The Depot

The U.S. Military's Code of Conduct

Anyone who has ever served in the U.S. military no doubt has learned the U.S. military’s Code of Conduct. In basic training, warrant or commissioned officer training, everyone is required to learn about, and in some cases, memorize, the military Code of Conduct.

In short, the U.S. military Code of Conduct is comprised of six articles that set behavioral obligations for U.S. military service members who are in combat or held in captivity as prisoners of war. The Code came to be because of the personal narratives of some American POWs from the Korean War who were fortunate enough to have survived their time as POWs. They shared their POW experiences upon their return to the United States and they provided crucial lessons learned.

It was not uncommon for prisoners to be tortured, starved and denied healthcare in order for the enemy to acquire public statements from the POWs in support of communism and against the U.S. government. Enemy captors also worked hard to collect intelligence from the POWs. The captors worked doggedly to ensure they broke morale, disrupted the strength of the chain of command and they waged psychological warfare on the minds of captives. The propaganda the enemy created eventually trickled back and began to impact public support of the war on the home front. Some POWs had turned on each other, betrayed each other and the country in order to survive.

In all, 7,245 Americans were captured during the Korean War and roughly 39 percent died in captivity according to U.S. government sources. Some academic institutions place that number closer to 43 percent and many say that the Korean War POW experience was far worse than any other American war.

Once the Korean War ended, almost two dozen Americans chose to remain in China and they declined repatriation. According to the Defense Department, 192 former POWs were charged and tried for serious offenses that equated to treason, desertion and aiding the enemy. The issue commanded public attention as many Americans felt that their service personnel had been brainwashed. The U.S. military then did what it ordinarily does, it conducted an after-action review and tried to glean any lessons it could learn from the POW experience.

In 1954, the roots of the military Code of Conduct began to form when the Department of Defense ordered a study to examine the Korean War POW experience. Franklin Brooke Nihart, a U.S. Marine Corps colonel and Navy Cross recipient from the Korean War, was tasked to create a credo that military personnel could follow if they were held captive. He drafted the original military Code of Conduct on a yellow legal pad written in longhand.

In 1955, the Defense Advisory Committee on Prisoners of War published its findings in a 92-page report and the U.S. military Code of Conduct was first established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on August 17, 1955 with the signing of Executive Order 10631. The order stipulates that “All members of the Armed Forces of the United States are expected to measure up to the standards embodied in this Code of Conduct while in combat or in captivity.”

The military Code of Conduct was reaffirmed in July 1964 in DoD Directive No. 1300.7. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter amended Article V of the Code and in March 1988, President Ronald Reagan amended Articles I, II and VI of the Code.

There are six articles in the U.S. military Code of Conduct.

Article I: “I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.”

Article one makes it very clear that American warriors are expected to remember that they are American warriors and that they are charged with safeguarding the nation and the values that it represents. It also states clearly that the American service member is expected to give his or her life in defense of the nation.

Article II: “I will never surrender of my own free will. If in command, I will never surrender the members of my command while they still have the means to resist.”

Surrender is not an option. If that phrase is familiar, it is because it has been a part of the U.S. military Code of Conduct for decades. It is a part of the military’s fabric. Voluntary surrender is prohibited according to the military’s Code of Conduct. If captured and no longer able to fight, an American warrior is expected to the escape and evade.

Commanders and military leaders cannot surrender their units when the unit still has the ability to fight; this applies even if the unit is surrounded, cut off or isolated, according to the military Code of Conduct.

Article III: “If I am captured, I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy.”

The bottom line in this article is that captivity is not an excuse to aid the enemy. Members of the U.S. armed forces are expected to resist the enemy. In other words, they cannot offer military secrets or information that will aid the enemy especially in exchange for something that gives the POW a favorable posture with the captors. In addition, U.S. military personnel must frequently try to escape or help others escape from captivity.

Article IV: “If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information or take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior, I will take command. If not, I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way.”

American POWs, according to the military Code of Conduct, cannot provide information to their captors that harms their fellow American or allied service personnel. Helping the enemy harm American service personnel or U.S. allies, in any way, is forbidden.

Senior captured military personnel will assume command of all prisoners. With leadership comes the responsibility for caring for all of the prisoners. The senior in charge must ensure that all prisoners are being cared for properly and that they are being treated according to Geneva Codes. Subordinates will model their behavior as if they are a part of an ordinary military unit and they will follow the chain of command in the prisoner ranks.

Article V: “When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, social security number, and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause.”

This article is likely one of the toughest ones to follow as a POW especially when a POW is tortured or mistreated. It is easy to armchair and judge those who have given statements against the United States possibly in exchange for medical care, food or a cessation in torture, but the grueling reality is something known only to those who have been POWs. The military Code of Conduct requires that only brief biographical information be offered by prisoners to their captors. Nothing else is required.

The Geneva Convention prohibits the physical and mental abuse of prisoners to gain information, but in the Korean War, Vietnam War and even as recent as Operation Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, statements were made by American and allied personnel under duress. While the military Code of Conduct prohibits this, instances of the violations are examined on a case-by-case basis when the POWs return to determine if any national damage was done by the POW’s actions. The psychological and survival instincts of the captive is taken into consideration now that there is a better understanding of the mental condition of POWs and the impact of the torture that they endure. However, the expectation remains; say nothing other than what is required by the Geneva Convention and if something is stated to the enemy it should be factually incorrect and misleading so it does not help the enemy in any way.

Article VI: “I will never forget that I am an American, 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.”

This article reminds military service members that they are responsible for their actions. At some point, if they survive, their captivity will end and the POWs will be held accountable for any adverse actions they committed while in captivity. They are still governed by the Uniform Code of Military Justice and by the military Code of Conduct and the expectation is that they behave with honor, integrity and character befitting a U.S. military member.