Is Canada ready for our next PoW?

National Post (Latest Edition) - - IDEAS - Peter Shawn Taylor

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.”



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.

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