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Peikoff on POWs

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Like I said, I am not defending McCain's choice. I am certainly not a McCain fan, and his present position on almost everything is repulsive to me. But this is not the real problem we are discussing here.

Peikoff's position, as I understand it, is that a soldier should accept the offer to go free on the basis that his self interest trumps everything else. While this general position seems to be fairly straightforward objectivist thinking, it actually drops a great deal of context. A soldier, while a POW, is still a soldier. He is still fighting the battle, leading his subordinates, and fulfilling his committment to fight for his country even in the face of death or torture.

A second aspect, that is also part of the context, is the reality of the human capacity to endure torture. If McCain, or any other man being tortured, endured and fought back to the very end, I would not be in a hurry to question his motives. If he cracked, I would be the very last guy in line to think ill of him.

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Peikoff's position, as I understand it, is that a soldier should accept the offer to go free on the basis that his self interest trumps everything else. While this general position seems to be fairly straightforward objectivist thinking, it actually drops a great deal of context. A soldier, while a POW, is still a soldier. He is still fighting the battle, leading his subordinates, and fulfilling his committment to fight for his country even in the face of death or torture.

First, if you read Peikoff's statement it says nothing of the sort. I'm not sure how you arrived at that conclusion. He specifically says that staying in prison does nothing to help his fellow prisoners. And that is the basis for his statement.

Second, it certainly is unclear if Peikoff is aware of the Code of Conduct for POW's; however, as a philosophical discussion, the answer from many here that there is a code and mcCain was simply following is in my mind insufficient. It begs the question as to whether the code itself would be consistent with objective principles and why it is so, and how context affects it. That is a valid discussion for a philosophical board since it is directly in the realm of ethics.

Finally, for all of those who serve(d), I might suggest that you not err on the side of "you can't understand if you aren't a soldier or haven't been in the situation." Again as a form of argumentation it is a cop out. Certainly those who are soldiers have learned about specific context and experienced, maybe even in training, situations that help them understand the specifics of situations. However, again in a philosophical discussion, the beauty of principles is that they can be concretized and explained and rational people can understand them. The slight tone of condescentiion that some of your responses contains smack's of a Nicholson "you can't handle the truth" sort of tone. West, Diana and I are pretty rational, level-headed people and I for one am listening so maybe you might look to see if you can explain the situation and the code from philosophical principles.

The best explanation of a possible reason to stay I've heard is from Zip. When I searched for the context for the McCain offer and didnt' find that they asked him to do anything specific (or maybe the offer simply didn't get to that point), and I think that context is important. Assuming a soldier isn't asked to act directly as a tool of propaganda (i.e. admit to war crimes, or untrue acts) I think judging the context of whose propaganda is going to be more effective is a very difficult thing to do from inside a POW camp, especially since many of the men there were shot down before significant dissent against the war arose (which was primarily in response to the draft in the 1968 and later time frame).

I didn't question the code specifically since I'm still waiting for someone to actually articulate it's principles and contextualness. I only indicated that since the chain of command was still active, as a commanding officer I would not burden the individual soldiers to determine context, and it is definitely not clear to me that every single situation requires following the code to the letter. For instance, what are the morale implications if your commanding officer orders you to go? It's not the same context. It seems to me that some of the morale issues also arise because of the letter of the code, and soldiers seeing no contextualness to it, and hence feeling as though one member of the group has gone behind the others backs and not performed his "duty." I know that the concept of duty is inextricably bound up in military ethics, and I'm unclear as to how that reconciles in all cases with the objectivist concept of a volunteer force fighting only for self-interested causes. And to whether the letter of the code might not include some contexts where duty is wrongly considered.

That is an interesting philosophical discussion, and I happily look forward to anyone who wants to reasonably engage it.

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First, if you read Peikoff's statement it says nothing of the sort. I'm not sure how you arrived at that conclusion. He specifically says that staying in prison does nothing to help his fellow prisoners. And that is the basis for his statement.

But that assumption is incorrect. Unit cohesion, shared suffering and a "fuck you I'm going to fight these bastards till the very end" attitude IS EVERYTHING in such a situation. This is the basis of morale and discipline (self and unit).

