POW effect: The captured become tools of warfare

Amid echoes of Vietnam, Iraq aims to intimidate by parading US prisoners on TV.

They are images seared into the national conscience: American fighter pilots, blindfolded and bound, paraded before the furious, jeering crowds of the enemy country that captured them.

That was Vietnam. But now Americans are seeing similar scenes as American soldiers - on Sunday a group of five soldiers from an Army maintenance crew, and then on Monday two downed helicopter pilots - are taken prisoner in the war against Iraq.

"This saddens people while raising their resolve. I can guarantee we'll see a Country & Western song come out of this," says Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence specialist.

Emotional levels at home are running high following the televised images of the war's first American prisoners of war (POWs). At the same time the pictures are raising questions about the legal ramifications of such public displays. There are concerns, too, over the extent to which American treatment of Arabic and Islamic suspects in the war on terrorism is complicating the US case for fair treatment of American prisoners. In the meantime the scenes of frightened and disoriented US soldiers are being used by Iraq as tools in a game of psychological warfare with the United States.

"It is designed to underpin Saddam Hussein's claims that Iraq will be the Americans' defeat," says Jerrold Post, director of the political psychology program at George Washington University. That message, he adds, is not intended solely for the Iraqi people, but for other Arabs in the region. "You can win in the Arab world, even in losing, by having the courage to defy the superior adversary," says Dr. Post.

Even though American forces have managed to advance to within 50 miles of Baghdad in less than a week, that reality is offset in a certain collective conscience in the region by images of captured American soldiers, according to Mr. Peters. "As paltry as it may seem to others, this is the greatest triumph of the Iraqi regime in the war so far," he says. "It plays well with the rabble, the down-and-out and dispossessed of the region, to see the Americans humiliated."

American morale

How it plays among Americans is another story. "This solidifies people behind the troops, even behind the president," says Peters. "With our values, you don't accomplish anything with such images here."

A CNN poll showed Monday that 51 percent of Americans said their views of the war were not affected by the news of POWs.

Still, experts believe the prominent display of American prisoners reflects a misconception on the part of Saddam Hussein of what Americans will tolerate in war. "Saddam believed in 1991 [at the time of the Gulf War] that the US had a 'Vietnam complex,' that Americans could not tolerate casualties and their own people as prisoners, and he still has that idea today," says Post, who recently published "The Psychological Assessment of Political Leaders," which includes his psychological profile of Mr. Hussein. "He sees us as a casualty-averse country where mounting battle deaths will lead to rising political opposition" to the war.

Questioning US standards

The quick outpouring of outrage in the US raises questions about US treatment of prisoners of war. Already the Red Cross and some international human-rights organizations have criticized the for allowing the US press to show pictures of some of the more than 3,000 Iraqi prisoners the US has taken so far in the war. The military has also allowed journalists to interview prisoners who have been willing to tell television crews that they were fighting out of fear of Hussein's regime.

US officials insist there is little room for comparison between what Iraqis are allowing and what is getting out in terms of pictures of Iraqi prisoners. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says the "incidental pictures that some network may have taken" hardly compare with pictures distributed by the Iraqis "for propaganda purposes."

Prisoners in Guantanamo Bay

Beyond that, the controversy also raises questions about the US treatment of suspects rounded up in the war on terrorism. The US has already come under heavy international criticism for its treatment of prisoners in Afghanistan - where at least two prisoners died in what a military pathologist characterized as homicides. Then, too, there has been an outcry in some quarters over the designation of terror suspects in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The US is calling them unlawful combatants rather than POWs.

"You can distinguish in law between those we're holding as unlawful combatants [in Guantanamo] who ... if you accept the administration's argument, have no benefit under the Geneva Convention," says Scott Silliman, director of the Center on Law, Ethics, and National Security at Duke University. "But from the eyes of Arab countries, it's a distinction without a difference."

Mr. Silliman, who was the Air Force's top lawyer during the Gulf War, says a review of treatment of prisoners as depicted so far by international media does show a difference between the US and Iraq. But he says there are "gray areas" in what is legal under international law. Both sides are using the prisoners for some benefit, he says.

"We know what they're trying to do, and they know what we're trying to do with similar though less demeaning images," Silliman says. "It's all part of a larger war of propaganda."

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