Laboratories of Enemy Behavior

Cold War Social Science and the Korean War Prison

Annual Conference for the Association of American Geographers, 2017

Session Title: Geography, War, and the Human Sciences

The Korean War saw the capture of enemies on the battlefield become far more meaningful than simply the removal of a body from the field of war. During the conflict, the detainee body circulated in a suite of mediated spaces: in international law, at the negotiating table at the Panmunjom armistice meetings, in newspapers, and as a dynamic subject in a host of military doctrinal revisions. This period also corresponds with the emergence of a flurry of social scientific research that sought to unleash the power of rationality and modern science on complex and unruly systems. Indeed, these two narratives are intertwined, as one of the central ways that the American military came to know the cultural landscape of the Cold War enemy was through social and behavioral scientists’ use of wartime detainees as entries in a living database, and war prison space itself as a research laboratory.

In this paper, I detail a series of studies produced by teams of scientists that were dispatched to the Korean War camps to interview both prisoners and combatants, using cutting-edge research methods to generate recommendations about managing the often-disorderly practice of apprehending prisoners. As the case studies here suggest, these scholars became an integral part of the fledgling Cold War military-industrial-academic complex, and in the Korean war prisons they sought not only to calculate and quantify the vagaries of the battlefield, but also to repackage them as governable spaces that neatly reproduced the structure of a clear bipolar geopolitical narrative.