Setting aside any 'code' of discipline and speaking of responsibility, McCain as a senior officer had a responsibility to his subordinates, his responsibility is to set an example for all the others to follow. Now what would that example be if he had left the prison in collusion with the enemy? How long do you think it would have taken till the weaker links out of the rest were making deals and selling out their nation to get home?

Second, it certainly is unclear if Peikoff is aware of the Code of Conduct for POW's; however, as a philosophical discussion, the answer from many here that there is a code and mcCain was simply following is in my mind insufficient. It begs the question as to whether the code itself would be consistent with objective principles and why it is so, and how context affects it. That is a valid discussion for a philosophical board since it is directly in the realm of ethics.

As far as McCain was a volunteer that freely swore an oath to uphold the code he is responsible to live up to that agreement. I know some may say that "morality ends where a gun begins" but this oath was sworn with the knowledge and acceptance that there would be a gun (force) involved. To let a soldier disregard the oath he swore because force is involved would be like letting a businessman out of a contract when suddenly he finds due to a shift in commodity prices that he is now loosing money on it.

I didn't question the code specifically since I'm still waiting for someone to actually articulate it's principles and contextualness. I only indicated that since the chain of command was still active, as a commanding officer I would not burden the individual soldiers to determine context, and it is definitely not clear to me that every single situation requires following the code to the letter. For instance, what are the morale implications if your commanding officer orders you to go?

While I can't speak directly for the US code I know that in the case where the order is lawful it must be obeyed. so a soldier ordered to leave by his commanding officer would legally have to go... Though I would imagine that the CO would have a very good reason for doing so (to reveal the truth about torture or get information out of the prison) because such an act would still affect morale.

It's not the same context. It seems to me that some of the morale issues also arise because of the letter of the code, and soldiers seeing no contextualness to it, and hence feeling as though one member of the group has gone behind the others backs and not performed his "duty." I know that the concept of duty is inextricably bound up in military ethics, and I'm unclear as to how that reconciles in all cases with the objectivist concept of a volunteer force fighting only for self-interested causes. And to whether the letter of the code might not include some contexts where duty is wrongly considered.

That is an interesting philosophical discussion, and I happily look forward to anyone who wants to reasonably engage it.

The code is there as a set of prime directives if you like. Read it all as being prefaced by... "In the absence of a direct order or in lieu of an illegal order these are your orders soldier." That is the context.

It also serves, as I've alluded to before, as the legal catch all when a soldier swears the oath to serve. saying in effect "Listen up pal when the shit hits the fan these things still count, you are NOT permitted to discount them because it is an emergency because we are telling you it right here and now that it WILL be an emergency!"

Does that make sense/help?

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Following Kendall's recommendation I returned to the beginning of this post and re-read the entire thing - twice. I also download Peikoff's podcasts on my IPhone so I listened to the cast in question.

My conclusion is that the posters and the questioner and Peikoff all break down into two groups. There is a fundamental distinction between these two groups, and it is the understanding of the role of a soldier. While in many cases I would agree with Kendall that the "if you have not been there, you wouldn't understand" attitude is not all that valid. In this case it is the fundamental difference between the two camps of posters.

A soldier is "on the job" 24/7/365. What this means is that a soldier, assuming he has joined voluntarily, has signed away one of his most fundamental rights -- individuality (I am probably going to open a can of worms here). The implications of this are stunning and far-reaching. It changes everything. I think you would find that this particular aspect of joining a nation's military would generate one of the most interesting threads.

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But that assumption is incorrect. Unit cohesion, shared suffering and a "fuck you I'm going to fight these bastards till the very end" attitude IS EVERYTHING in such a situation. This is the basis of morale and discipline (self and unit).

Setting aside any 'code' of discipline and speaking of responsibility, McCain as a senior officer had a responsibility to his subordinates, his responsibility is to set an example for all the others to follow. Now what would that example be if he had left the prison in collusion with the enemy? How long do you think it would have taken till the weaker links out of the rest were making deals and selling out their nation to get home?

