The Prison of Hopelessness

  • Published
  • By Chaplain (Capt.) Tim Wilson
  • 302nd Airlift Wing
The Korean War introduced an insidious new strain on prisoners of war. The death rate in the North Korean POW camps was an incredible 38 percent - the highest in U.S. military history. What makes this statistic so hard to fathom is that on the whole POW's were provided with adequate food, water and shelter and for the most part were not subjected to physical torture so prevalent in previous wars. 

The extent of the problem was realized when it was discovered that the POW camps were often not surrounded by barbed wire or armed guards yet no one tried to escape. When arriving in Japan after release the Red Cross gave newly freed prisoners the opportunity to call home. Very few bothered. There was a marked lack of camaraderie among those released; few seemed to have built friendships. But what shocked the military the most were reports that it was not unusual for a soldier to wander into his hut, go into a corner alone, sit down, pull a blanket over his head and within days he would be dead. 

What was so devastating to highly trained, combat harden soldiers. A study of 1,000 POWs was commissioned. Dr. William E. Mayer the lead psychiatrist uncovered a new malady in the hearts of Korean War prisoners of war - a syndrome of pervasive and extreme hopelessness. Mayer's defined it as "mirasmus" or a "lack of resistance, and acute passivity." Soldiers called it the plain old "give up-itis." How could hope be eradicated so completely for the souls of soldiers? 

Four techniques were used to bring a person to the place where they despair of life. First, informing on others was encouraged. The North Koreans gave prisoners small rewards like cigarettes or sweets when they snitched on each other. The amazing thing was that neither the offender nor the reporting soldier was punished - the real intent was to shatter trust between comrades in arms. 

Secondly, extreme self criticism was promoted. The captors formed small groups in which soldiers "confessed" not only all the bad things they had done but also all the good things they could have done but failed to do. This "confessing" was not for the sake of the North Koreans but to erode self respect and personal worth among the American soldiers. 

The third major tactic was to break down loyalty to others, especially to leadership and our country. It was intended to destroy a spirit of teamwork and cooperation and replace it with isolation and excessive self interest. In one case, it was reported that 40 men stood by as three of their extremely ill fellow soldiers were thrown out the hut by a disgruntled fellow prisoner and left in the element to perish. When asked why they did nothing, they replied, "Because it wasn't their job." 

The last devastating scheme was to withhold all positive emotional support while inundating soldiers with negative emotions. If a soldier received a supportive letter from home, the captors withheld it, however, any bad news - the death of a relative, or in one case a wife's Dear John letter were delivered immediately. This constant demoralization manufactured an overwhelming sense of disappointment with loved ones, their country and even their faith. 

How can the specter of hopelessness be overcome while living in the shadow of despair? The apostle Paul wrote a letter to a church in dangerously close to functional collapse. They were self centered, sectarian and just down right mean to one other. It was a group rapidly moving from productivity to pandemonium. In the middle of this chaos, Saint Paul focuses on three essentials. He insightfully pens "There are three things that remain-faith, hope, and love... " (1 Corinthians 13:13) Three fundamentals: faith, a stead confidence in an all powerful God who comes through in tough times, hope, an unswerving mental commitment that the best is yet to come regardless of my present circumstances and love, an extravagant loyalty to the well being of those around me- my family, my friends and fellow workers. Don't voluntarily become confined to the sinister prison of hopelessness and isolation, reach out in "faith, hope and love" and the jail door of dark despair will open wide letting the warm sun of new found assurance warm your heart.