American mothers had given their sons everything in the world, except a belief in themselves

Tuesday, January 26th, 2021

This Kind of War by T.R. FehrenbachThe problem of prisoners of war, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), is one of chemistry, and culture:

Americans who felt, and still feel, that their soldiers taken by a power of different culture and lesser standards of humanity should be, or will be, treated in accordance with decent Western standards are naïve.

They were naïve in 1950, since no American fighting men were prepared in any way to face what they could be expected to face. The Army, as well as government and society, was at fault. All had known for some years of Communist methods of indoctrinating POW’s — the world knew of Colonel General Paulus’ experiences after Stalingrad — and knew what Asian Communist culture was like. But just as they had not prepared their young men to fight, they had not prepared them to go into captivity.


In Andersonville, Americans fought each other for scraps of food, and let each other die. Tough panzer grenadiers of the Wehnnacht, whom no one has accused of being overly fat or soft, went listless in Communist pens, and died “for no reason.” Americans and Britons in Japanese prisons retreated into dream worlds, and some informed on their buddies.

A human being in a prison camp, in the hands of his enemies, is flesh, and shudderingly vulnerable.

A slender Chinese officer addressed American POWs at the mining camp they would come to call Death Valley:

He told them that the People’s Volunteers had decided to treat them, not as war criminals, but under China’s new Lenient Policy. Though the officer did not say it, the average Army POW would be treated much like an average Chinese felon or class enemy. No great pressures would be put on him, other than those of starvation, lack of medical care, and a certain amount of indoctrination.

This was the Lenient Policy. All American POW’s, however, were not subject to it. Airmen, in particular, who were bombing North Korea to rubble, rousing the hatred of both Chinese and Koreans, were criminals from the start. Later, when the typhus carried across the Yalu by the CCF hordes spread to the civil population, airmen would be accused of germ warfare, giving the CCF both an out and a chance at a propaganda coup.

Airmen, and some others, would be put under acute stress to confess alleged war crimes. Some were put in solitary. Some were physically tortured. All were starved and interrogated until their nerves shrieked. They were treated in almost the identical way that political prisoners had been treated by Communists for a generation.

Even under the Lenient Policy, no relief parcels were allowed to be delivered to Communist POW’s, nor were any neutral observers, at any time, allowed to inspect the prison camps.


It has always been customary to separate officers from sergeants, and sergeants from other ranks, in POW camps. It is the most effective way of breaking down possible resistance and cohesion in any group of prisoners, American or Hungarian. But the Chinese tried a new twist.

“No one here has any rank — you are all the same,” the Chinese said. To Sergeant Schlichter’s horror, this had an immediate appeal for many men.

One soldier went up to an officer and slapped him on the back. “Hey, Jack, how the hell are you?” He thought it was very funny.

The Chinese smiled, too.

In this way, and in others, such as putting ranking POW’s on the most degrading jobs, the Chinese broke what little discipline remained in the POW ranks.


Morale, among the captives, was already gone. Now the last shred of discipline went, and with it went many Americans’ hope of surviving.

There was no one to give the POW’s direction, except the Chinese.


The disciplines that hold men together in the face of fear, hunger, and danger are not natural. Stresses equal to, and beyond, the stress of fear and panic must be overlaid on men. Some of these stresses are called civilization. And even the highest of civilizations demands leadership.


The veneer of civilized decency is much thinner than most Americans, even after seeing Auschwitz and Belsen, think.


The food they received daily, in a bucket, was not enough to keep the average American in decent health. Rapidly, they began to starve.

A number had combat wounds that had received only cursory treatment. Infection and dysentery seared them, making the huts even more horrible.


Each day, Shadish and Schlichter, crawling from man to man, had to play God. To the four men who had the best chance to live, they administered the sulfa. The worse off, Schlichter said later, “We committed to God’s care.”


The prisoners continued to receive only a diet of millet and maize, boiled in a pot, delivered in a bucket, supplemented by dog. But the dogs grew more wary, and the prisoners weaker. Without salt, greens, or essential minerals, they sickened.

The sick and those with war wounds died first. Then the men without faith began to die, often, seemingly, of nothing at all.

The youngest men, oddly, died first.


In Charles Schlichter grew a feeling, which he never lost, that some American mothers had given their sons everything in the world, except a belief in themselves, their culture, and their manhood. They had, some of them, sent their sons out into a world with tigers without telling them that there were tigers, and with no moral armament.


There were some Turks and ROK’s with the Americans. To Schlichter’s knowledge, not one Turk had died.


Charles Schlichter closed out the hospital by burning the straw pallets on which the sick had lain. When the straw went into the fire, the floor and shimmering sides of the stoves were black with lice, trying to jump away.


As he left, he stood up in the cart, looking back. The last sight he had of Death Valley was of three starving Korean dogs, snuffling warily in from the hills to feed on the bodies of the young Americans they had left behind.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    I wasn’t aware it was a mother’s job to inculcate the less tender virtues in a son. I suppose a father could do it.

    Or you could find it in yourself. I don’t buy the notion that such disciplines are not natural. Darwin wouldn’t allow that. Unless you mean “hold together” in the sense of group cohesiveness. It’s natural for group cohesiveness to be contingent on whether the problems you face are better addressed with the group you have at hand than by your own individual initiative.

    I think these men were already demoralized before they were captured. It’s easier to capture the demoralized.

    It’s said the first duty of a prisoner is to escape. Easier said than done. I would modify that to: resist, by any means at your disposal. It’s simply a matter of remembering who the enemy is. That shouldn’t be hard at all. The enemy are constantly reminding you. You’d have to be dense not to get the message.