As far as McCain was a volunteer that freely swore an oath to uphold the code he is responsible to live up to that agreement. I know some may say that "morality ends where a gun begins" but this oath was sworn with the knowledge and acceptance that there would be a gun (force) involved. To let a soldier disregard the oath he swore because force is involved would be like letting a businessman out of a contract when suddenly he finds due to a shift in commodity prices that he is now loosing money on it.

While I can't speak directly for the US code I know that in the case where the order is lawful it must be obeyed. so a soldier ordered to leave by his commanding officer would legally have to go... Though I would imagine that the CO would have a very good reason for doing so (to reveal the truth about torture or get information out of the prison) because such an act would still affect morale.

The code is there as a set of prime directives if you like. Read it all as being prefaced by... "In the absence of a direct order or in lieu of an illegal order these are your orders soldier." That is the context.

It also serves, as I've alluded to before, as the legal catch all when a soldier swears the oath to serve. saying in effect "Listen up pal when the shit hits the fan these things still count, you are NOT permitted to discount them because it is an emergency because we are telling you it right here and now that it WILL be an emergency!"

Does that make sense/help?

Speaking as someone totally unaffiliated with the military or soldiering, yeah, the above makes perfect sense to me.

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But that assumption is incorrect. Unit cohesion, shared suffering and a "fuck you I'm going to fight these bastards till the very end" attitude IS EVERYTHING in such a situation. This is the basis of morale and discipline (self and unit).

Ok, Zip, thanks for your explanation, and I agree with several things you said.

This statement above and it's ethical implications are the ones I have trouble with at least as a basis for weighing the implications for the decision. I view it as parrallel to the statement that willycyote said that "a soldier is on duty 24/7/365" so I'll deal with it here.

Morale, cohesion cannot be "EVERYTHING" in a military situation. That is, it is not an end in itself. It is only something put to some other end. The reason we store up or conserve morale is because in the course of pursuing this greater end, we have to rely on and possibly use it up. Is this not right? If morale were everything in a military situation, well then I might suggest that fighting the enemy is not proper since having men in my unit killed is sure to erode morale as well.

I'm not sure if I'm making myself clear, but I'm trying to establish the heirarchy of concepts that lead to the need for a code, and when such a code might be violated. The end, whatever it is (let's generally call it victory) has to be more primary heirarchically than the need for morale itself, right? It is because it is that end which makes the need for morale an imperative.

The way I read Peikoff's statement "does nothing to help his fellow soldiers" is that his action accomplishes nothing. Yes, you can say that it preserves morale, but then the very next question is "in pursuit of what end?" since morale is not an end in itself. If you sacrifice a viable step toward a military end to preserve morale, then I think that is a sacrifice.

So the question that follows afterward is can there be situations where the pursuit of the ultimate end requires you to sacrifice unit morale? I have to believe that there can be. But this automatically calls into question the code of conduct as an absolute set of principles rather than a contextual set. You seem to acknowledge this idea when you talk about the CO having a "good reason" to allow such actions.

Note: I'm not at all suggesting that codes and rules as such shouldn't be taught as absolutes to individual soldiers. I certainly think a soldier agreeing to such terms to save his skin is not a viable course of action. The problem is that the philosophical analysis may be different and more fundamental than what is inculcated. And that is why I phrased the problem as one of a command decision. So the chain of command exists to help assess the contextuality of a situation, and that's where the philosophical contextuality comes back into play. You can think of the basic question as: "given me as a CO, what is a good reason (if any) to order someone to do something different than the code they have been taught would dictate to them?"

If we work on that question, maybe we can start to see the philosophical implications. There certainly is a lot of context to sort through in any given case, but Peikoff's statement does acknowledge one fundamental: morale, codes, etc. exists in the service of a higher end. He may be assuming a different set of concretes, or may not have full information about the context, but it is at the philosophical level that he's onto something. His answer may be wrong given the actual context, but I as of yet don't find fault with the issue he raises.

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Ok, Zip, thanks for your explanation, and I agree with several things you said.

