5, 1952, in the midst of the Korean War, he was part of a U. S.led flight of 16 F- 86 Sabres flying near the Yalu River, which forms the border between Korea and China, when he broke formation to chase a pair of Chinese MiG15s heading south. His flight commander targeted another group of MiGs heading north, instead, and called for MacKenzie to provide cover. Quickly putting his plane into a tight turn, he began a rapid dive- and- climb to catch up to his commander. As he roared past the rest of his flight, however, an American pilot mistook his plane for the enemy and raked it with gunfire — blowing off the canopy, shredding the elevators and putting him into an uncontrollable roll.
Ejecting safely, MacKenzie parachuted onto a Korean mountain about 10 miles f rom the border. “About six feet away from me was an old woman gathering sticks and grass for fuel. She looked up, but the expression didn’t change on her face,” he later recounted. “You’d have thought somebody parachuted down beside her every day of her life.” Displaying considerably more interest was a squad of North Korean soldiers racing after him. MacKenzie was captured and eventually transferred to a Chinese prison camp, where, for three months straight, he was forced to sit all day on the edge of his small bed with hands on his knees, staring at the wall.
His captors demanded a confession for violating Chinese airspace. MacKenzie resisted, for reasons of truthfulness and self-preservation. “If I told them everything,” he suspected, “the next day I would be killed.” But the mental torture wore on him. After 465 days of solitary confinement, MacKenzie finally gave the Chinese what they wanted. He signed confessions admitting to being five miles, and then 10 miles, inside China. Only by trial and error did he realize the Chinese version of the truth required him to have landed 50 miles across the border.
On Dec. 5, 1954 — a year and a half after the end of the war and a full two years after he had been captured — he was finally released. MacKenzie, who died in 2009, remains Canada’s last official prisoner of war.
With Canadian special forces once again entering combat as front- line advisers to Kurdish peshmerga fighters in the battle for Mosul, Iraq — as well as plans to send Canadian peacekeepers to Africa — the possibility that one of our soldiers may be captured by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant ( ISIL), or another barbaric terrorist organization, cannot be dismissed out of hand. Along with casualties and firefights, prisoners are a grim reality of war. Is Canada ready for our next prisoner of war? Are our troops? Proper conduct for prisoners of war ( PoWs) was once as simple as stating one’s name, rank and serial number. In Europe during both world wars, Canadian PoWs could expect to be sent to a prison camp where military hierarchy was maintained and living conditions generally abided by the Geneva Conventions. ( Japanese prison camps were, of course, a far different matter.) As a consequence, soldiers were typically given little training on how to conduct themselves after capture.
“The Korean War marked a real change in how prisoners had to deal with captivity,” says Jonathan Vance, a historian at Western University in London, Ont. At that time, PoWs began to be used as propaganda tools, which were forged through coercion and torture. “Your average soldier was not psychologically prepared for captivity of that sort,” he says. While no one would quibble with MacKenzie’s stamina while in captivity, his defences eventually crumbled. Today, it is not communists, but ISIL that casts a shadow over PoWs.
This summer, The Sunday Times of London reported that British soldiers deploying to the Middle East are being instructed on how to use a “traffic light” system for divulging information if they’re captured. Green- lit information can be given up readily, while yellow- and red- coded details are to be released more slowly, and only in the face of progressive hardship.
“If someone starts snipping off you or your mates’ fingers, you will say anything to get them to stop,” a military source told the Times. “We are fighting people who don’t care about the Geneva Conventions.” This new system is presumably meant to reflect these changing realities and offer soldiers a way of preserving their honour (and life) in an immoral situation. Curiously enough, the British Ministry of Defence denies the existence of any traffic lights. “The guidance for members of the Armed Forces, if captured, remains unchanged,” declared an official source. Biographic de- tails and nothing more.
This apparent conflict between official military doctrine and the reality of decisions made by captured soldiers in life- threatening situations reflects the growing complexity of PoWs in our modern era. In place of coerced propaganda statements, the gruesome antics of ISIL have turned PoWs into another means to spread terror worldwide. Last year, for example, a Royal Jordanian Air Force pilot was burned alive in a cage after crash landing in ISIL- held territory; the video of his death was posted online for all to see.
Other prisoners unfortunate enough to fall i nto terrorist hands have been lowered into vats of acid, drowned, stoned and blown to bits by buried explosives. The prospect of being treated in such a horrific manner has worked its way deep into the minds of all soldiers in the Middle East. Indeed, slow progress in the current siege of Mosul can be partially ascribed to the allied forces’ reluctance to overextend their positions and wind up behind enemy lines.
