Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Judge as POW

Scott Horton

Yesterday I attended a tribute to Harold R. Tyler, Jr. at the New York City Bar. Tyler was a legendary figure in his own lifetime, a man of sardonic wit but also an overpowering kindness and humanity. I have never met a man who had a more powerful sense of justice or moral right and wrong. He was the veritable Jungian archetype of a judge. But his greatest service to the nation consisted, under President Ford, of restoring the reputation of a badly tarnished Justice Department in the period just after Watergate when America was undergoing one of its periodic crises of confidence. Tyler was also proud of another US institution: the Army. He served in the artillery in the Second World War, and his father had been a distinguished officer in the Great War.

When I began speaking publicly about questions relating to the Geneva Convention about two years ago, I got a visit from Judge Tyler, not an uncommon occurrence since he was my office next-door neighbor. “I don’t much like to talk about this,” Tyler said, “but in the waning days of World War II, I was taken prisoner by the Germans. I kept thinking to myself: if it weren’t for the fact that we treat the soldiers we take prisoner well, they probably would have shot me. So in a sense I have to thank the Geneva Conventions and our Army traditions for the fact that I’m alive today and didn’t die on that day in Germany. In the end it’s not really a question of some fancy international convention, it’s a question of what’s right and keeping faith with those who wear our service uniform. We have some powerful traditions, and this is one of them. It’s worth fighting for.” But as I subsequently learned, Tyler, with his typical modesty, told only half of the story. In fact, he persuaded the Germans who captured him to surrender and to be his prisoners of war, a feat which brought him to the immediate attention of his commanders. That demonstrates not only extraordinary advocacy but also another important aspect of the American tradition of humane treatment of detainees: it can push a beleaguered foe to surrender.

I am told that he recorded a full account of these incidents as part of an oral history project, which should be published shortly. It will surely make for fascinating reading.


This is an excellent anectdote... I can't help but wonder how many insurgents are determined to fight to death, to never be captured alive knowing what they face at our hands. Can you picture the scenes at the end of Operation Desert Storm if the mass of Iraqi soldiers surrendering had thought for a moment they faced torture. There can be no doubt that the rather famous images of long lines of Iraq pow's would have been very different under the terms by which our detainees are being held in these times.

I have a great uncle who was an infantryman in the german army during WWII. He and his unit fought after they knew Berlin had fallen, actually hoping to hold off Soviet forces until American troops arrived, planning to surrender to them. They were going to fight soviet troops to the absolute death, since they convinced that if captured by the soviets, they would face certain torture. Ironicly, in the end they did surrender to what they thought were american troops, only to discover that had surrendered to soviet troops disguised as american soldiers.

He survived as a german POW in the soviet union. According to his account, he was shipped back to berlin when he was to stubborn to die, and to sick to work. A man over 6 feet weighed in at about 130 pounds when he got out of a boxcar in berlin that had been packed full with returned german POWs, most of whom had died on the trip, weakened from torture, work, and starvation.

According to him, at one point during his time as a POW in the former soviet union, a russian guard gave him a half a potato in a moment of pity. He and that guard were both beaten, and he then could no longer perform labor, which was when he was returned to berlin.

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