The Enemy in Our Hands: America's Treatment of Enemy Prisoners of War, from the Revolution to the War on Terror

By Robert C. Doyle | Go to book overview

Preface

Like many others before me, I spent a short time in the throes of combat and the rest of my life thinking and writing about it. Joseph Plumb Martin and Johann Conrad Döhla (Hessian) after the Revolution; Ambrose Bierce and Sidney Lanier after the Civil War, James Norman Hall and Ernest Hemingway after World War I; and James Clavell (British), Pierre Boulle (French), Alfred Andersch and Heinrich Böll (German), and David Westheimer and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. after World War II left written works that call to mind their experiences in combat. Others such as Stanley Weintraub after Korea, W. D. Ehrhart after Vietnam, and writers after more recent conflicts have followed in their footsteps. As a culture historian, I learned that war’s violence has an insatiable appetite for minutiae, and the proverb “The devil lies in the details” is nowhere more applicable. There is no lack of recorded statistics for modern wars, but as Stanley Weintraub’s Last Great Victory (1995) and Long Day’s Journey into War (1991) show very clearly, war is human and often mysterious, and details often lie well hidden from prominent view.

Because these details form individually perceptive truths burned into the human memory, there is no lack of paradox and controversy. As I sifted through Civil War records held at the former site of Andersonville, the horrid Confederate prison camp in Georgia that set the standard for inhumanity in America during the summer of 1864, I realized why former Union prisoners of war (POWs) wanted compensation from the federal government for their injuries. In order to receive a few dollars a month (not much, really), the government asked each man to write his narrative. Many supplied photographs of themselves as visual evidence of their incarceration because they feared they would not be believed. I imagined the sound of their voices as I read their applications for compensation. Knowing that each handwritten document represented the experience of real suffering, my impartial historical sense weakened and gave way to human feelings of compassion, shock, and horror. I forgot about time; I was in Andersonville.

-xi-

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