In the Journals

In the Journals – Conflict and Captivity

POW release to UN authorities was the first step in repatriation. Here, communists turn over UN troops at the POW receiving center at Panmunjon, on the border of North and South Korea by the U.S. Air Force via the National Museum of the United States Air Force
Welcome back to In the Journals! This ongoing series aims to bridge conversations that are often siloed by discipline, geographical region, language, and race. One of our goals is to make sure that the diverse voices currently reporting their research on policing, crime, law, security, and punishment are presented here. We are continuing our catch-up and also reaching back further to develop article collections around different questions and themes, with this post highlighting articles on prisoners of war.

This post brings together articles published throughout 2019 and 2020, with one reaching back to 2017, looking at the intersection of war and detention. Our most recent posts have addressed prisons and pandemics, and confinement and mental health. Captivity during conflict is often crimeless, yet has similar physical and mental health implications for both detainees and guards – with the added element of war and its traumatic nature. Future posts will cover topics such as: defunding the police; abolishing the police; socialization in policing; and factors in producing discrimination by officers against people of colour.

Roschanack Shaery-Yazdi’s “Acting historians: Historicism, memory, and performance among Lebanese former detainees from Syria” was published in the January 2020 issue of History and Anthropology. The article is based on ethnographic research in Beirut, and looks at the production of knowledge by former Lebanese and Palestinian political detainees held in Syria, arguing that their struggle for recognition of their suffering has produced alternate histories. Returning to Lebanon following their abduction, torture and inhumane imprisonment by the Syrian military during the Lebanese civil war or post-war, former detainees were coerced to perform scenes of their suffering to authenticate their verbal testimonies of political imprisonment and torture to Lebanese audiences questioning the validity of their claims, and labelling them criminals. Prompted by filmmakers, journalists and NGOs alike, these performances included filmed re-enactments of torture endured, videos of former detainees revisiting sites of detainment and torture, and public theatre performances showing torture methods. Through interviews with ex-detainees, NGO directors, filmmakers and journalists, Shaery-Yazdi indicates that in seeking to tell their alternate histories, ex-detainees became tools of NGOs’ political agendas, and filmmakers and journalists’ career-building, forced to depict their stories through mediums and temporalities they didn’t choose in attempts at gaining public recognition of their suffering.

In May 2020, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies published an article by Alaka Atreya Chudal titled “What Can a Song Do to You? A Life Story of a Gurkha Prisoner of World War I.” Chudal’s article focuses on a little researched population fighting in the First World War: the Gurkha soldiers fighting in the British Indian Army – and specifically, those captured by the Germans as prisoners of war. Using voice recordings and transcripts of prisoners speaking or singing in their native languages, Chudal analyzes a song composed by Jas Bahadur Rai, a Gurkha prisoner of war in Germany in 1916. In seeking to understand the scholarly activities undertaken by the Germans on prisoners of war, Chudal concludes that the sole intention of the research was to expand linguistic knowledge and understanding. In its other and more major purpose, the article analyzes Jas Bahadur Rai’s song to ascertain the freedom that prisoners had in narrating their stories, finding that Jas Bahadur’s emotion-filled song was written during his time in captivity, that he intended his song for a wider audience than merely the German researchers, that he longed for his home in India which he was taken from by the British army, that he did not identify with the British army he was fighting for, and that he was likely not conscious of the life-writing nature of the song.

War in History published the article, “‘Hard, primitive and below the belt’: The Korean War, Prisoners of War, and Training for Conduct After Capture” by Meghan Fitzpatrick in August 2019. Taking a policy-centred approach, Fitzpatrick’s article looks at the impact of prisoners of war captured during the Korean War on British policy and military training. Through firsthand accounts, Fitzpatrick recounts the conduct of North Korea and China during the war, noting that they did not follow Geneva Convention protocol on the treatment of prisoners of war, and inflicted various forms of torture unless prisoners acted in the way they wanted, learned the ‘truth’ and adopted a communist stance – what the UK later called brainwashing. With post-war findings indicating that few men fully resisted their captors and a higher number collaborated with them, the UK changed its previous stance which neglected training for conduct-after-capture on the basis that it presumes capture, to one that recognized the importance of resistance until the end, and sought to both increase the resistance of prisoners of war to brainwashing and torture, and instill a determination to escape. While the reformed training was intended to account for soldiers’ experiences as prisoners of war, the resistance training itself utilized the same methods that North Koreans and the Chinese did, and had questionable impacts on soldiers’ mental well-being before even engaging in war.

