Grace Huxford – Carceral Confessions: Life-Narrative Practices of Prisoners of War in the Korean War (1950-1953)

 

Event Dates: 13 – 16 September 2015
College Court Conference Centre
Knighton Road,
Leicester LE2 3UF

The Carceral Archipelago: Transnational Circulations in Global Perspective, 1415-1960

Grace Huxford (Bristol) – Carceral Confessions: Life-Narrative Practices of Prisoners of War in the Korean War (1950-1953)

When Dennis Lankford, a Royal Navy officer taken prisoner in1950 during the Korean War, was told to ‘write his life from the age of five’ by his Chinese captors, he was initially confused. After some hesitation, he decided he ‘would not be giving anything away’, so decided to write his life: ‘By the time I had finished, dear old father had become a millionaire, who lived in a mansion and mother had become an ex-Gaiety girl, who still at times drank champagne out of a slipper.’ Lankford was one of over 1,000 British servicemen taken prisoner by the Chinese People’s Volunteers (CPV) and many of them, like Lankford, were forced to ‘write their life’ – in autobiographies, public confessions and self-criticism. Largely unbeknownst to Lankford and his fellows, these unfamiliar life-telling practices in fact formed a pivotal part of the Chinese military system. During their captivity, thousands of allied servicemen were exposed to new ways of describing their lives and thinking about themselves.

This paper uses the life-narratives of prisoners of war to contextualise both the Korean War and the prisoner of war more generally within the history of global captivity. This paper first argues that the figure of the prisoner of war is vital in reconceptualising the history of confinement in a transnational perspective. Following the lead of political theorist Michelle Brown, who recently argued that correctional facilities have become ‘transnational site[s] for punishment’, this paper argues that an unprecedented mix of people, ideas and meanings converge in the modern prisoner of war camp. The Chinese-run prisoner of war camps, for instance, contained men from twenty-seven countries, including the USA, Britain and Turkey. The paper then considers the importance of life-writing to information exchange in captivity: it uses under-used archival material to show how allied servicemen were taught Chinese life-writing techniques and analyses how servicemen responded to this seemingly strange mode of self-reflection. This paper concludes by exploring the specific geopolitical and historical significance of the Korean War prisoner of war camp and its enduring impact in the popular representation of captivity, particularly through the persistent fascination with ‘brainwashing’ (a term that originated in the Korean War). Overall, this paper seeks to stress the importance of recent advances in ‘prisoner of war studies’ and life-writing in understanding the history of carceral confinement and convict experience.

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