The military Code of Conduct: a brief history

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Troy Daland
  • 8th Operations Support Squadron
Everyone serving in the military today is familiar with the Code of Conduct. What is less known, is the origin. As a result of the war fought here in Korea more than 60 years ago, this code would be become part of our military culture.

The hostilities of the Korean War drew to their conclusion with the signing of the Armistice July 27, 1953. During the two months leading up to the signing of the agreement, Operation Little Switch returned the first 149 U.S. prisoners of war back to friendly control. Three months later, Operation Big Switch took place repatriating nearly 3,597 U.S. Soldiers, Airman, Sailors and Marines. Twenty-one of these Americans refused repatriation, and took residence in China. During both operations, the horrors of the inhuman treatment and the misconduct of our own men surfaced. What made Korea different than previous wars? Why was it that one out of three POWs collaborated with the enemy? The answer to the question may be as easy as we were not prepared.

North Korea had approximately 20 known POW camps located throughout the country where servicemen underwent some of the most brutal conditions any human could endure. Suspected "brainwashing" was a convenient answer to the reason why so many of our men collaborated with communist interrogators. The techniques used to exploit POWs were unprecedented from previous U.S. war involvement. Propaganda was used as a method to manipulate the truth, and it proved to be effective in swaying world opinion as to the treatment of captured Americans and allies.

One of the most elaborate propaganda efforts was the 1952 POW Olympics held in Pyuktong, North Korea. For 12 days in November, approximately 500 prison athletes from Britain, South Korea, Australia, Turkey, and the U.S. competed against other camps in events mirroring the World Olympics such as baseball, boxing, and track and field. This effort was publicized to show the world just how well the prisoners were treated. Of course, this was not the reality.

The prisoners throughout communist Korea faced brutal torture, random genocide, lack of food, absence of medical aid, and inhuman treatment, which became a familiar daily struggle of survival. Under these conditions men committed acts inconsistent with their character. Everyone was forced to deal with the external and internal pressures of confinement for which they were not adequately trained. Washington was perplexed at the number of men who participated in collaborating with the enemy or conducted acts against fellow POWs. An investigation took place to these alleged accusations and became validated. A plan was needed to prevent this from reoccurring in future conflicts.

On August 7, 1954, the Secretary of Defense directed a committee be formed to complete a comprehensive study of the problems related to the entire Korean War POW experience. Carter L. Burgess, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower and Personnel, chaired the Defense Advisory Committee on Prisoners of War May 17, 1955. The charter of the committee was to find a suitable approach for preparing our armed forces to deal with the combat and captivity environment.

After compiling testimony from POWs held during the Korea War, the committee emerged with a recommendation to implement a military Code of Conduct. This code was to be made up of six articles that embodied time honored American values. The code was comprised of legal and moral obligations used during combat and captivity. The captivity environment was to be thought of as an extension of the battlefield. Members of the armed forces were to become familiar with the Code of Conduct at the earliest point of their military training. All that was needed was the backing of the process for training and implementation.

In August 1955, nearly two years after the singing of the Armistice, Dwight D. Eisenhower signed into effect Executive Order 10631 that stated, "Every member of the Armed Forces of the United States are expected to measure up to the standards embodied in the Code of Conduct while in combat or in captivity."

To ensure this was implemented, specific training and instruction was given to the use of the Code. Since the signing of the Code of Conduct it has gone through only two modifications; the first in 1977 when President Carter made it more "reasonable" by taking out the verbiage that would imply only one suitable course of action. The second change came in 1988 when President Reagan made it gender neutral. The code remains applicable even in today's changed battlespace.

Army Chief Warrant Officer Dave Williams, a helicopter pilot captured by Iraqi forces in March 2003 during the initial invasion, said that holding to the Code of Conduct helped him through periods of loneliness and inspired him to lead other prisoners as is stated in article two "If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist"...and article four "If I am senior, I will take command."

Even though the Korean War is categorized as the Forgotten War, it produced one of our military's most valuable cultural cornerstones. The origins of this code fuse us together, no matter what the rank or service, these six articles all have meaning to anyone that has served for their country. It's no wonder why the last article can evoke a powerful response to our duty as Airman, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines..."I will never forget that I am an American, fighting for freedom, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America."

Return With Honor.