This statement above and it's ethical implications are the ones I have trouble with at least as a basis for weighing the implications for the decision. I view it as parrallel to the statement that willycyote said that "a soldier is on duty 24/7/365" so I'll deal with it here.

Morale, cohesion cannot be "EVERYTHING" in a military situation. That is, it is not an end in itself. It is only something put to some other end. The reason we store up or conserve morale is because in the course of pursuing this greater end, we have to rely on and possibly use it up. Is this not right? If morale were everything in a military situation, well then I might suggest that fighting the enemy is not proper since having men in my unit killed is sure to erode morale as well.

Situation is everything Kendall and in this prisoner situation the only thing the prisoner controls is his own free will. He can't control what or when he is fed, where or how he is sheltered, the torture, the pain his captors, none of it. the only thing he has is free will in the few fleeting moments when he is permitted to exercise it. And that fact means that morale is one if not the only thing that he through his own actions can positively affect. And in this case rightly or wrongly (I believe rightly) cooperation is a relinquishment of that fragile piece of self controlled action.

I can not think of another single situation where morale would hold primacy of place like it does in this one, though there is a famous quote by Clausewitz "All other things being equal the army with the higher morale will be victorious."

The way I read Peikoff's statement "does nothing to help his fellow soldiers" is that his action accomplishes nothing. Yes, you can say that it preserves morale, but then the very next question is "in pursuit of what end?" since morale is not an end in itself. If you sacrifice a viable step toward a military end to preserve morale, then I think that is a sacrifice.

What end? In this case you are talking about freeing one single solitary fighter jock. What end was accomplished by him staying? Although it is impossible to say what would have happened had he left I can assure you that it would have negatively affected each and every soldier in the Hanoi Hilton. Think about the psychological use the enemy could make of that. "Why won't you tell us... I f you tell us we will set you free..."

Got to go I'll get to the rest of this later....

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First, the point that I and others have tried to make was not that if you arn't a Soldier you can't understand, but rather that no person is in a position to judge another person's decisions while subjected to torture, psychological warfare, and inhuman living conditions. Imagine that a POW is forced to sign statements disloyal to his country, tortured to give up information about his unit, or forced to kill other prisoners. At the barrel of a gun, the whole idea of a "choice" is invalid. Although I would hope I wouldn't do any such things under torture, there are limits to what a man can take, so I won't sit back and casually judge a man who does. As much of a huge debt that I owe Peikoff and as much as I respect him, his decision to judge McCain for choices he made in a death camp is reprehensible (def. "deserving rebuke or censure"), as I said.

As for articulating the "principles and contextualness" of the code, I put a link up to it already. The purpose of the code of conduct is pretty simple. It says, in essense, that "Prisoner of War" is not a status, but another mission. Your mission is to continue to harrass the enemy as much as possible. Part of your mission is to attempt to escape. Part of your mission is to try to keep information from your captors. Another part of your mission is not to accept "parole or special favors from the enemy". Ultimately, are you going to be able to keep from giving up information under torture? No. You damn well won't give it up without a fight though. The code is something you memorize in SERE school, not because if you violate it you will get punished (you won't); you memorize it so that in your darkest moment, completely devoid of hope and seperated from your buddies, you have guidance for carrying on the fight.

I'm happy to watch a debate that does some calculus wrt. giving-in to captors vs. prospective freedom vs. keeping your oaths, but I just hope you frame it properly. One man might decide to accept an offer from his captors and get out.. he might sign the release agreement in between screams, in a brief moment when they turn down the electric current running through his body. Another man might refuse and say he'd rather die than cooperate on anything. Both men could be right. Whatever choice they've made, all justice demands from us is a "thank you" to those men.

Edited by SkyTrooper
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So the question that follows afterward is can there be situations where the pursuit of the ultimate end requires you to sacrifice unit morale?

Of course. As I said it is perhaps this situation alone, where all you have control of, all your soldiers have control of is that small glimmer of hope when morale is paramount. Because YOU control it.

I have to believe that there can be. But this automatically calls into question the code of conduct as an absolute set of principles rather than a contextual set. You seem to acknowledge this idea when you talk about the CO having a "good reason" to allow such actions.

