Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton: ‘Lockdown breakers’ risk social backlash, says author of study into American POWs in Vietnam

Neighbours who failed to stick to Covid-19 isolation rules could be shunned when lockdown is over, the author of a research paper about Prisoners of War has suggested.

Lessons from a new study of American captives from the Vietnam conflict suggest there could be a backlash against members of society judged to have endangered the wider social group by their actions during the coronavirus crisis.  

Many of the mechanisms for coping with the mental stress of isolation in Vietnamese prison camps, such as the notorious Hỏa Lò Prison, which became known as the Hanoi Hilton, are applicable to modern society, according to the lead researcher. 

Athena Jones, a PhD student of Clinical Psychology at the Loma Linda university in California, said American prisoners of war (PoW) with optimistic mindsets who were determined to reconnect with family and friends experienced better long-term mental health outcomes. 

Such lessons have direct relevance to modern society moving out of lockdown, she suggested. 

“We’re social creatures, so we crave human connection,” Ms Jones told me. “That’s what can be really challenging in isolation at the moment, especially if you’re living alone.”   

However, just as some PoWs who had willingly cooperated with their captors were shunned by the wider group for violating unwritten rules, Ms Jones warned modern society could show similar attitudes after lockdown. 

“There could be a backlash, especially when fear is involved,” she said.

“The PoWs were very upset at the other PoWs who gave in and cooperated with their captors because that really wasn’t honorable, nor in the best interest of the entire group. 

“Here, many people are extremely upset at individuals who are holding large gatherings or otherwise ignoring the isolation orders because it’s not in the best interest of the whole group and ‘flattening the curve’ [of infection].

“In the future there may be more backlash towards those groups or those who try to end isolation too early and thus put everyone else in danger.”

For a paper just published in The Military Psychologist, the newsletter of the Society for Military Psychology, Ms Jones and her team interviewed former captives from the Vietnam war. The length of captivity among the group varied from 101 days to over seven years. 

Participants were asked about their experiences in captivity and how they reintegrated into society after their release. They were also quizzed on how their attitudes may have changed over time. 

Results showed that having a ‘rationally optimistic’ mindset helped them survive the ordeal, a lesson applicable to the world after the Covid-19 pandemic, Ms Jones suggested. 

“There is a lot of research saying that optimism is associated with better physical health, immune function and so on,” she said.

“They [the PoWs] accepted the idea of being aware of their situation but knew that to dwell on it would take up a lot of energy.

“Instead of dwelling within an experience the individuals avoided the worst parts of the situation they were in, in order to put their energy into survival.”

One remedy the captives came up with was the ‘tap code’ for communicating with each other. 

Each PoW had to imagine a five by five grid square containing the letters of the alphabet; A to E in the top row, F to J in the second and so on (C and K were interchangeable). By tapping on pipes or walls they were able to send messages or just feel close to each other.

One participant in the study, ‘Steve’ said: “We were fanatics at communication.

“Anybody that was being tortured and put in solitary, we had ways to finally get to them and a way that they could at least see us at a distance.” 

The modern day tap code during coronavirus lockdown could be a Zoom meeting (a video messaging service), Ms Jones suggested, “as a means to maintain the communication” with family and friends. 

The study also suggested negative events that are temporary and outside the individual’s control don’t have to be carried forward once the situation is over. “Even if I wanted to go out, things are closed,”Ms Jones said. “That choice has been taken away from me.”

Instead, we should all emulate the ‘rational optimism’ displayed by the PoWs in response to the present situation, she suggested, and accept the need to adhere to social distancing guidelines. 

The enforced separation from family members that entails is hard, but there are still ways we can connect with each other.   

“They weren’t all happy and peppy in the camps but they had strength and belief. They set up schedules to eat and exercise,” she said. 

“Some even prepared to return to society by having dancing lessons with each other.”

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