Thursday, March 11, 2021

Booknotes: Useful Captives

New Arrival:
Useful Captives: The Role of POWs in American Military Conflicts edited by Daniel Krebs and Lorien Foote (UP of Kansas, 2021).

From the description: Useful Captives: The Role of POWs in American Military Conflicts "is a wide-ranging investigation of the integral role prisoners of war (POWs) have played in the economic, cultural, political, and military aspects of American warfare. In Useful Captives volume editors Daniel Krebs and Lorien Foote and their contributors explore the wide range of roles that captives play in times of conflict: hostages used to negotiate vital points of contention between combatants, consumers, laborers, propaganda tools, objects of indoctrination, proof of military success, symbols, political instruments, exemplars of manhood ideals, loyal and disloyal soldiers, and agents of change in society."

The anthology's essays are arranged thematically, with one to three essays exploring "I. Cultural Contexts of Warfare," "II. Military Policies in Warfare," "III. State-Building and Warfare," IV. Economic and Environmental Dimensions of Warfare," "V. Political Symbols in Warfare," and "VI. Public Conversations and Narratives about Warfare." The volume's "eleven chapters cover conflicts involving Americans, ranging from colonial warfare on the Creek-Georgia border in the late eighteenth century, the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Great War, World War II, to twenty-first century U.S. drone warfare. This long historical horizon enables the reader to go beyond the prison camp experience of POWs to better understand the many ways they influence the nature and course of military conflict."

Since this is a Civil War site, let's briefly look at the substantial number of essays related to that conflict. There are four specifically devoted to the Civil War along with it being a major part of another (this last examining how NPS sites interpret the POW experience). Earl Hess's chapter documents the struggles of both sides to manage and control their POW bureaucracies. Discussed are various ways that prisoners gamed the system for their own ends (ex. to "avoid duty, switch sides, or obtain their release under false pretenses"). Insights into Civil War loyalties are also gained through looking at issues around oathtaking and switching sides. In another essay, Michael Gray uses the case studies of Chicago's Camp Douglas and Elmira, NY to explore the environmental fallout sprawling POW camps had on those cities and their surroundings. As an example, "(d)eforestation from building and maintaining the prisons,..., led to regional flooding." Both Part V chapters address Civil War topics. In the first, Daniel Farrell's essay shows how U.S. authorities sold hard war precepts to the public partly by presenting them as a just response to how the Confederate government treated Union prisoners. Farrell also demonstrates the ways in which the Republican party, during and after the war, used POW propaganda to paint their Democratic opposition as sharing responsibility for the camp horrors. The other Part V essay, Angela Riotto's, looks at how selective Confederate POW stories detailing the harshness of northern camps bolstered the emerging Lost Cause narrative and served as a cultural antidote to Union claims regarding the brutality of the most infamous Confederate camps.

In sum, Useful Captives "shows the vital role that prisoners of war play in American warfare and reveals the cultural contexts of warfare, the shaping and altering of military policies, the process of state-building, the impacts upon the economy and environment of the conflict zone, their special place in propaganda and political symbolism, and the importance of public history in shaping national memory."

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