Perhaps you are misunderstanding the code. The code isn't constructed to facilitate morale it is constructed to ensure soldiers have orders in a situation where they have no formal orders. Like Skytrooper said about the mission of a captive. and that mission is as much about victory as any other.

Note: I'm not at all suggesting that codes and rules as such shouldn't be taught as absolutes to individual soldiers. I certainly think a soldier agreeing to such terms to save his skin is not a viable course of action. The problem is that the philosophical analysis may be different and more fundamental than what is inculcated. And that is why I phrased the problem as one of a command decision. So the chain of command exists to help assess the contextuality of a situation, and that's where the philosophical contextuality comes back into play. You can think of the basic question as: "given me as a CO, what is a good reason (if any) to order someone to do something different than the code they have been taught would dictate to them?"

I could certainly dream up any of a number of reasons why a CO would order a soldier to go home, but that does not change the mission for any soldier in the absence of such an order. Is that what you are having a problem with, that inflexibility when orders are lacking?

If we work on that question, maybe we can start to see the philosophical implications. There certainly is a lot of context to sort through in any given case, but Peikoff's statement does acknowledge one fundamental: morale, codes, etc. exists in the service of a higher end. He may be assuming a different set of concretes, or may not have full information about the context, but it is at the philosophical level that he's onto something. His answer may be wrong given the actual context, but I as of yet don't find fault with the issue he raises.

The context I think you are asking about is this... Duty in the case where there are orders... and duty in a case where there are no orders. The problem is you are never not under orders. In the CF I have the Code of Service discipline, Skytrooper has the UCMJ. We are both ordered from day one to follow those orders unless otherwise commanded in accordance with the law.

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I understand the benefits to having or promoting morale, but I don't think it should be treated as an end in itself, as Kendall pointed out. If promoting morale for the POWs is the standard to uphold here, should any POW ever even attempt escape? That's to say that POWs remaining caged is a morale booster for the others still imprisoned. There's no doubt that McCain got special treatment because of who his father was; McCain has acknowledge so in his own words, and maybe that could be construed as a morale wrecker.

As for the Code of Conduct, I don't think it has much weight here, and in the realm of oaths, it's about as meaningful as those given to upholding military values. The purpose of it is to help prevent surrender and harm to the U.S. through the providing of information and propaganda. The Code has been violated many times in the past, and I would say that a great deal of those violations were warranted. I've heard of stories authored by military personnel or their supporters, who were brought up on charges for violating the code, people who were presumably broken down terribly by their captors; I think the case could be made that McCain may have broken the Code of Conduct. It's not something to uphold as an absolute because it can be vague, and no one should be suffered to uphold it in certain situations.

Chain of command reasons for staying in a POW camp have also been given, and this is also a part of the Code of Conduct. It should be realized that although the U.S. may uphold some sort of civility towards captured uniformed combatants, that civility isn't generally applied by captors of U.S. personnel. There are cases where captured personnel have been punished and prevented from exercising chain-of-command. Lawful orders being given in a prison environment seems like it would be a very problematic concept in a less violent POW camp, where a commander may take commands from his captor and then give orders to his subordinates, let alone in a violent POW camp.

I do think there are many reasons why one may want to stay imprisoned in a POW camp, especially in cases like McCain's; there are also many reasons to do anything to regain freedom. However, in regards to Peikoff's statement, I agree with him in his response to the question he was asked. If McCain rejected release because he didn't want to leave anyone behind and didn't want to receive special treatment, then his reasons were altruistic; however, I think there may be more to the story than that presented by the questioner.

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However, in regards to Peikoff's statement, I agree with him in his response to the question he was asked. If McCain rejected release because he didn't want to leave anyone behind and didn't want to receive special treatment, then his reasons were altruistic; however, I think there may be more to the story than that presented by the questioner.

As an American soldier doing what it takes to win a war is not altruistic. Unless of course you don't value your own freedom. Now I don't know what McCain's motivation was, and as an altruist he might very well have had altruistic motives. If I could stand the torture/suffering, I would make the same choice, because I see refusing to cooperate with communist killers as in my self-interest. As I've said before, you can't fault someone for choosing otherwise, because different people have different breaking points.