In an historical article published in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature in September 2019, Nienke Boer tracks the movement of prisoners of war from South Africa to Bermuda, St. Helena, and British India during the Anglo-Boer War. The article, “Exploring British India: South African prisoners of war and imperial travel writers, 1899-1902,” utilizes memoirs to highlight the focus of migrant prisoners of war on the beauty of landscape, travel and cultural exchange provided by empire, as opposed to captivity, detention, and the war against imperialism occurring at home. In many ways, war prisoners utilized their memoirs to reconcile contrasting identities developed throughout the war: as patriotic to South Africa yet nomadic cosmopolitans seeing the appeal of imperial travel; as victorious in their own small ways against their opposition despite South African defeat in the war; as simple as in British depictions yet honest in their writing and intellectual in prison life; and, most notably, as explorers or tourists on an adventure, not victims of British imperialism and unfree migration.

History Australia’s April 2019 issue included an article by Julia Smart which examines personal accounts to understand the re-entry of Australian prisoners of war during the First World War, “‘It would be impossible to describe our feelings’: the recovery and demobilisation of Australian prisoners of war after the First World War.” Largely relying on memoirs and letters, Smart argues that being a prisoner of war in WWI was arduous and traumatic in more than just experiencing captivity, as Australian ex-prisoners suffered a dual trauma of living as a captive and living in a stigmatised environment lacking support post-captivity, upon return to Australia. Smart highlights the additional traumatic layers of war on prisoners of war in the process of capture, during captivity, upon release, during post-release travel, and once returned to their communities in Australia. These include stigmas of cowardice, failure, desertion, and loss of manhood during capture and confinement, uncertainty regarding release or escape during captivity, and uncertainty following release in terms of travelling home. For many of these Australian ex-detainees, captivity did not end when they were released, with many suffering from a lack of collective identity, separation from fellow prisoners of war during demobilisation, reintegration in Australian society and former lives, and new physical and psychological disabilities.

In July 2019, Judith Scheele published a short article “Saharan prisons” in History and Anthroplogy, highlighting the carceral landscape in the high-security prisons of the Sahara over time. In Saharan state prisons’ desert landscape, ‘captivity’ takes on a different meaning altogether, as prisoners are not necessarily physically detained – chained, shackled, locked or fenced in, as escape to thousands of miles of desert would be futile and death certain (“‘the desert is a more effective enclosure than the highest walls’” and it “‘quells all hope of escape’”), and their reason for detainment is either labour or social worth as Western hostages. Since colonization, Saharan prisons in places including Tawdenni and Faya-Largeau have been sites of forced labour, exploitation and punishment as opposed to reform, housing Italian prisoners of war in the 1940s, Malian political prisoners, French Equatorial Africa (AEF) prisoners, Southern Chad political prisoners held by the Frolinat rebel movement during the 1965-1979 civil war, and more recently captured migrants in EU diplomatic relations. Scheele identifies Saharan prisons as either penal death camps which reduced captives to slaves and were not intended to house people for long or keep them alive, or containment sites for hostages and diplomatic or political prisoners.

Back a bit further, in February 2017, Angeliki Andrea Kanavou and Kosal Path published an article in The Journal of Asian Studies, entitled “The Lingering Effects of Thought Reform: The Khmer Rouge and S-21 Prison Personnel.” Through court testimonies and interviews conducted with former Khmer Rouge S-21 prison personnel during the 1975-79 Cambodian genocide, the authors analyze their role in the genocide of tens of thousands of prisoners held in the Tuol Sleng (S-21) prison. Similar to Fitzpatrick’s depiction of communist ‘brainwashing’ of UK prisoners of war in North Korea and China, the authors focus heavily on Khmer Rouge communist ‘thought reform’ targeting prisoner obedience, though their study highlights how the same thought reform created obedient genocide perpetrators out of Khmer Rouge members themselves. The authors argue that the prison guards and interrogators, often recruited as children, were and are still entrapped in a prison of their own, a prison of obedience to authority that allowed them to become perpetrators of genocide and continues to restrict their freedoms – a prison formed by thought reform and mind control. A unique outcome of the study was the ability of the authors to identify the decades-long impact of rule or obedience-based behaviour, with thought reform and fear tactics applied to prison guards working in S-21 allowing them to identify as innocent and victims, and continue to neglect responsibility for their contributions to genocide. Regardless of feelings of guilt or responsibility for genocidal acts committed, mind control experienced created lingering identification with the regime’s ideology, heroization of their past roles, and limited or nonexistent empathy for the victims.

As always, we welcome your feedback. If you have any suggestions for journals we should be keeping tabs on for this feature, or if you want to call our attention to a specific issue or article, send an email to with the words “In the Journals” in the subject line.

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