On May 13, 1943, Axis forces in North Africa surrendered. The Allies suddenly found themselves saddled with nearly three hundred thousand prisoners of war, including the bulk of General Erwin Rommel’s famed Afrika Korps. Unable to feed or house their share, the British asked their American comrades to relieve them of the burden. And so, by the tens of thousands, German soldiers were loaded aboard Liberty Ships, which had carried American troops across the Atlantic. Eventually, some five hundred P.O.W. camps, scattered across forty-five of the forty-eight United States, housed some four hundred thousand men. In every one of those camps, the Geneva conventions were adhered to so scrupulously that, after the war, not a few of the inmates decided to stick around and become Americans themselves. That was extraordinary rendition, Greatest Generation style.
The “war on terror” is a very different kind of war, and the prisoners thereof are very different, too. It’s not just that a higher proportion of them appear to have been truly dedicated to the ideology in whose name they were fighting, or that they were unaffiliated with a government. It’s also that their numbers are small—a hamlet compared to the city-size P.O.W. population of 1945. In the nine years since the creation of the purpose-built prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a grand total of seven hundred and seventy-nine men (and boys—the youngest was fifteen years old when he was captured) have been sent there. It currently holds a hundred and seventy-two. Yet this relative handful of shackled, isolated prisoners has somehow been permitted to engender a miasma of popular fear and political cowardice that contrasts shamefully with the matter-of-fact courage of an earlier and simpler time.
The Greatest Generation housed four hundred thousand Nazis on American soil during the war. We wet ourselves over housing one hundred seventy-two miscellaneous troglodytes from Afghanistan… many years after the war. It’s just too dangerous!
The comparison isn’t exactly fair. If anything, it’s too kind to the present generation. We’re not keeping our prisoners in Guantanamo out of fear. We’re keeping them there to subvert our own legal system.