If promoting morale for the POWs is the standard to uphold here, should any POW ever even attempt escape?

The standard is victory. There are a number of reasons that when Eisenhower issued the Code of Conduct he made escape an imperative yet made parole illegal. Escape is a motivator: it gives the prisoners hope and even if the escapee doesn't get away, the enemy wastes valuable resources hunting him down. Parole is demotivator: it breeds anger between POWs and scores propaganda points for the enemy. Note that the NVA did actually give excellent treatment to a select few of POWs, then release them with only the condition that they tell everyone how well they were treated... these few individuals are the ones who enabled the torture and suffering all the other POWs to continue without protest from the United States.

As for the Code of Conduct, I don't think it has much weight here, and in the realm of oaths, it's about as meaningful as those given to upholding military values. The purpose of it is to help prevent surrender and harm to the U.S. through the providing of information and propaganda. The Code has been violated many times in the past, and I would say that a great deal of those violations were warranted.

Many POWs credit the Code of Conduct with getting them through their internment with their minds and self-esteem intact. It seems like you are dismissing out of hand a tool with a proven track record. Yes, clearly it can't be held as an absolute, since under torture you are guaranteed to give more information than your name, rank, and SSN. Just the fact that the NVA would go to extremes to get soldiers to violate even the smallest part of the Code of Conduct in hopes of breaking down the self-esteem of their prisoners shows how important it is. Also, I'd dispute that anyone has been prosecuted for violating the code.. I havn't heard of that happening.

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I understand the benefits to having or promoting morale, but I don't think it should be treated as an end in itself, as Kendall pointed out.

The end is not morale, the end is victory. Without morale, victory is impossible.

As for the Code of Conduct, I don't think it has much weight here, and in the realm of oaths, it's about as meaningful as those given to upholding military values. The purpose of it is to help prevent surrender and harm to the U.S. through the providing of information and propaganda. The Code has been violated many times in the past, and I would say that a great deal of those violations were warranted. I've heard of stories authored by military personnel or their supporters, who were brought up on charges for violating the code, people who were presumably broken down terribly by their captors; I think the case could be made that McCain may have broken the Code of Conduct. It's not something to uphold as an absolute because it can be vague, and no one should be suffered to uphold it in certain situations.

This is BS.

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The man who wrote "The Concentration Camps" chapter of the Ominous Parallels is quite capable of understanding what goes on in a POW camp. But a POW is not a victim in the same way as a civilian concentration camp prisoner. A POW knows why he is there but camp victim does not.

The process began at the beginning, with the selection of prisoners who had done nothing wrong and who could not understand why they had been arrested.

Hannah Arendt was the first to identify the camps' need of innocent inmates. She explains the policy in sociopolitical terms, as part of a deliberate Nazi (and Soviet) attempt "to kill the juridical person in man," i.e., to destroy the concept of man's rights.

Criminals, Miss Arendt observes, are not proper subjects for a concentration camp. However brutally he is treated by the camp guards, the criminal knows why he is there; he is able to grasp a causal relationship between his actions and his fate. To that extent he retains a certain human dignity. He remains within the normal, pre-totalitarian framework of crime and punishment; he remains within the realm where justice (by some definition) is relevant and where a man's rights are a reality to be respected or at least considered.

I think Dr. Peikoff gave a good evaluation for an ordinary concentration camp victim, but the context is significantly different for a military officer held as a POW.

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The man who wrote "The Concentration Camps" chapter of the Ominous Parallels is quite capable of understanding what goes on in a POW camp. But a POW is not a victim in the same way as a civilian concentration camp prisoner. A POW knows why he is there but camp victim does not.

Actually a POW camp is a "concentration camp" in the proper sense. (def. "A camp where civilians, enemy aliens, political prisoners, and sometimes prisoners of war are detained and confined, typically under harsh conditions.") The use of the term "concentration camp" wrt. Nazi Germany is a euphamism for death camp. But yes, Peikoff should be fully capable of imagining the conditions in a POW camp.

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