Useful Captives

Edited by Daniel Krebs and Lorien Foote

I was asked to write a review for an online journal of military history, but after writing it and making small revisions as per the editor's request, he decided that the journal was no longer going to publish reviews of edited volumes! Thanks for nothing! I liked the book and rather than spend time trying to find a place to publish the review, I'll just post the original, longer version here.

This book is a welcome addition to the limited literature on the role of captivity in American military conflicts. It contains eleven research contributions and an excellent introductory essay by the volume’s two editors, historians Daniel Krebs and Lorien Foote. This introduction frames not only the work that appears between the book’s covers, but helpfully situates these essays within the broader context of military history. Contributors range from graduate students to full professors and also includes work by an interpretive park ranger working for the U.S. National Park Service. Though ten of the eleven research chapters are authored by men, the introduction to this volume thankfully cites the scholarship of numerous women. Given that the editors called on the important work of these female researchers to frame the arguments that appear across the entire book, readers interested in the intersections of military history and captivity are unfortunately not given much of an opportunity to learn from them in the pages that follow.

That said, Useful Captives offers readers significant challenges to the often-taken-for-granted idea that wartime detainment and detainees are secondary aspects of military conflict. The book is divided into six sections, what the editors refer to as “avenues of inquiry”(2), each engaging with a different aspect of why the study of captives and captivity should be central to studies of warfare. From enriching scholarly understandings of the cultural context of war to detailing the efficacy of military policies (or lack thereof) to describing the economic, environmental, and infrastructural aspects of wartime detainment, these book segments give readers several entry-points into a topic that far-too-many see as a simple remainder or by-product of war.

All told, this book highlights the need for historians to integrate POWs into their work on warfare. This, to me, is an extremely important call, for as editor Lorien Foote has argued in her own work, the question of POWs has altered how wars have been fought, how the enemy has been constructed and imagined (and handled), and how and why military leaders make certain decisions on the battlefield. The book makes it clear that POWs are not just remainders of war’s spectacular violence. Like the emergent environmental histories of warfare show how landscapes are constitutive of the possibility of war-making, captives and carceral spaces are key to the performance of war itself. These intersections are made most clear in Michael P. Gray’s chapter on U.S. Civil War carceral environments in this volume. Upon finishing the book, I was left wondering why the field of history (and military history specifically) has been so slow to bring detention into the core narratives of conflict, especially given how for more than a decade, scholarship in other areas—like the histories of policing, migration, and humanitarianism—have made such an important turn towards detainment and incarceration.

It is undoubtedly difficult to assemble an edited volume like this, especially one that seeks to engage with the carceral history of US militarism from pre-and-early colonial warfare to the present. The editors—both of whom are exceptional military historians in their own right—have done an admirable job compiling a suite of texts from what is presently a small subdiscipline of military history. But the book (much more than the introduction) leans very heavily on the U.S. Civil War, which is the main topic for four of the book’s eleven essays and a major part of a fifth. By contrast, the two World Wars, Vietnam, and the American Revolution are the anchors of one chapter each, while Paul J. Springer’s contribution takes a more holistic look at the role of military prisons and prisoners into the twenty-first century.

The book’s first avenue of inquiry explores the cultural context of warfare, focusing on the how shifting ideas about the meaning of captives and captivity shape wartime detainment practices. Joshua S. Hayes investigates the role of confinement in the violent frontier spaces of the 18th century’s final three decades. Here, readers will encounter an evolving suite of captive-taking practices by both Native and European Americans as the meanings of race, kinship, land, and power were all in near-constant flux. This is followed by a chapter by Brian K. Feltman exploring the complex relationships between notions of masculinity and becoming captives or surrendering during (and after) World War I. Feltman shows how the idea that “surrender is a disgrace” impacted the way in which soldiers fight, resist capture, or capitulate. As a reader, I couldn’t help but think about how these military masculinities also impacted the development of U.S. wartime detention protocols moving forward. For instance, the expectation that an enemy would feel shame when captured left the U.S. blind to the reality that in some contexts—in Korea and Vietnam, say—belligerents actively sought out their own capture so they could wreak havoc behind the wire and draw attention away from the fighting front.

Parts two and three of the book, on military policies and state-building respectively, are quite conceptually rich. Together they encourage readers to think critically about the difficult categorizations that lay at the center of conflict and captivity. How colonists and Republicans negotiated and defined the American Revolution, as T. Cole Jones demonstrates, had significant impacts on how captives were classified, detained, exchanged, and valued. What, the chapter asks, shapes the contours of captivity when some imagine the conflict as a civil war and others as a war between two distinct sovereignties? A question like this continues to rear its head, as both Marcel Berni and Paul J. Springer notes in the next two chapters. Berni’s chapter on the US conflict in Vietnam explores the relationships between the laws of armed conflict and the military policies and practices that relied on clear distinctions between civilians, political or ideological prisoners (Communists), and traditional law of war POWs. As Berni demonstrates, despite the clarity of legal and military doctrine and the desires of military leadership, in practice soldiers (both American and South Vietnamese) on the ground meant that “any Vietnamese person could have been an enemy” (117). As he demonstrates, this lack of intelligibility exposed many to torture, abuse, and even murder in the U.S. conflict in Vietnam.