    There was once a pilot who got shot down and thrown into a nasty POW prison. He focused on keeping unity among the prisoners. He never escaped. But he got released eventually, and went into politics. When they found it convenient, people called him a war hero. On what grounds? Something about unity. But he never escaped. He never killed any guards. He never got a Steve McQueen movie made about him.

    And he turned out to be a somewhat inept politician, in a very particular way. He never seemed to understand whom he was supposed to be fighting. But he was big on unity. He just didn’t grasp what unity is for in the first place. He seemed to think it was an end in itself.

    If and when unity helps you win, I’m all for it. If and when it doesn’t, screw unity.

  2. Joe T. says:

    “knew what Asian Communist culture was like….”

    We’re getting that good and hard now, comrades. One need only look at the list of “non-essential” businesses, the closure of religous facilities, and the complete lack of concern over George Floyd funerals, French Laundry diners, or teacher’s union vp’s travel to Barbados for vaction. Oh, put your mask on and lookee, a new, new Covid. Don’t you dare mention age of death or the dehamanizing aspects of masks, whether for children or anyone else.

    “No one here has any rank — you are all the same,”

    Sounds just like the proposed re-education camps for Deplorables.

  3. Dan Kurt says:


    I suggest you find and read Philip Wylie’s 1943 book, Generation of Vipers. Read the part on “momism,” or the adoration of mothers.

  4. Bomag says:

    I’ll echo Joe T. in that our current overlords are quite adept at propagandizing us into oblivion pace the Communist campers. And they are even better at breaking up any leadership ranks the opposition develops. Will they ever stop impeaching Trump?

  5. Harry Jones says:

    Bomag, I read somewhere (can’t recall where) that the key to organizing an opposition is not to have any top echelon that can be seen. You could try to do without any centralized leadership at all, but that doesn’t scale. Better to keep the top tier well hidden. Organize in secret. Be the cabal you want to see ruling the world.

    Bonus: it makes everything you do look like a spontaneous local action. Great for astroturfing. Pretend there’s no organization.

    We are not all the same, but never mind rank. The most competent leadership is a prestige hierarchy, which is hard to do secretly. A cult of personality can’t be done secretly either. An old boy network thrives on secrecy and deniability and yet has at least a small element of prestige (local reputation.)

  6. Paul from Canada says:

    “I wasn’t aware it was a mother’s job to inculcate the less tender virtues in a son. I suppose a father could do it…”

    ..and yet Harry, that is way of many cultures in many times.

    Dyak headhunters launch headhunting raids when the women say to.

    Spartan mothers are famous for it (though an obvious outlier), “With your shield or on it”, or the son who complained to his mother that his sword was too short, “take another step forward.”

    In our own time and culture, who was it handing out the white feathers at the start of WWI? Women and mothers.

    Food for thought.

  7. Kirk says:


    That’s one of the more underappreciated issues when it comes to gender roles. You’ll hear constant female whinging about “male violence” and the male proclivity towards solving issues with fists, but smack-all about the role women play in it all.

    Men don’t generally do the verbal battling women do between themselves, and with other men. Women instigate, and women provoke, but that’s OK, ‘cos it’s “only words”.

    If you actually go out and observe dispassionately and without taking sides, what you’ll often find is that those same “sweet little girls” that decry violence are in the background, pushing the males towards the fight. It’s true in barfights, and it’s true in wars–The women are always in the background, encouraging the participants and belittling the ones who are too smart to engage in the battles.

    I have heard it thousands of times, where feminists claim that a “world run by women” would be peaceful and productive. History tells us that’s a lie, because when you go looking at the actual record, what you find is that female heads of state are just as violent and prone to trying to solve problems with violence as the men are.

    Female friend of mine is one of the worst misogynists that I’ve ever encountered. If you put her in charge, most women would be locked up away from the rest of society and their own kids. She experienced what I can only describe as “impossible to believe” amounts of abuse from her own mother, went through the mill in an all-female boarding school, and then did time in the WAC before it was integrated with the rest of the Army. Her outlook on the female of the species is such that the phrase “Women hate other women because they know what they’re like from the inside…” springs to mind whenever she gets going on it all.

    The thing to remember is that a.) we are a sexually dimorphic species, and that b.) the females are the physically smaller sex. Because of that, they’ve had to compensate by taking their competitiveness into other areas than merely physical, and in getting the males to serve as surrogates for their violent impulses. The unfortunate perception among a lot of them that they are powerless foils rather than self-actuating agents just encourages them to abuse their ability to coerce and inveigle the males around them into actuating their whims.

    And, it’s not exactly unusual to observe that when you have a boat-load of single males and no females, as you do at a lot of overseas military bases and assignments, things are generally a lot more peaceful. The club systems in Korea were notorious for this when the camps were in “closed” mode vs. “open to the locals”, simply because that whenever you added females to the mix, they’d start instigating shit just to have some fun. The local Korean and Russian bargirls that they were letting on Camp Howze for the first few months I was there had to have been doing something inimical, because the minute they closed post and the clubs went to “all male”, peace broke out. I swear, the first few months I was there, there must have been a major ruckus at least once or twice every weekend. The last 9? Can’t remember ever having so much as a really heated argument break out. All the female staff were older women, and just did not have the desire to “get it on” through watching their toyboys fight it out.

    Of course, I will have to grant that the majority of that peacefulness might just have been due to the fact that the majority of the drinking and carousing was going on out there where the girls were…

    Chicks are not peaceful little angels. The reality is, they love them some conflict and violence–Just not on their persons. It’s all through proxies.

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