POWs and Polygraphy

The treatment and handling of the most high-profile prisoners of war – or enemy combatants, or whatever else they’re being called this week – is reasonably well-known today; more has probably been written about the conditions at Guantanamo Bay than about any prison since the post-WWII flood of reporting on conditions at Colditz. And, of course, some of the most gregarious abuses of prisoners are fairly well-known; Abu Ghraib is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon.

As for the rest of the folks detained in Iraq or Afghanistan by coalition forces, not much has been written. Oh, you can read policy and doctrine documents on how they’re supposed to be handled and treated, but – at the risk of sounding overly cynical – I, for one, am remaining open to the possibility of a sizable gap between theory and practice where the treatment and handling of enemy combatants is concerned.

While hunting around for information on POWs, however, I did find something that – though it (probably) has nothing to do with current circumstances – is still fairly interesting, because it manages to cover a whole bunch of moderately controversial subjects all at the same time.

“It” is a recently-released report written sometime after the Korean War, which examines the potential value of polygraphy in screening and questioning prisoners-of-war. (Not-exactly-a-spoiler: It’s ultimately impractical.) The polygraph, of course, has its critics, and rightly so, but Uncle Sam has long been a fan of it’s hundred-and-one uses. There aren’t a whole lot of details as to precisely how a polygraph would have been used for questioning prisoners-of-war, but I think it’s safe to say whatever process they might have come up with would have had its flaws – perhaps even by design.

More interesting – to me, anyway – than the polygraph-related bits are the historical discussions of issues surrounding POW treatment and detention, both during WWII and the Korean conflict. It’s probably not something most people think about much, but I suspect that however much the war itself has been forgotten, the lessons learned by the U.S. in Korea have probably helped shape POW policies in the half-century since.


Obviously, today you’d substitute something, probably politically-incorrect, for “Communist”, but it’s still not too hard to see the parallels. How much of this Korea-era thinking is still in vogue, I don’t know, but I kind of get the feeling that we’re no longer really looking for magical technological tricks to help sort and classify captured adversaries, rather choosing to use brute force as our first, and only, method of control. It may even work, but at what cost?

In any event, there’s a lot to be learned here, for those who are interested in the less-covered alleys of history. You can download The Use of the Polygraph for Segregating Prisoners of War here (1.1MB PDF); it was recently made available through the Combines Arms Research Digital Library (a/k/a “CARL”) at the Army’s Command and General Staff College, who, if you missed it the last time I posted about it, have an endlessly fascinating RSS feed of new publications online right here.

Published in: General, History | on March 11th, 2009| Comments Off on POWs and Polygraphy

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