This chapter, along with Springers’ subsequent exploration of the declining use of formal POW infrastructures in U.S. conflict (due to the changing technologies of war, and the growing understanding that captives present significant political and economic problems of the state) provoked many big, difficult questions about the relationship between military conflict and police power and about the classifications of violence into regular and irregular war.

Next, in the section on the role of wartime prisoners as partisan symbols, Daniel Farrell and Angela M. Riotto both provide detailed accounts of the ways in which political propaganda and state narratives of power in the U.S. Civil War were imagined and extended well beyond the cessation of hostilities. As both scholars show, the treatment of captives by both the Union and the Confederacy became fodder for stories about the righteousness of the causes of the conflict and, later, as shown in the post-Reconstruction literature that Riotto mines, the ground upon which former confederates could frame the notion of Southern honor and white supremacy. The editors do their readers a great service by choosing to close the book out with Adam H. Domby and Christopher W. Barr’s chapter on the National Park Service and the critical—yet problematically monocular—role that narratives about captivity play in public history/memory. This final section gives the reader a sense that, even a century after a conflict is over, ideas about who counts a combatant and what treatment they endured is still very much contested terrain. The chapter details for readers the ways that people and institutions continue to rely on and enact the complications laid bare by the worthy research across the pages of this excellent volume. How we learn about and internalize the diverse carceral practices that shape U.S. military history (and what we learn about them), that is, has important and enduring impacts on how we imagine U.S. state violence.

Of course, no book can cover everything—especially in the ceaseless annals of U.S. global militarism—but the police action on the Korean peninsula is (as it is so often) a significant void in Useful Captives. Other than a few pages in Springer’s chapter, and a short reference in Earl J. Hess’s chapter on how prisoners in the US Civil War sought to navigate the muddy geographies of state sovereignty, the conflict is entirely missing from the text. The policies and practices utilized in that conflict were new and challenging proving grounds for the role of the military in facilitating the implementation of ostensibly universal liberal ideals. In Korea, the prisoner education programs (and the racializations) that Adam S. Rock details in his chapter on the Second World War resurface, amplified and exacerbated by the ideological demands of nationalism and anti-communism. By leaving this conflict out, readers are not privy to the ways that captivity intersected with and contradicted many liberal ideals framed by personal freedom and rights, especially—as historian Monica Kim has recently shown—when deployed in a landscape rife with decolonial violence, nationalism, and regular and irregular warfare.

Additionally, one might make the argument that the book’s limited engagement with more recent regimes of wartime captivity has to do with what Springer notes: the US is increasingly focused on modes of death dealing that minimize or eliminate the taking of captives. This is indeed compelling. But as Jones, Berni, Springer, and others in this volume provoke readers to consider, the classification of POW is not a simple one, and neither are notions of ‘military’ or the geographically discrete concept of a battlefield or terrain of war.

The book’s lack of a sustained engagement with the idea of police power and the role of proxies in U.S. military detainment (beyond Berni’s excellent contribution on the Vietnam conflict) is quite surprising. It also means that a chapter like Springer’s, the one that engages most directly with the ways that carceral solutions change and evolve into the military’s most recent engagements, doesn’t account for the ways in which the idea of a proxy belligerent has perhaps expanded from military allies (as in Korea or Vietnam) to include the U.S.’s own increasingly lethal civilian agencies. As Springer shows, the U.S. military embraces a form of war that outsources formal military detainment infrastructures. But this does not mean that the U.S., as a global military actor, does not still rely on militarized carceral infrastructures in its quest for global order.

That is, while the infrastructures of formal military captivity are undoubtedly less central to recent U.S. military operations, the role of captivity through the mechanisms of U.S. militarism—in transnational spaces—is conversely quite expansive. Is a civilian captive in the Cold War Vietnam prison infrastructure meaningfully distinct from a civilian detained by the U.S. National Guard on a drug interdiction vessel (War on Drugs), or a civilian detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the ever-more lethal war on unlawful migration?

Useful Captives begins with Hayes’s chapter exploring the centrality of state and non-state carceral practices at the evolving 18th century US border. If, in the 21st century, these institutions of control were built around the policies, practices, and lessons learned in transnational military conflict as traditionally understood (often, as Stuart Schrader has recently shown, by the same personnel), building on work of scholars like Jenna Loyd, Alison Mountz, and others, a worthy issue left unaddressed in this volume is how (or if) to think about the border as a site of military conflict now. Where do we position lethal and militarized agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection? How should we think about bureaucratic state tools like Status of Forces agreements which, largely beyond the gaze of public oversight, place U.S. military service personnel overseas in training, technical assistance, policing and detention roles?

Useful Captives gives readers an outstanding ground upon which to think through the complexities of these questions, while generating still more about who and how the U.S. imagines what might be thought of as useful captors.