Even the mighty U. S. military suffers from this fear of the changing expectations of being captured. Last January, in a screw- up with enormous geopolitical significance, two U. S. Navy riverine boats and 10 sailors were sent on a long-distance trip from Kuwait to Bahrain. Such a mission was far beyond the coastal boats’ capabilities, but naval command figured it was easier to sail the boats to their new base than transport them overland. The inexperienced crew tried to take a short cut and one of the boats broke down off the Iranian island of Farsi. Four heavily armed Iranian Revolutionary Guard Navy patrol boats quickly arrived and, after a brief attempt to escape, the Americans capitulated. In a thorough embarrassment to American military pride, the U.S. flag was lowered and the crew was taken back to Farsi, blindfolded and bound. They were released the next day.
In a scathing after- action report that accompanied demotions and other punishments for the key participants, the U. S. military detailed its extreme displeasure at the sailors’ conduct after they were captured: they readily disclosed the passcodes to their cellphones, made deprecating comments about their superior officers and allowed themselves to be filmed. Patrol commander Lt. David Nartker also delivered a scripted propaganda video speech. “We thank you very much for your hospitality and your assistance,” he said of his Iranian captors. Only one sailor even had the gumption to activate the boats’ distress beacon after the Iranians boarded it at gunpoint — the lone female of the crew.
While MacKenzie suffered through nearly 1 ½ years of solitary confinement before signing his fake confessions, the American sailors were in Iranian hands for less than 20 hours. The harshest treatment they received was to be placed in an office chair and spun around. Yet their resistance collapsed like a house of cards in a light breeze. Why? The very thought of being captured in the Middle East appears to have completely unnerved them.
But if t he sailors’ resolve folded too soon, the attitude of their superiors appears utterly anachronistic. Among Lt. Nartker’s career- ending errors, as enumerated in the report, was the fact that he “failed to uphold Code of Conduct standards when he encouraged crewmembers to eat despite being aware of the video recording.” Demanding captured sailors never eat while on camera seems preposterous. As with the official British reaction to the traffic light leak, traditional military expectations of stoic behaviour by PoWs no longer seems to fit with the practical aspects of post-modern warfare.
Recent Canadian military PoW doctrine has also been criticized for placing too much emphasis on oldf ashioned conventional warfare, at the expense of more- pressing scenarios involving being captured by terrorists and other rogue agents. While MacKenzie was Canada’s last official PoW, in 1995, Maj. Patrick Rechner spent 25 days in the hands of irregular Bosnian Serb forces who used him as a human shield to protect an arms dump. It was arguably the lowest ebb for Canadian military prestige and further evidence of the necessity, and the difficulty, of preparing soldiers for the vagaries of unconventional warfare.
A revised Code of Conduct After Capture for Canadian soldiers was issued in 2013 to explicitly deal with terrorists and criminal organizations, but only one of its 34 pages appears to deal with terrorism ( the document released through an access to information request was heavily censored). “The Canadian Forces Conduct after Capture Training Centre continues to support Canadian Armed Forces members with the necessary and appropriate training f or situations of possible detention and captivity,” reassures Capt. Rob Bungay of the military’s public affairs branch.
“Conduct after capture is a very real issue and Canadians should be aware of the risks our forces face,” says Christian Leuprecht, a political scientist at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont. “Given the proximity of our forces to the front lines in northern Iraq, any hostiles they encounter are unlikely to adhere to standard norms when it comes to a captured Canadian soldier.”
Leuprecht says it may be better to engage with your captors than to maintain the traditional military ideal of constant hostility. And much now depends on the individual judgment and professionalism of the captive soldier. ( He lauds current Canadian training for conduct after capture as “intense.”) “The longer you can work with your captors, the greater the chance that your people will come for you, or can negotiate your release,” he says; self- preservation might even require participation in scripted videos or other propaganda efforts. It is the predicament of the modern PoWs to find a way to sustain their sworn commitment to duty and country, while also doing all they can to stay alive.
“It is nice to believe in the Geneva Convention and rules of gentlemanly conduct, but we now live in an era marked by asymmetric warfare and adversarial nonstate actors,” says Leuprecht. “The security landscape has become much greyer.”
PRISONERS WHO’VE FALLEN INTO ISIL’S HANDS HAVE BEEN LOWERED INTO VATS OF ACID, DROWNED, STONED AND BLOWN UP.
Andy MacKenzie, Canada’s last official prisoner of war, suffered through nearly 11/2 years in solitary confinement in Chinese custody after being captured during the Korean War. MacKenzie died in 2009.